SS Normandie

The SS Normandie, owned by Compagnie Générale Transatlantique and built by Penhoët, of Saint Nazaire, France, was a radical ship for the time in both design and decor but she proved less popular with passengers.

The text is essentially taken from Wiki and interesting the tale is too:

She entered service in 1935 as the largest and fastest passenger ship afloat; she is still the most powerful steam turbo-electric-propelled passenger ship ever built. Her novel design and lavish interiors led many to consider her the greatest of ocean liners and she held the Blue Riband for the fastest transatlantic crossing at several points during her service career, during which the RMS Queen Mary was her chief rival.

During World War II, Normandie was seized by the United States authorities at New York and renamed USS Lafayette. In 1942, the liner caught fire while being converted to a troopship, capsized and sank at the New York Passenger Ship Terminal, salvaged then scrapped in October 1946.

Earlier ships had been designed around the huge numbers of steerage-class immigrants from Europe to the United States but when the U.S. closed the door on most immigration in the early 1920s, steamship companies ordered vessels built to serve upper-class tourists instead, particularly Americans who traveled to Europe for alcohol-fueled fun during Prohibition.

The French were approached by Vladimir Yourkevitch, a former ship architect for the Imperial Russian Navy, who had emigrated to France before the revolution. His ideas included a slanting clipper-like bow and a bulbous forefoot beneath the waterline, in combination with a slim hull. Reportedly, he also approached the Cunard Line with his ideas but was rejected because the bow was deemed too radical.

Essentially, what the bulbous bow does, on narrow, long ships, travelling close to hull speed, is force the bow wave which has begun to form to travel a different path, reducing drag, improving efficiency and improving hull speed, important on all counts in a commercial craft.

“Normandie” was chosen as the name, without the le or la because while the English speaking world sees ships as “she”, the opposite is the case in France and as passengers were mainly wealthy Americans, then this was the most diplomatic way to go about it.

On 29 October 1932 – three years to the day after the stock market crash – Normandie was launched in front of 200,000 spectators. She had turbo-electric engines, which allowed all propellers to operate even if one engine was not running. An early form of radar was also installed.

The luxurious interiors were designed in Art Déco and Streamline Moderne style. Many sculptures and wall paintings made allusions to Normandy, the province of France for which Normandie was named.  Drawings and photographs show a series of vast public rooms of great elegance.

Normandie’s voluminous interior spaces were made possible by having the funnel intakes split to pass along the sides of the ship, rather than straight upward.

French architect Roger-Henri Expert was in charge of the overall decorative scheme.[

Most of the public space was devoted to first-class passengers, including the dining room, first-class lounge, grille room, first class swimming pool, theatre and winter garden. The first class swimming pool featured staggered depths, with a shallow training beach for children. The children’s dining room was decorated by Jean de Brunhoff, who covered the walls with Babar the Elephant and his entourage.

The interiors were filled with grand perspectives, spectacular entryways, and long, wide staircases. The first class dining hall was the largest room afloat. At three hundred and five feet (93 m) it was longer than the Hall of Mirrors at Versailles, stood 46 feet (14 m) wide, and towered 28 feet (8.5 m) high. As no natural light could enter, it was illuminated by 12 tall pillars of Lalique glass flanked by 38 matching columns along the walls. These, with chandeliers hung at each end of the room, earned the Normandie the nickname “Ship of Light” (similar to Paris as the ‘”City of Light”).

The machinery of the top deck and forecastle was integrated within the ship, concealing it and releasing nearly all the exposed deck space for passengers. The air conditioner units were concealed along with the kennels inside the third, dummy, funnel.

Non-popularity with passengers

Part of the ship’s problem lay in the fact that the majority of her passenger space was devoted solely to first class, which could carry up to 848 people. Less space and consideration were given to second and tourist class, in contrast to Cunard and numbered 670 and 454 passengers respectively. As a result the general consensus among North Atlantic passengers was that she was primarily a ship for the rich and famous. As second and tourist class became a major cash cow for shipping companies at that time, the Normandie lost out.

Winning the Blue Riband

Another of the French Liner’s greatest triumphs also turned out to be one of her greatest flaws: her decor. Her slick and modern art deco interiors proved to be somewhat intimidating and uncomfortable for her travelers. Although decorated in an art deco style, the Queen Mary was more reserved in her appointments and was not as radical as her French counterpart, which ultimately proved to be popular with her passengers.

The war found Normandie in New York. In 1940, after the Fall of France, the United States seized the Normandie under the right of angary but a refitting as a troop carrier resulted in fire, sinking, salvaging and scrapping. The ship’s designer Vladimir Yourkevitch arrived at the scene and offered expertise, but he was barred by harbor police.[

It was a sad end for a beautiful craft, the like we’ll probably not see again.


Nice site with pics shown in this post.  Other pics from Huffington Post and Wiki.  Click to enlarge.

2 comments for “SS Normandie

  1. dearieme
    October 11, 2010 at 10:23

    Nice one, Hob. Her fate is a parable for our times. I think it was Megan McArdle whom I saw arguing that the reason that Americans are less trusting of their national government than many Europenans are of theirs is that the US government is peculiarly incompetent.

  2. JD
    October 11, 2010 at 11:26

    That first class dining hall sounds impressive with its Lalique glass, mirrors, lights etc. I would like to have seen that.

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