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Ocean Liners: S.S. America

Cabin class dining room silhouettes

New York; San Francisco; Paris; London, 1939

Commissioned by: Smyth, Urquhart & MarkwaldMedium: chromium and copperExecuted by: RambuschNonextant

S.S. America in port

S.S. America in port

The S.S. America, designed by Gibbs & Cox, was the first ship to be decorated by Dorothy Markwald and Anne Urquhart of the all-female design firm Smyth, Urquhart & Markwald. The “comfortable yet elegant” style they chose was “uniquely American.”1 They selected Hildreth Meière to provide sculptural decoration for the walls of the inviting cabin class dining room:

Cabin class dining room with wall sculptures representing San Francisco on left and London on right

Cabin class dining room with wall sculptures representing San Francisco on left and London on right

Meière decorated the bleached curly maple walls of the cabin class dining room on the S.S. America with four low relief wall sculptures in chromium and copper representing New York, San Francisco, Paris, and London. Each city was defined by its well-known waterway. For New York, Meière depicted an ocean liner sailing past the Statue of Liberty in New York Harbor with the city skyline behind it:

Sketch for New York

Sketch for New York

For Paris, she chose a sailing vessel on the Seine with Notre Dame Cathedral and the Eiffel Tower in the background:

Sketch for Paris

Sketch for Paris

For London she depicted a tugboat pulling a barge on the Thames past the Houses of Parliament and Big Ben:

Sketch for London

Sketch for London

For San Francisco she represented a ferry passing in front of the Oakland Bay Bridge, with the Golden Gate Bridge visible in the distance:

Sketch for San Francisco

Sketch for San Francisco

The scale of Meière’s designs can be seen in a photograph of her working on a sketch of the Oakland Bay Bridge in her studio. Her design for New York is visible on the sheet below. She sketched both designs on four-foot-wide cartoon paper rolled out horizontally.

Meière at easel in her studio working on design of the Oakland Bay Bridge

Meière at easel in her studio working on design of the Oakland Bay Bridge

Meière sketching the S.S. America sailing from New York

Meière sketching the S.S. America sailing from New York

The simply yet elegantly decorated S.S. America saw only two years of service before the United States entered World War II and she became a troopship known as the U.S.S. West Point. From 1941-46, the U.S.S. Westpoint transported troops around the world, carrying eight times the number of men for which the S.S. America had been designed:

1st Lt. Chetlain Sigman with members of Signal Corps aboard U.S.S. Westpoint. Photograph Library of Virginia

1st Lt. Chetlain Sigman with members of Signal Corps aboard U.S.S. Westpoint. Photograph Library of Virginia

In 1946, the S.S. America, a favorite ship among crew members and passengers alike, returned to active transatlantic service until 1964.2 She remained in service for the next sixteen years under various names with different owners. As the S.S. American Star, while under tow to Thailand in 1994, she was wrecked off the Canary Islands.

The dining room wall decoration for the S.S. America was the first ship commission that Meière received from Smyth, Urquhart & Markwald. Thirteen years later, the same firm hired Meière and Austin Purves as consultants to create an art program to decorate the S.S. United States. In addition to overseeing the work by several artists, Meière herself designed a wall map for the cabin class lounge that Louis Ross executed in painted and gilded raised gesso.

The S.S. America and the S.S. United States, both with mural decoration by Meière, passing in New York

The S.S. America and the S.S. United States, both with mural decoration by Meière, passing in New York

1

Lawrence M. Driscoll, “S.S. America, S.S. United States sailing on the ‘All American’ team to Europe” 2018. http://united-states-lines.org/s-s-america1-htm/