A WOMAN'S TOUCH:
The Seagoing Interiors of Dorothy Marckwald
by Gordon R. Ghareeb

 
ss UNITED STATES - an early post card

"One thing we don't do on a ship is use color that is at all yellowish green - you know, anything that will remind a traveler of the condition of his stomach." And with these guiding thoughts as her talisman Dorothy Marckwald set out to decorate the greatest ocean liner ever to built on American soil - not to mention the world's fastest passenger ship of all time. As hallmark to a nation the s/s UNITED STATES needed to break away from the stereotypical constraints of customary shipboard decor, or as Dot summed up the situation, it had to be "quick and snappy." The task ahead was a formidable one to be sure.

Dorothy Marckwald was no stranger to passenger ship interior outfitting - in fact the UNITED STATES job was her 29th marine design project. A native New Yorker, Dorothy graduated from the Packer Collegiate Institute of Brooklyn in 1916 before attending a three-year course of study at the New York School of Fine and Applied Art. She soon joined the well known Madison Avenue design firm of Elsie Cobb Wilson and set about working on homes, ranches, offices, yachts, hotels and clubs. The big career move came in 1930 when directors of the Grace Line approved Wilson's Marckwald-generated designs for the interior decoration of their four newbuilding 9,000-ton South American liners; SANTA ELENA, SANTA LUCIA, SANTA PAULA and SANTA ROSA.

The interiors of the four Grace Line vessels were intended from the start to each resemble a Long Island country club. This was a forgone conclusion since most of the Grace Line executive staff made their homes in Nassau and Suffolk counties and commuted to the Hanover Square corporate offices in lower Manhattan. That the ship's decor should be entrusted to an all female design team was also a logical decision. It was estimated at the time that 80% of all steamship bookings were either decided upon by women or greatly influenced by them. Therefore, it made good business sense that the atmosphere found aboard the new Grace liners be estrogen evolved and extracted: "It is not without reason," Dot explained, "for the majority of the passengers are women, and no man could ever know as much about their comfort problems and taste reactions as another woman."

Work on the Grace Line quartet also brought together a professional association which was to endure well into the post World War II world. Anne Urquhart was assigned to the Wilson decorating design team headed by Miss Marckwald, and together the two women worked closely with the master naval engineers of the entire operation, Gibbs & Cox of New York, which was headed by none other than William Francis Gibbs himself.

It was from this pre-eminent American naval architect that the feminine designers got their first piece of nautical advice: "Known horrors are better than unknown." Not the least of which made its nightmare existence manifest to the ladies in the guise of "sheer" and "camber" - those two marine design facets that give a complex steel entity all the seaworthiness and buoyancy of an otter. Sheer is the on-purpose warping of the decks from the midships section upward to the bow and stern, while camber is the downward curve of the decks from the centerline out to the sides of the ship. The resulting structure rides and glides over the surface irregularities - such as waves, swells and storms - like a ping pong ball.

While posing mathematical ciphering headaches for the naval architect, sheer and camber - or, as Dorothy called them utilizing precise concave and convex hand movements, the "umm" and "umph" of the deck - present logistical exasperation for the decorator. Perpendicularity and flatness disappear aboard ship and nothing is as it first appears. Furniture, doors, windows, artwork, wall coverings, drapes and mirrors all have to be engineered for the one specific location in which they will be employed on the ship. Dorothy and Anne overcame the obstacle by eyeballing the finished product against its background rather than relying solely on precise measurements, and thus turned out to be masters at their shipboard decorating craft.

 
the Cabin Class Smoking Room

Grace Line got exactly the type of sea-going luxury they were looking for. Quaint, clubby and extremely Long Islandish, the four new SANTA liners proved to be genuinely popular ships. So much so that in 1933 Elsie Cobb Wilson added "and Company" to the end of her corporate title thus embracing the talents of Marckwald and Urquhart as business partners as well as artisans. When Miss Wilson retired altogether from the business in 1937, Dorothy and Anne took on a former colleague, Miriam Smyth, to form the new design firm of Smyth, Urquhart & Marckwald.

Less than one year later, in 1938, William Francis Gibbs again enlisted the women's touch for the interiors of the express steamer AMERICA being designed by Gibbs & Cox for the North Atlantic service of the United States Lines. Since the $17,000,000 vessel then currently being constructed was to be the third new ocean liner in a sequence rounding out the planned scheduled express operation of the steamship company, it was expected that her interior decoration would be similar to the stuffy coziness found aboard the already in-service MANHATTAN and WASHINGTON. Dot had distinctly other ideas.

 The typically utilized interior schemes of the MANHATTAN and WASHINGTON had been very well received by the ocean-going American public of the mid 1930s. Plaster ceilings with molded cornices and acres of wooden paneling gave the ships an atmosphere of accredited artistic design. Their oak-lined smoking rooms, resplendent with stuffed buffalo and deer heads as well as huge oil paintings of tribal native American Indian life filling the clerestory walls, certainly lent an all-American frontier trail-blazing theme to the mood of the liners. It was, however, also completely unwieldly, untenable and unacceptable to the aesthetic leanings of Miss Marckwald.

 Led by Dorothy, the firm of Smyth, Urquhart & Marckwald developed some fresh, new decorating concepts for the AMERICA. "We were thinking of the passengers of the 1950s who would be using the ship when she was well along in years. We knew the elk-horn style would soon be dated and we wanted to be ahead of the pack."

The traditional period decoration was scrapped in favor of a clean, modern look. While the 34,000-ton ship was still no more than a steel skeleton, scale models of the AMERICA's interiors were made at the New York offices of Miss Marckwald to enable her team to visualize the spaces they would be bringing to life. Color schemes were developed for the entire ship: 23 public rooms, 395 staterooms and 8 luxury suites. Clear blues, greens and reds were used along with neutral tones throughout the ship. New materials were turned to for decorative surfaces such as aluminum, lucite and an asbestos impregnated wallboard known as Marinite. The compound was completely fireproof but tended to crumble when handled roughly to excess. Unbeknownst to anyone at the time it would appear that the initial admonition of Mr. Gibbs was perhaps divinely inspired.

Referring to the interior styling of the AMERICA as successful would be tantamount to implying that "Gone With the Wind" was just another motion picture. For the first time in nautical outfitting circles a staff of women decorators had completely broken with past traditions and implemented a new interpretation of comfortable living at sea. Working from naught but blueprints, Dot and her team had designed in 21 months every color, every fabric, and every piece of furniture that went into the new American liner. The 1940 maiden voyage of the AMERICA - for obvious reasons to the West Indies instead of to France and England as originally intended - was ecstatically well received and Dot's innovative ship decorating ideas became derigueur as a seagoing fashion trend.


  First Class Stateroom
 

World War II brought a halt to ship decoration as naval construction supplanted any thought of new passenger tonnage. It also afforded Dorothy the opportunity to do some land-based decorating for the Duchess of Windsor at the royal residence in the Bahama Islands. Along with the allied victory came Grace Line's offer to commission Smyth, Urquhart & Marckwald for the interior styling of their nine new 8,000 ton shelter-deck passenger carrying freighters of the SANTA BARBARA class. Under the expertise of Dot and her crew, the ships - each accommodating 52 passengers - were hailed as clean and bright with a "club-like exclusiveness" that ensured their popularity when they came on line in 1946.

Early in 1947 Gibbs & Cox were working up plans for Farrell Lines to convert two war-built 7,900 ton cargo liners into the 82-passenger AFRICAN ENDEAVOR and AFRICAN ENTERPRISE. Once again Dorothy led her squad into the foray and using their time tested recipe of aluminum, lucite and Marinite, produced a pair of ships that were comfortable, contemporary, and very American in all aspects of their outfitting. A definite, recognizable style of bright, streamline ship decoration was beginning to emerge which could best be described today as "Dot Marckwald modern."

So successful was Dorothy in planting the standardized idea of American oceangoing comfort in the eyes of the world that Henry Dryfuss, designer of both the New York Central Railroad's incomparable 20th Century Limited and the signature "Perisphere" pavilion for the 1939 New York World's Fair, consulted her in 1948 on several decoration schemes and details for the new 23,700 ton American Export Line CONSTITUTION and INDEPENDENCE that were then under his creative aegis. Even the famous Astor family wanted Dorothy to revitalize the venerated midtown Manhattan showplace of John Jacob Astor, the St. Regis Hotel, on East 55th Street. But Dot was already embarked upon the greatest assignment she would ever undertake. Construction on the 53,000-ton UNITED STATES was about begin at Newport News Shipbuilding and Dry Dock Company in Virginia, and Smyth, Urquhart & Marckwald had been hired to decorate the quintessential ocean liner's interior.

World War II had proven the worth of the giant express passenger steamer. The Cunard QUEEN ELIZABETH and QUEEN MARY had been refitted - albeit makeshift and hurriedly so - to each transport 15,000 troops at a time across the Atlantic. Winston Churchill pointed out that the ability of these two huge Atlantic liners to quickly move an entire division of fighting men in one voyage from North America to Britain had thwarted the axis fighting machine and shortened the European war by fully a year. Coupled with the fact that the QUEEN MARY was netting over $4,000,000 in her final year of prewar operation, there was substantial interest ignited by patriotic pride Stateside to turn out the biggest, fastest and safest ship that could be produced.

The size of the UNITED STATES was governed by the necessity to pass through the Panama Canal insuring that the incipient American colossus was unable to usurp the QUEEN ELIZABETH as to pride of place. However, no compromises were made as to her speed and there was never any doubt that the Yankee superliner would shatter the Atlantic crossing records maintained by the QUEEN MARY since 1938. The issue of safety was held to be of immutable importance. Intended to swiftly carry 14,000 American troops to any part of the world in which they were needed - she could steam for 10,000 miles without need to stop for fuel, food, water or supplies - it was the responsibility of the United States Navy to see to it that this ship provided the most secure, seaworthy and absolutely fireproof conveyance imaginable. Rather than existing as an available merchant craft that could be quickly requisitioned for auxiliary military use when needed, many viewed the UNITED STATES as nothing more than a massive troopship disguised for interim passenger ship operation. 


  Living Room in a First Class Suite 

Gibbs & Cox were engaged to develop and create the envisioned supership. With the mandatory constraints of the "Big Ditch" in Central America providing the dimensional limitations, William Francis Gibbs set out to not only fulfill but to exceed all expectations that this vessel was the most modern ship afloat. Safety, structural soundness and seaworthiness produced the parameters for Mr. Gibbs' blueprints around which Miss Marckwald would wrest her magic. The obsessive extent to which fireproofing was being carried aboard the "Big U" once again gave credence to her creator's admonition of "unknown horrors."

"The color schemes for the UNITED STATES were decided upon before the keel was even laid," Dorothy explained. This time that meant working out details for 26 public rooms, 674 passenger cabins and 20 luxury suites. Interior surfaces would require 28,000 gallons of special fire retardant paint in over 100 colors and shades. But finding textile hues that would remain colorfast in the process of fireproofing became a tactical headache. The resultant answer came in the commodity of "Dynel," a linen-like fireproof fiber made from salt processed with natural gas, and then treated with "Pyroset Finish" which coats but does not impair the fabric, its colors or its resistance to stains. Over 20 miles of Dynel - much of it with metal threads running through it to provide sparkle and additional color - were specially woven for the ship from Dorothy's specifications.

Then there was the problem with furniture. Since wood was a forbidden substance aboard the "Big U," it became imperative to look elsewhere for a material from which to wrought chairs, tables, cabinets, beds, sofas and the like. After consulting with Gibbs, who was using aluminum for everything on the ship from deck railings to bathtubs, Dorothy chose aluminum as well for application in all 22,000 pieces of shipboard furniture because it was lightweight and strong in addition - most importantly - to being nonflammable. Frames of all stuffed furniture such as sofas and beds were crafted from the metal while all cabinetry was hewn from it as well. Padding for the actual stuffing of the soft furniture was made from foam glass. The pianos found aboard the UNITED STATES wound up being deciduously derived simply because no piano manufacturer would render the instruments in aluminum.

 
First Class Ballroom

Weight became another important factor with regard to the ship's naval requirements for stability and speed. Decoration using stone or hefty metals was taboo. The central piece of artwork in the first class dining room, "Expression of Freedom" (more commonly known as "The Four Freedoms"), was molded in fiberglass by its creator, Gwen Lux, and wound up weighing in at 40 pounds rather than the 4,000 pounds that it would have been chiseled from granite or marble. The first class ballroom was decorated in Charles Gilbert's molded, etched and sand-blasted glass partitions depicting undersea flora and fauna which lent a translucent and utterly fireproof sub-division to the room. Peter Ostuni developed an ingenious use of authentic Navajo sand painting designs annealed to aluminum panels for the cocktail lounge.

The UNITED STATES was christened on June 23, 1951 in front of a crowd of over 12,000 invited guests and officials. Since the Atlantic speedster was erected in a graving dock at Newport News rather than on a sliding inclined building berth the traditional launching ceremony - like just about everything else associated with the "Big Ship" - was redeveloped into a safer and more fundamental plan. The dry dock was flooded with water to simply float the $79,000,000 showpiece out into the world while the christening honors themselves were performed by the wife of Texas Senator Tom Connally. As Maritime Commission Hull No.2917 was gently towed stern first into the waters of the James River, an exuberant Dorothy, escewing her own North Eastern brogue and cheerfully mocking the drawl of the ship's patron, was heard to simply remark, "Sho 'nuff?"

Less than a year later on May 14, 1952 the new Yankee clipper was ready to sail. Under the command of United States Lines Commodore Harry Manning and with 1,699 technicians, crew members and invited guests - including Dorothy Marckwald - aboard, the UNITED STATES was heading out to sea under her own power to undergo her builder's trial. It was also the acid test to see if the interiors created and installed onboard Mr. Gibbs' racer met with acceptance from the shipping critics. The three-day voyage was conducted under abbreviated conditions because the liner was being operated by the shipyard and there were a few curtailed amenities such as no room service (many of the catering staff were still undergoing training ashore) and no deck chairs (they had not yet arrived from the supplier). While all public rooms on the "Big U" were open for inspection, the only ones actually being used were the theater and the first class smoking room - which was the only place onboard the ship where liquor was available and as such was constantly overcrowded. Meals were served in the first and cabin class saloons.

One of the most original spaces designed by Dorothy and her associates was the cabin class dining room. Midnight blue walls were relieved by Seymour Liptom's back-lit aluminum sculptures portraying the seasons, stars and constellations. The representation of Taurus the Bull proved a twinge too graphic for the sedate postwar "I Love Lucy" meets "Our Miss Brooks" code of modesty that was still being adhered to. It seemed that the prominent male genitalia of the well endowed aluminum bovine caught the eye of several guests on the trial trip - most notably George Horne, the "New York Times" shipping news editor, who took the matter of common decency all the way up to William Francis Gibbs. Overriding the authority of Smyth, Urquhart & Marckwald, and against the objections of Mr. Liptom, the oblivious steer was uncerimoniously emasculated and the severed appendage was delivered to the Times shipping news room affixed to a mahogany plaque.

What criticism there was seemed directed toward the novelty of the "Big Ship's" interior styling and of little else. Complaints were leveled at the fact that bare metal bulkheads and steel stanchions abounded onboard. "Well, why not?" retorted Dot, "The UNITED STATES is a ship, not an ancient inn with oaken beams and plaster walls." On her ship Dorothy had utilized wall space - all half a million square feet of it - as a background rather than for decorative displays. "The best we can say is that the ship's decor is modern, American, that it is functional, and that color plays a most important part."

All color aboard the UNITED STATES had to be light and cheerful. "We try to use all clear colors because we think muddy colors make people seasick," explained Miss Marckwald. As in the AMERICA, blues, deep greens and reds predominated the ship. Brown tones were unallowable because Dot believed them too depressing. The wisdom of this observation made nearly 50 years ago has much basis in actuality. After recently spending three days here in Long Beach ensconced aboard the QUEEN MARY in an old first class main deck stateroom that was splendidly paneled in figured Bombay rosewood, I found myself beginning to brood and become restless. Regardless of the beauty exuded by the gloomy interior majesty of the wood-lined remnant of Cunard's early mid-twentieth century ship decoration affectations, the soundness in the Marckwaldian expression of thought rang true.

The "Big U" sailed up the Hudson River on June 23, 1952 to berth at pier 86 amidst a tumultuous six hour ovation that began with escort vessels - including four United States Navy destroyers - joining her 150 miles offshore as she steamed past the Ambrose lightship and culminated with a ticker tape rainstorm from Midtown skyscraper windows while Uncle Sam's newest floating ambassador was nudged into her wharf at West 46th Street. That the interest of the nation was upon her was evident by the fact that over 20,000 visitors stood in line for up to five hours in order to have a look around the interiors that Dorothy had brought to life aboard the new ocean flyer while another 70,000 people filed through the dockside just to get a close-up view of her gleaming exterior. Two days later the QUEEN MARY departed from neighboring pier 90 and, after making her valedictoy whistle-blast salute to the new American contender for the Atlantic Blue Riband, sailed out to sea for her final passage as holder of the title.

The UNITED STATES literally vaporized existing ocean speed records during her July 3rd maiden voyage. Slamming across the Atlantic at velocities of over 36 knots she regained the coveted Hale's Trophy for her namesake country's 175th anniversary by a margin of an unbelievable four knots over the QUEEN MARY's best. In all aspects of her being the UNITED STATES was an overwhelming and unequivocal triumph.

One United States Line executive did go a little overboard by referring to the new champion of the seas as the "maritime glamour girl to the world." "Glamorous" was the one superlative that did not apply to the UNITED STATES. But Cyril Falls of the "Illustrated London News" pretty much summed up the overall essence of the "Big Ship" by stating in the revered English periodical that, "I shall be sorry to step off this lovely ship, with her wonderful comfort and her rather austere but delightful decorations."

While still basking in the unparalleled success of the UNITED STATES project Smyth, Urquhart & Marckwald were again enlisted by William Francis Gibbs in 1955 to develop interior schemes for his latest American ocean liner designs. Looking not unlike single funneled little cousins to the UNITED STATES, the Grace Line's new SANTA PAULA and SANTA ROSA were being built to replace the company's ships of the same names assembled by this very design team 25 years earlier. Dot again created colorful interpretations of American life at sea for both of these 15,300-ton vessels.

Each of the $25,000,000 ships accommodated 300 passengers in first class surroundings that were as up to the minute in their styling as were any of Miss Marckwald's previous commissions. Although intended for quick conversion to each transport 3,000 troops if needed, fireproofing in the Grace Line duo nowhere approached the maniacal levels it had been carried to onboard the UNITED STATES. Some wood was actually allowed in the decoration of SANTA PAULA and SANTA ROSA such as varnished teak deckhouse doors, maple directors chairs on the glass enclosed promenades, and a mahogany faced cocktail bar in the ballroom. Except for these minor concessions, the interior decor of the Grace Line ships appeared to be strikingly similar to that of the United States Line's greyhound.

The SANTA ROSA entered service in June 1958 with the SANTA PAULA following four months later. Dorothy received the following message from Lewis Lapham, the President of Grace Lines, during the maiden voyage of the SANTA ROSA: "Dear Doll, Many, many thanks. All I can say is that when better ships are decorated, you and your pals will do it."

That prophecy nearly came to pass that same year as Gibbs & Cox were finalizing their blueprints for a sister-ship to the UNITED STATES to be named the new AMERICA. Smyth, Urquhart & Marckwald were already working up interior styling schemes for the liner which was similar and worthy in every respect to her prototype fleet mate. Although approved by both Houses of the Congress, President Eisenhower failed to institute the measure appropriating the $128,000,000 necessary for her construction and Dot's designs for this planned American leviathan never progressed beyond the scale model mock-up phase. We can only imagine the sleek Americana that Dorothy and her pals would have conjured up for the decoration of the stillborn conception. 

 
First Class Dinning Room
 

Dorothy Marckwald was a most extraordinary woman. In a stellar career spanning more than five decades she contributed a priceless talent to bring the United States Merchant Marine to the forefront of the world as an innovative, cutwater and driving force in the realm of passenger ship interior decoration. The lyrics of Paul Francis Webster from the 1953 Warner Brother's film "Calamity Jane" surmises Dot and her craft explicitly: "A woman's touch, the magic of Aladdin couldn't do as much - she's a wizard she's a champ and she doesn't need a lamp." Sho 'nuf!

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