January 1, 2012

The "Queen Mary" Hotel Ship

All Hail the "Queen"

  • By: Susan C. Kim

Last year, as fireworks lit a trio of smokestacks rising into the California sky, crowds stepped aboard the "Queen Mary" to celebrate the 75th anniversary of her maiden voyage. Once the flagship of the Cunard fleet and long the running mate of the legendary Queen Elizabeth, she sailed from Southampton, England, to New York City in May 1936, and went on to capture the Blue Riband for speed three months later. Even World War II could not slow the majestic liner down. With her signature red-and-black stacks painted a martial gray, the enormous Mary (affectionately known as the Grey Ghost, for her ability to sail unseen through dangerous waters) ferried troops throughout the war years, eventually bringing hundreds of thousands of Americans home from Europe. After the war ended, she was refitted and returned to passenger service, sailing until 1967 and her retirement to Long Beach, Calif. Now a floating museum, a popular event venue, and a Historic Hotel of America, she is the only superliner from the 1930s that remains intact—a glorious survivor from the golden age of transatlantic travel.

The Cunard Steamship Company commissioned the Royal Mail Ship Queen Mary before the onset of the Great Depression, and her richly decorated salons and magnificent fittings epitomized wealth, elegance, and privilege. Passengers called her the Ship of Beautiful Woods (her walls, floors, and furniture were crafted from West African cherry mahogany, burled maple, and 54 other types of fine specimens), but etched glass and nickel-silver fixtures throughout her 12 decks completed the image of an imperial palace at sea.

Elite passengers mingled in the cavernous First Class Main Lounge (later named the Queen’s Salon). With tall ceilings, three decks high, the salon boasts etched-glass panels, gold onyx urns, a massive relief by sculptor Maurice Lambert, and a gilded gesso panel—all prime examples of 1930s design. The room went on to become a popular film location, appearing in The Godfather II, The Natural, and The Aviator. In the liner’s heyday, Fred Astaire cut a rug on this dance floor.

In good weather, the first class passengers socialized in the semicircular Observation Lounge and Bar, enjoying sweeping views of the sea ahead with cocktails in hand; in bad weather, the room remained empty as the bow dove up and down through notoriously bad Atlantic storms. Outside, on the promenade deck, travelers could enjoy tea or bouillon in their deck chairs or stroll the quarter-mile-long teak deck wrapping around the ship. British Olympic runner Lord Burghley once ran a lap wearing full evening dress in less than 60 seconds. 

The most exclusive room aboard the Queen Mary was the Verandah Grill, a first class restaurant where reservations were often booked months in advance of sailing. It was so popular that passengers were limited to just one dinner per crossing. Henry Ford II once remarked, “So long as I have the same old table in the Verandah Grill, I’ll always be happy on the Queen Mary.”

By the 1960s, jet travel had become popular and the transatlantic liners began to show losses. In April 1967, the Queen Mary was offered for sale, and the city of Long Beach submitted the winning bid of $3,450,000. Cunard’s grandest dame made a final 39-day voyage from her home port in England across the Atlantic and around Cape Horn to Southern California. A more direct route was impossible: She was too large to fit through the Panama Canal.

In 1967, construction began to convert the former ocean liner into a floating hotel and tourist attraction. The transformation required connecting the ship’s utilities and plumbing to the land, as well as converting her to American electrical standards. The largest project involved clearing out almost everything below R deck—boiler rooms, the forward engine room, both turbo generator rooms, stabilizers, and the water softening plant—to make way for a 400,000-square-foot museum. Fittingly, grand banquet spaces were created within the main lounges and dining rooms.

However, smaller first class public rooms, such as the Drawing Room, Library, Lecture Room, and Music Room, were converted to retail space. The beloved Verandah Grill was refurbished as banquet space—but an upscale restaurant was built directly above it on the sports deck.

The Mary opened to an enthusiastic public in May 1971. She was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1993 and this past September became part of Historic Hotels of America, a program of the National Trust for Historic Preservation. Today the Queen features 314 staterooms, including nine suites, on three decks. Weddings, conventions, parties, and dances are easily accommodated within 80,000 square feet of event space in Art Deco salons.

According to historian Will Kayne, most ocean liners end their lives disassembled and sold for parts. “It’s remarkable for a ship of this caliber to still be here today.” The original first class public rooms are available to guests on tours of the ship. If you go, don’t forget to peek into the private baths, where you’ll see four knobs on the wall—one hot and cold each for fresh and salt water (in the 1930s saltwater baths were considered therapeutic).

I recently traveled to Long Beach to spend a night aboard the Queen Mary. My deluxe exterior stateroom was outfitted with original wood paneling and built-in furniture but with modern-day touches: plush bed, iPod clock radio, and flat-panel television. The bathroom seemed a bit dated, but that’s because its painted metal walls and pedals for drawing water were original to the ship.

Channeling former passenger Greta Garbo, I sat at my vanity dressing up for dinner at Sir Winston’s Restaurant. A stroll around the deck, followed by an old-fashioned cocktail at the piano bar, set the stage for classic beef Wellington and chocolate soufflé. The glamour was intoxicating, and enhanced by framed photographs of Hollywood’s golden-era celebrities who had once sailed on the Queen Mary. I imagined myself dining with Elizabeth Taylor and laughing at Bob Hope’s jokes.

Just days after my stay last fall, Evolution Hospitality assumed management of the Queen. Matt Greene, Evolution’s regional director of operations, has big plans for her next phase. “We recognize how truly iconic the Queen Mary is, and there’s simply nothing else like her,” he states. “This is not just a hotel, but rather a unique experience. Mary is an incredible jewel, so we plan to shine her up so she can really sparkle.”

Today, the Queen Mary is a landmark and a destination, welcoming 1.5 million visitors every year. Her last captain,  J. Treasure Jones, described her best: “She breathed, she had character, and she had personality … she was above all else, the nearest ship to a living being.”

Join us for PastForward Online 2022, the historic preservation event of the year, November 1-4, 2022.

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