When it comes to Southern California royalty, nothing can surpass the Queen. The Queen Mary, permanently moored in the northern part of the Long Beach harbor, is not only a staple of the downtown Long Beach skyline, but a hugely important piece of history. Throughout her years, the Queen Mary has served as a luxury ocean liner, a WWII troopship, and now a hotel and museum. She has had an extensive and fascinating history thus far and still has many more plans to come.
The Queen Mary was ordered in 1929 by the Cunard Line in the UK as a response to the other super-liners built by German, Italian, and French companies around the same time. Construction began in Dec. 1930 but was halted in 1931 due to the Great Depression. Cunard applied for a loan from the British Government to complete the ship and was not only granted enough money for that, but enough for a second ship as well. The ship was first only known as Hull Number 534, and her name was a highly-guarded secret until her launch. It was rumored that her name was going to be Victoria, due to Cunard’s tradition of naming all their ships ending in “ia,” until King George was asked for his blessing. As the story goes, when Cunard told King George, “We have decided to name our new ship after England’s greatest Queen” (meaning his grandmother, Queen Victoria). Yet King George ended up responding, “My wife will be delighted you are naming the ship after her.” His wife was Queen Mary, and thus the name of the ship came to be. The Queen Mary was launched on Sept. 26, 1934. She had a height of 181 feet, length of 1,091 feet, weight of 81,237 tons, and had 12 decks. Her style was mostly Art-Deco, and the wood paneling on the interior was brought from all over the world. She was also the first ocean liner to be equipped with a Jewish prayer room, which was part of the policy to show that British lines avoided racism that was evident in Europe at that time.
The Early Years
The Queen Mary, along with her sister ship, the Queen Elizabeth, served as transatlantic passenger ships between Southampton and New York. Though originally seen as “too traditional” compared to her other rivals, the Queen Mary quickly became known as the greatest luxury liner ever built. She served everyone from Hollywood Stars, British Royalties, and dignitaries alike, including Winston Churchill among others. She had many features and accommodations including two indoor swimming pools, beauty salons, gym, music room, children’s nurseries, dog kennels, and phone connectivity to anywhere in the world. During the early years of the transatlantic runs, the Queen Mary carried an average of 2,100 passengers and 1,100 crew. The Queen Mary was not only one of the most popular ocean liners on the seas, she without a doubt raised the bar for luxury travel around the world.
The War Years
In 1940, with the start of WWII, all transatlantic travel ceased. The Queen Mary, which at the time was the fastest ship on the seas, was one of several ocean liners converted into a troopship to ferry Allied troops across the ocean. During the war, all of the original decor of the Queen Mary was stored in a warehouse, including china, crystal, artwork, tapestries, and 6 miles worth of carpet. The wood inside the ship was all covered with leather. Her whole exterior was painted navy gray, and that along with her speed gained her the nickname “Grey Ghost.” On average, the Queen Mary carried an average of 15,000 people. In 1943, she set a record having carried 16,683 people on board; it is the standing record for the most people ever transported on one vessel.
The Later Years
After WWII came to an end, the Queen Mary was refitted for passenger service. After her renovations and refurbishing, she and her sister ship, the Queen Elizabeth, dominated the era of transatlantic passenger travel. Yet in the late 1950s, transatlantic jets entered the scene. Though the Queen Mary was still the most popular ocean liner on the seas, these jets ultimately became the downfall of this type of travel. By 1965, the entire Cunard fleet was operating at a loss. It was announced that the Queen Mary, among others, would be retired from service and sold. The City of Long Beach won that bid at $3.45 million. The Queen Mary set out from Southampton On Oct. 31, 1967 on her 1,001st and final voyage, sailing around Cape Horn and arrived in Long Beach on Dec. 9, where she has remained ever since. During her years, she carried over 2 million passengers and sailed over 3.7 million miles.
Long Beach Living
Upon arriving in Long Beach, the Queen Mary had reached her permanent home. Many of her lower decks were completely gutted and much of her equipment was removed including three of the four propellers and one of the two engine rooms. Her empty fuel tanks were filled with mud to keep her center of gravity and draft at correct levels. After much controversy, the US Coast Guard deemed that the Queen Mary would be classified as a building since it no longer had the necessary equipment to be considered an ocean vessel anymore. The first-class cabins were all redone to become hotel rooms, and none of the second-class, third-class, or crew cabins remain.
On May 8, 1971, the Queen Mary opened its door to tourists. Yet by 1980 the ship was losing money for the city because the hotel, restaurants, and museum were run by three separate concessionaires. It was decided a single operator would be better. Jack Wrather, a local millionaire, came along and signed a 66-year lease with the City of Long Beach to operate the entire property. It was held in his name until after his death, and in 1988, his holdings were bought by the Walt Disney Company, though it was never marketed as Disney property. Despite the success of the Disney empire, during the late 1980s and early 1990s, the Queen Mary struggled financially leading Disney to give up their lease in 1992. It was then, in Dec. 1992 the Queen Mary completely closed its doors to guests and tourists.
In Feb 1993, the RMS Foundation signed a 5-year lease with the City to act as operators of the property. The CEO was Joseph Prevratil, who had previously managed the attraction for Wrather before Disney took over. The property reopened completely in the months following, and the lease of management, as well as control of the real estate adjacent to the Queen Mary, was extended to 66 years. The Queen Mary seemed to breathe new life and popularity again under the management of Prevratil. In the years following, plans were made to upgrade the land around the ship, and renovate and restore the ship itself. However, management of the Queen Mary continued to change several more times during the 2000s.
Today, the Queen Mary serves as a tourist attraction, hotel, museum, and event center. The National Trust for Historic Preservation has accepted the Queen Mary as one of the Historic Hotels of America, and she is on the list of National Register of Historic Places. The Queen Mary Hotel is made up of 346 staterooms and 9 suites that are completely unique and try to give the guests a real glimpse into the life of transatlantic travel in the 30s-50s. Many feature original artwork and the original wood paneling comes from all over the world. Hotel guests can sign up for different packages during their stay that include Bed & Breakfast Package, Romance Package, Winston Churchill Package (for those real history buffs), and trips to Hollywood, Universal Studios, the Aquarium of the Pacific, and more. The Queen Mary also features several restaurants, shops, a spa, fitness center, and various tours like the Haunted Encounters Tour. Some of the restaurants include the Chelsea Chowder House, Sir Winston’s Restaurant and Lounge, a Malibu Wine tasting room, and the Observation Bar & Art Deco Lounge. Urban Commons, a real estate company, has been in charge of the lease of the Queen Mary since 2006 and has revealed extensive plans to redevelop the area around the Queen Mary to turn the whole area into an attraction. Yet in 2017, major structural and conditional problems were discovered such as corrosion, causing a bit of a slow on the other projects. The major corrosion and most important fixes are being attended to first, but it will take quite a while to fully complete the restoration of the ship.
The Future of the Queen Mary
This past December, the Queen Mary celebrated her 50th anniversary as a Long Beach resident. Currently, along with the restoration projects previously mentioned, there are big plans underway with the Queen Mary Heritage Center. The Queen Mary Heritage Center has been working to develop a major interactive museum and science center within the Queen Mary. The museum will encompass approximately 65,000 square feet inside the ship and will be dedicated towards interactive exhibits, educational classrooms, a 4D theater, and space for traveling exhibitions as well. The museum’s objective is to be an important destination where visitors will learn about the ship’s history as well as maritime economics, oceanography, space and solar education, import/export commerce, and other related themes that center around sea technologies and travel. The Queen Mary has an extensive collection of thousands of objects including archival photographs of construction and its maiden voyage, artwork, furniture, textiles, magazines, and documents like passenger lists, period advertisements, and poster graphics. The museum will also feature a series of films documenting oral interviews with War Brides, crew, and passengers. Another significant aspect of the museum will be the Queen Mary Heritage Society’s plan to partner with many major institutions both nationally and internationally such as the US Coast Guard, Ellis Island National Park, the Smithsonian Museum, and the Glasgow Museum of Transport. The museum, which will be accessible to everyone, will ideally create an authentic and educational atmosphere that will preserve and present the Queen Mary’s archival collection, as well as focusing on the importance on the sciences and educational aspects.
In the area surrounding the Queen Mary, Urban Commons, the Queen Mary’s current manager, has plans to redevelop the area with a boutique hotel, restaurants, a marina, amphitheater, jogging trails, a bike path, and possibly a huge ferris wheel. Annual events will continue to be hosted at the Queen Mary such as Queen Mary Chill during the holiday season, 4th of July Celebrations, Art Deco Festival, Queen Mary ScotsFestival, and Dark Harbor Halloween event. For even more information, visit the Queen Mary website.