Sailing On

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At this point the design team learned of a collector with six wall panels to sell from the grand ballroom of America’s fastest and best-known ocean liner, the SS United States . The vessel itself lies rusting in a Philadelphia berth, the subject of a number of far-fetched schemes for its revival. Meanwhile, bits and pieces of it are scattered around the country. The Mariners’ Museum, in Newport News, Virginia, has 17 panels, and the Windmill Point restaurant in Nags Head, North Carolina, is entirely furnished with pieces from the ship, including a curved 20-foot-long bar from the first-class ballroom. The panels, of etched glass accented with gold, depict sea creatures, corals, and sponges. They were stashed in a storeroom. “I’d seen black-and-white photos,” Coffey says, “but had no idea until I saw them in person how absolutely sparkling and dazzling they were. Then I knew we had something we could build on.” Three of them now stand at the entrance of the United States Dining Room on Celebrity’s Infinity , which was launched in early 2001. Three smaller pieces decorate an interior wall. Since the United States was famous for an absence of wood throughout and a notably restrained, cool style, the room holds no wood. The walls, ceilings, and steel-framed columns are pale gray, and the sleek burgundy and gray chairs are leather. The place settings replicate those made for the original ship, and the menu includes an entrée that was a favorite on the United States , in this case that staple of 1950s high-living, roast Long Island duckling à l’orange.

In the dining room’s foyer are photos of celebrities who sailed on the liner during her short life (from 1952 to 1969), as well as posters, menus, and original silver serving pieces. Most compelling is a continuously running videotape narrated by John Maxtone-Graham, Birch Coffey, and Mira Van Doren, who looks back at the time she was one of several young women hired to create many of the United States ’s decorative elements. “We used the best of American arts and crafts,” she says. “It was a wonderful group of women—artists, enamelists. We were all Americans. We wanted to show the world what America was able to do.”

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