The Observation Bar and Lounge

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The Observation Bar and Lounge (OB) was a first class facility at the forward part of promenade deck, a favorite of many passengers from bankers to traveling celebrities. Those who appreciated the atmosphere included the head of the Soviet delegation to the United Nations, Anastas Mikoyan. (If Mr.Mikoyan pondered the political message inherent in the subject of painting - all classes of Britons joined arm in arm dancing and riotously celebrating the 25th jubilee of the reign of King George V and Queen Mary, he might have been less sanguine drinking there.) The OB was generally described as a great place for conversation that had a spectacular view of the sea, but it was not used as a place of live entertainment. 

The Shipbuilder describes the area in detail:

"Spacious corridors lead from the main hall to the observation lounge and cocktail bar. The room provides a delightfully informal rendezvous at the forward end of the promenade deck.

ret3g.jpg (67546 bytes)The plan of the apartment is almost a full semicircle, lending itself admirably to a generous window treatment, whereby views can be obtained from right ahead to well abaft the beam. At the centre-line the observation lounge is 34ft.long, and the greatest width is about 70 ft., while the clear height is 12ft. 6in. Each of the 21 windows is 5ft.high by 2ft.wide. The boundary contour combined with the camber and sheer, presented several problems of design and arrangement which have been successfully solved. To mask the effect of sheer, a raised platform has been constructed at the forward end, and this forms a splendid point of vantage from which to view the ever-changing sea. The platform is approached by wide stairways of two or three low steps, while it is surrounded by a lovely balustrade designed and executed by Mr. A. Compton Roberts. Beautifully carved motifs are a feature of the balustrade. The floor is of Ruboleum, of colouring appropriate to the room.

All the metal-work of the windows, raised platform and balustrade is carried out in a delightful combination of silver and bronze.

Left - The Observation Bar during construction

The general colour scheme of the room has been dictated by paneling in fine maple burr, broken by narrow horizontal bandings of cedarwood of unique marking, the same wood having been used for the dado and for casings of the structural webs at the forward end, which take the form of stream-lined piers.

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The painting "The Royal Jubilee Week" by Alfred R. Thomson, which is still above the bar today.

ret3d.jpg (39297 bytes)A special feature of the decorations over the cocktail bar is a mural painting, by Mr. A. R. Thomson, entitled "The Royal Jubilee Week, 1935." The cocktail bar itself repeats the semicircular form of the room. The counter front is in Macassar ebony ornamented with Monel-metal strip. Decorative mirrors and metallic feature are fitted at the back of the bar.

Left - 1930s decor

Concealed continuous trough lighting is provided, supplemented by five spun-metal bowl ceiling fittings; while four metal and enamel pylons are mounted on the balustrading. More colour is introduced by two niches containing jardinieres, gay with fresh flowers.

The furniture in the apartment includes interesting stools, covered in red hide, and round tables, which have been provided by Messsrs. Pel, Ltd., of London and Birmingham. The single central supports are of nickel-chromium stainless-steel tube, and are screwed to the deck fittings.

Handsome furnishings in gay colourings are grouped about the room, for the decorations and furnishings of which Messrs. Waring & Gillow have been responsible".

History of Use

1936-1939 – Cabin (or first) class cocktail lounge as described above.

1940-1946 – During the years the Queen Mary was used as a troopship the Observation Bar served as a dormitory.

ret3e.jpg (51025 bytes) The Observation Bar in the mid 1950's. Note that red leather has replaced the prewar patterned fabric on the chairs.

1947-1967 – In the refit following the war the OB was fully restored to its original design and function, although a simpler linoleum flooring replaced the original pre-war installation. The OB continued to be used exclusively as a first class amenity until the early 1960s.

At this time the third class accommodations in the forward portion of the ship were expanded and the OB was assigned for third class use, called "tourist class" after the war. A new bar was installed in the Long Gallery, renamed the Midships Bar, for the use of first class passengers.

ret3m.jpg (39257 bytes)1968 to present
- virtually unchanged from 1936 when it arrived in Long Beach, Diner’s Club intended to fully restore it to its prewar art deco elegance for use as a cocktail bar and lounge for tourists and hotel guests. The room was expanded forward by removing the semicircular windows and wall and incorporating the forward "turnabout" from the enclosed promenade into the OB.

When Diner’s club left the ship, (before it opened to the public in the early 1970’s), the new lessee decided on a "themed" approach to the ship’s operations. The period selected was not the 1930’s but rather a more general vaguely "Ye Olde English Age of Sail." (The theme was carried even further in "Londowntown", a Lilliputian smorgasbord of English architecture built in the parking lot near the ship.) Two oddly decorated and themed restaurants named Lord Nelson’s and Lady Hamilton’s were installed on the starboard side of the enclosed promenade, where their descendents block circulation to this day.

In the Observation Bar the original red hide covered swivel barstools were torn out and replaced with black cast iron models covered in red crushed velvet. The elegant custom designed sofas, tables and chairs were removed and replaced with restaurant standard oak "captain’s chairs." A television and sometimes live musical entertainment were added.

Work being carried out to extend the Observation Bar in the early 70s.

Restoration and "Redecoration" Efforts

1981-1982 - By the early 1980’s public interest in and appreciation for art deco design was growing. The Wrather Corporation, then lessees, particularly Mrs. Wrather, (the academy awarding wining actress Bonita Granville), and her son in law, Milton Swartz, decided to restore the full art deco splendor to the bar. They removed the age of sail themed fittings and installed swivel bar stools similar to the that were there originally but were no longer in the ship’s collection. They replaced the oak captain’s tables and chairs with small round tables, some original to the room, and reupholstered second class dining room chairs for use here. The original sofas were also relocated, reupholstered and placed back in their original positions just below the balustrade.

Regrettably, the gold leafed alcove in the ceiling over the bar was repainted a matte dark burgundy. Recessed lights had illuminated the gold leafed recess that in turn reflected gilded light onto the painting. The effect was superb. The matte paint destroyed the effectiveness of this sophisticated (and original) lighting approach to the painting. Henceforth track spotlights were used to highlight the picture. This is just one example of the sophisticated interior illumination schemes found in all of the first class areas. Many have been removed or ignored, sometimes by using the fixtures but with inappropriate light bulbs – much to to the disadvantage of the interiors.

A multicolored carpet that reflected the colors in the painting was installed. Overall – with the exception of the matter discussed above, the results were spectacular.

Bar today1986-1987 – As is typical in heavy use areas of hotels, continued daily use of the OB resulted in a need to refresh the carpet and upholstery five years after the last update. Unfortunately at about the same time the management team decided that the Queen Mary needed a new interior color scheme. Light green and grey were selected as the "theme’ colors of the "new" Queen Mary. The result in the OB was the banishment the original Chinese red enamel accents. The original spun bowls (or "eyeball" fixtures) ceiling light fixtures, that were red and cream, were removed. The light vases and column supports were repainted sea foam green (photo - left). The partially original furnishings that were reassembled in 1982 were removed, including the original sofas and the reproduction swivel barstools. In their place rattan/bamboo lounge furnishings were substituted. The inviting sofa seating areas below the balustrade were replaced by high tables and tall bar stools. The overall result was still a very handsome room, but one that was both less original and less comfortable.

ret3j.jpg (16555 bytes)1989-1990 - further expansion. Since the OB is the only major bar left on the ship various schemes to expand its capacity have been studied. The initial expansion sacrificed the enclosed promenade. But since there is an interior ship cross walk just behind the bar, the loss had little impact on the circulation patterns.

Around 1990 Wrather Port Properties, then owned by the Disney Company, decided to expand it again. Various schemes were considered including putting in a stairway to the vacant area directly above on Sun Deck. Ultimately the decision was made to expand forward. The exterior semi-circular window wall was blown open in the center for a large pair of doors. The two smaller doors towards the periphery of this wall were either ignored or unknown to the planners. The narrow exterior promenade was blocked off and made into an outdoor seating area. Because the wind generally blows towards the ship, a plexi-glass windbreak was installed in this confined area. The results are another step away from the intimate, quiet bar and lounge that was the hallmark of the OB and more exterior clutter at the bow of the ship.

These doors frequently left wide open create an uncomfortable draft inside the OB. (The impact on the heating ventilating and air conditioning bill, or HVAC, is unknown to us, but would result in higher HVAC costs in a building with a fully functional HVAC system.)

2007 -  After almost 20 years since the last refreshment of the room, the former lessee, the RMS Foundation/QSDI, announced to the delight of the Queen Mary’s supporters, that they were going to restore his room to its 1936 decor. The Art Deco Society of Los Angeles, a group of art deco enthusiasts who hold an annual festival aboard the ship contributed $20,000 towards this project.  Unfortunately it may have done more harm than good.  

While the return of a close to original red color to the lamps and poles was a good choice, the paint application was done very poorly.  Heavy brush strokes are very evident and paint was splattered on the metal work.  This was never cleaned up but was left behind. Another concern is that in applying gold radiator paint to the alcove that had been covered with real gold leaf by Cunard-White Star, paint may have dripped onto the painting by A. R. Thomson, entitled "The Royal Jubilee Week, 1935.”


The Long Beach-era rattan furniture in the bar was simply recovered in a matching red vinyl even though original pieces of furniture for this room sit in storage and in other locations on the ship. Two sofas were recovered and placed in the bar but they were soon removed and the “meat market” high tables were placed back in the room.  A new carpet was also laid however it is a very dark and busy pattern totally inappropriate for the Art Deco interior architecture of the room.  Meanwhile, the post war linoleum survives underneath the carpet. It might have been used as a template to restore this surface. 

The red cock on the upper landing overlooking the bar. 
This feature was uncovered when the carpet was removed. 
It was soon covered over.

The recessed lighting over the bar still has yet to be restored as does the original spun metal ‘eye ball’ light fixtures that are still in storage.

The Observation Bar today. Move your mouse over the photo to see the same view in 1936.


With the original entrance to the area behind the bar blocked, the bartenders tend to leap over the counter rather than use the alternate entry to the bar -- i.e., the door opened up in Long Beach under the bar. The original full height entry was blocked in Long Beach to house beer kegs. This beer keg storage issue can be resolved by the introduction of a remote delivery system housing the kegs in one of the storage rooms at the sides of the bar. Move the mouse over this photo to see the actress Deborah Kerr behind the bar in 1958. This photo shows the original staff-access door behind the bar in place


Paint is evident on the metal work as a result of careless application.

This photo taken after recent renovations shows that the ebony wood veneer under the bar has not been repaired, nor has the missing metal strip been replaced. Even worse the accumulated grime of years of handling has not been cleaned off under the bar ledge.

While the operator and the Art Deco Society claim to have spent money restoring the woodwork this photo of the port side entrance door shows the condition of the woodwork in some areas of the OB. No wonder the City of Long Beach was not about to allow "rent credits" for the work the RMS Foundation sponsored.


Left: John Thomas of the Art Deco Society of Los Angeles with Joe Prevratil and Lovetta Kramer of the RMS Foundation surveying the "restoration" work they commissioned on the Observation Bar.
This photo was taken in September 2007. 

Right: Bruce Vancil who, representing both the RMS Foundation and the Steamship Historic Society of America, coordinated this latest renovation effort with John Thomas.


The alcove today in 1936 (left) and today (right). The first color photograph (by Madame Yevonde) shows workmen instaling the Observation Bar. Of particular note is the fresh gold leaf in the alcove. Notice how the indirect lights in the alcove illuminate the painting accentuating the gold background in the canvas.

Today's photo (2008) shows that dull gold radiator paint is hardly a substitute for gold leaf. Moreover the "down lights" do nothing to light the alcove and the festive scene in the painting.


Alternative Visions

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Possible rearrangement of the Observation Bar area - the outdoor promenade and original teak stairs down to Main deck are shown as restored.

In order to do a true restoration of the Observation Bar it is essential that the operator rethink the use of this bar and lounge in the context of a fully restored Promenade Deck.  At the moment it is simply used as a Long Beach “red neck” bar.  The furniture and fittings provide a suitable environment for the entertainment and that caliber of service and staffing.  Elvis impersonators are the norm for entertainment. 

We suggest that management reconsider the entertainment program for this room. The Observation Bar need not be a dive bar. People come to the bar to chat and leave when they can’t hear over a mediocre cover band in the middle of the afternoon. If live entertainment is desired we suggest cool jazz, popular vocal classics, or a piano stylist.

Original pieces of furniture for this room sit in storage and are used in other areas of the ship. What is purpose of having furniture that was designed specifically for this room being used elsewhere on the ship and sitting in storage when it can be returned to the room for which is was designed?

This fact and the very mixed results of the last “redecoration” highlights the real need for a trained professional curator onboard the ship. 

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