A Very Model of the Model Major Ship Model

The model of the Queen Mary being admired by the South Street Seaport Museum's Collection Manager, MaryElizabeth Nora, and by my wife, Jane Bevans

If you believe that the Queen Mary is moored at Long Beach, California, think again.

She is in dry dock at the South Street Seaport Museum, or at least in as much dry dock as a ship model can be docked in.

I came to learn of this extraordinary ship model because I remembered having been entranced by the models of great Cunard Liners in the Cunard booking hall at 25 Broadway in the mid-1950s, and I recently started making inquiries about the final disposition of the models. I couldn’t imagine that the models had been thrown in the dustbin when Cunard vacated that glorious space. The ship models might have been sold and scattered to the winds, or they might all be safely sitting in storage somewhere.

I have not yet ascertained where the majority of the models are – even if they are – but models of the Queen Mary and Queen Elizabeth have survived, and when I learned that the model of the Queen Mary was in storage at the South Street Seaport Museum and I was offered the opportunity to see it, I jumped at the chance.

The models that I remember were fabulous, but I must confess that I don’t remember any as impressive as this one. When Peter Stanford, one of the founders of the Seaport, used to gaze on this model, he said that he would get an “unreasonable but perhaps understandable feeling that she was prepared, all 21 feet of her, to make her own transAtlantic crossing, though not perhaps at the original ship’s dazzling speed.”

According to Dan Finamore, a curator at the Peabody Essex Museum in Salem, Massachusetts, the models of the Queen Mary and Queen Elizabeth were built by the top British ship model firm of Basset Lowke just after World War II, and they were indeed special. The specific goals of the models was to reintroduce the Queen Mary to peacetime service, having been used as a troop ship during the war, with the Queen Elizabeth actually being introduced to passenger service. She had been launched in 1938 but entered service as a troop transport in 1940, never seeing peacetime service until the war was over.

The models happily sat in Cunard’s glorious booking hall near Bowling Green until the company moved its booking office to 555 Fifth Avenue in 1968, and the models of the Queen Mary and Queen Elizabeth accompanied the move. But then, in 1974, Cunard moved out of that office, and the orphaned models were put up for adoption.

According to Mr. Finamore, Francis Lee (Pen) Higginson, a Peabody Essex Museum trustee who “was the consummate Cunard aficionado, … had told someone in the (Cunard) company that if they ever wanted to get rid of the models he would take one. Well, he got a phone call … notifying him that if he wanted one he could have it, but he had to get it out of the building by the next day because their lease was expiring. He arranged to have the model of the Queen Elizabeth shipped” to the museum, where she is now ensconced in a new wing.

And the other orphan of the storm? So far, I have not been able to get to the bottom of the story, which is becoming lost in an ever-thickening pea souper. Presumably, arrangements had been made for the model to go to the Seaport, and no doubt the same sort of scheduling gauntlet was thrown down to the Seaport Museum as had been thrown down to the Peabody Essex Museum. One fact is certain. With the expiration of Cunard’s lease, the space had to be vacated. It was a now-or-never deal, and it seems that there was a miscommunication over the pick-up time. The model was put out on the curb, and there she sat overnight.

Having spent the night unprotected before being salvaged and “steered” to the Seaport, as Dan Finamore described the scene, the model of the Queen Mary was “not nearly as well preserved as the Queen Elizabeth had been. Missing were many lifeboats, davits and other moveable deck elements.” Considering the facts, it’s a miracle that those were the only problems.

The good news is that this fabulous model has been restored to its former glory by the Seaport Museum. When the museum is stoking those fires and has gotten up full steam under its marvelous new management, with luck it will be full steam ahead to public display for the Queen Mary.

Ave Maria Regina.