Sailing On

PrintPrintEmailEmailThe late 1990s saw the start of an immense building boom in cruise ships. Nineteen new ones arrived in 2001, and nearly 40 more are planned for the next two years. Most of these are enormous vessels, capable of accommodating more than 2,000 passengers. Filling all those cabins makes for an extremely competitive business, says Birch Coffey, an architect for Celebrity Cruise’s four new Millennium-class ships (a designation that, as with battleships, refers to the name of the first one delivered).

 

Coffey makes a comparison between the new builds, as they’re called in the business, and the floridly themed hotels of Las Vegas. “Never bore the passenger” is the cruise lines’ motto, he explains, as they seek to distinguish their products. For the 1,950-passenger Millennium , the line hired Coffey to create a small additional dining room gleaming with special touches of elegance that would justify an extra $25 tab per meal. Out of the blue, and well into the design process, he learned that a “very unassuming” attached house in a small English town near Manchester held an amazing architectural prize, about 140 linear feet of ornately carved walnut paneling from the White Star Line’s RMS Olympic , the Titanic ’s 1911 sister ship. The panels had been offered at auction but had failed to meet their reserve price, and now the owners wanted to sell them privately.

“We flew to England the next day,” Coffey says. “A team of us pulled up in front of the house in black limousines. We looked like the CIA.” The owners, who had bought the place some years before with the panels already installed, feared damage to their neighbors’ walls if the woodwork was sliced away. So Celebrity bought the whole house and then sold it after successfully removing the prize.

 
 

How did these splendid fittings from the first à la carte dining room on the high seas survive intact for the best part of a century and then turn up in such modest surroundings? After her two-and-a-half-decade career on the Atlantic, the Olympic went to the breaker’s yard in the early thirties. In 1935 many of her furnishings were auctioned off at a gallery in a small town in the far north of England. Other bits and pieces ended up as firewood, but the former mayor of Southport, England, bought the panels and, in a yearlong project, installed them throughout her house. The latest inhabitants had heard rumors that their extraordinary walls had come from a German warship, but their son, thinking them simply too grand for that, did some digging in a Liverpool library and came up with the true story.

Re-creating the Olympic dining room on the Millennium posed some challenges for Coffey and his design team. For one thing, because the panels were three inches thick—a lot of wood—safety-at-sea laws required that a firewall be built around the restaurant, in effect creating a room within a room.

 

From its earliest days, Celebrity attempted to separate itself from other mid-price cruise lines by appointing Michel Roux, the well-known French chef and cookbook author, as a companywide “culinary consultant.” He still regularly visits each of the line’s nine ships to fine-tune the quality and delivery of every meal aboard. But the specialty restaurants require even closer attention.

An evening in the Millennium ’s dining room is a leisurely, cosseting experience, featuring elaborate tableside cooking. Several items, like the Waldorf pudding, were adapted from the Olympic ’s menu. The food is fine, but the best part of eating there is the place’s ghostly associations. When the very walls speak of the past, it’s easy to summon up, as does that color limner of the great ocean ships John Maxtone-Graham, “visions of gleaming crystal, silver and table linens and that sustained, unmistakable hum of animated passenger chatter . . . the suave, relentless vigilance of the maître d’hôtel . . . the incandescent flicker of spirit lamps and the deft ministrations of the sommelier.” Of course, the Millennium ’s well-trained wait staff is also on hand to help replicate the experience.

Once the Olympic dining room was set, “we decided to try the theme in subsequent ships,” Coffey says. “We expanded it into a grand concept.” It wasn’t easy. For one thing, as a relative youngster Celebrity couldn’t draw on its own history to furnish a dining room, nor would it want to promote the glories of venerable competitors like Holland America and Cunard. It would have to draw on fabled ships of vanished lines and would need substantial architectural elements, not, as Coffey puts it, “a thousand little paper products,” which, thanks to eBay and its like, aren’t so hard to find.

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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