The Art and Architecture of the Nieuw Amsterdam

The Nieuw Amsterdam, of all the Depression era ships of state, led a charmed existence. Introduced in recessionary 1938, her pre-war service life consisted of a single brilliant year and can be seen as the final elegant flourish of the golden days day of travel before the war, postwar austerity and jet travel permanently altered the way people traveled.  Neither the largest nor the fastest, the Nieuw Amsterdam earned her place in liner history by being  the ultimate combination of elegance, comfort, and practical design in a three class ship.

1. Touring The Ship of Tomorrow

In her original configuration, the Nieuw Amsterdam carried 1220 passengers in three classes, with 566 in First; 455 in Tourist and 209 in Third.  She was created with cruising as well as crossing in mind, and so her upper two classes were designed to be as compatible as possible for one-class voyages. First class cabins were paneled in wood, while similarly sized rooms in Tourist were finished with a composite surface, referred to as “Muralart” in press releases. Bathrooms in both classes were of the same size and, again, differed only in finish.  All of her First class cabins came with private facilities, as did more than half of those in Tourist; unique to the  Nieuw Amsterdam was that a number of Third class cabins on B Deck, meant to be interchangeable with those in Tourist, also had private shower and toilet facilities. ‘Though the Nieuw Amsterdam had nothing aboard to match the Grande Luxe suites of the Normandie, she could boast of uniformly large First class and Tourist class cabins. Her Third class cabins were austere but comfortable, and in addition to the two and four berth configurations, there were also a handful of Third class ‘singles,’ another possible Nieuw Amsterdam first.

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The liner’s public rooms reflected the growing shift towards simplicity of design in the late 1930s. The stark elegance of postwar liners had not yet arrived, but Holland-America’s  flagship bore a smoother and , to some eyes at least, less garish interpretation of Art Deco than most of her contemporaries. Color schemes were deliberately muted and, in many cases, monochromatic, with the intent of allowing the passengers to provide the sparkle and color to the rooms.

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H.A.L. was justifiably proud of its new flagship and during her single year of pre-war Transatlantic service at least four lavishly illustrated brochures were issued.

The new Holland-America Line flagship, “Nieuw Amsterdam” represents more than the emphasis on historical association that her name implies. She is a modern spiritual counterpart of her city-godparent a vibrant youthful expression from the  old country to the youth of the new; bringing the common heritage of each into the vivid spotlight of the present.

The breadth of vision, and the novel treatment of traditional problems of marine architecture complement, in an amazing manner, the vigor, bold enterprise, and confidence that are the dominating characteristics of twentieth century Manhattan.  Sixteen architects, judiciously chosen from the  younger generation, were entrusted with this task. Working independently with their own staffs of artists, they solved their own problems in their own way. The result is comparable to the finished performance of a massed choir with all its component parts in proper relation to the whole.

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Before proceeding to a description of the public rooms, and the more impressive works of art, it may be well to include a reference to an outstanding architectural theme. The motivating idea in many of the rooms was to make them definitely subjective to the passenger, to make their decorations vivacious in his presence. Subdued color schemes and motifs were purposefully introduced for their contributing influence to bright chatter and gay clothes;. The artists, in an inspired moment, resorted to a  thoroughly professional solution of the problem. They used the rooms future occupants as their foreground; the room itself as the middle distance, and its decorative appurtenances for background.

A brief history of the ship through 1947.

The Nieuw Amsterdam, 36,667 gross-ton flagship of the Holland-America Line made her initial postwar sailing from Rotterdam and Southampton  on October 29, 1947 and arrived at New York, her namesake city, on November 5.

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On this notable ship, the hopes of the whole of Holland are pinned to recapture some of the high class luxury ocean traffic which she enjoyed before the war, and which is an important “export” item in the country’s economy.

She is the fourth reconverted passenger vessel to rejoin the company’s post-War fleet. Her running mates are the Veendam, 15,450 gross tons, which reentered service in March of this year, and the companionships Westerdam, 12, 149 gross tons, running since July 1946, and the Noordam, 10,726 gross tons, since August of the same year. The Veendam carries 552 passengers in first and tourist classes, and the other approximately 150 in “First Class only” accommodations.

The addition of the Nieuw Amsterdam to the seventy-five year old route will increase the berth capacity by 1,228 in First, Cabin and Tourist classes, formerly Cabin, Tourist and Third.

The flagship’s gross registered tonnage of 36,667 (an increase of 380 tons over her pre-war measurement) makes her the third largest vessel at present in normal transatlantic operation.

Her builders’ claim that the Nieuw Amsterdam is probably the most thorough re-conversion job ever made is supported by the fact that eighteen months were consumed in restoring her from the effects of hard usage which 378,361 troops and others gave her in five and a half years of continuous war service, over a distance steamed of 530, 452 miles. Every square inch of her interior and exterior received the same meticulous care and attention for which Dutch shipyard workers are world renowned.

In addition to restoring the vessel to her pre-war standard of exceptional luxuriousness, several new features have been added. These include the complete  redesign and redecoration of the main public apartment, the Grand Hall, on the Promenade Deck. The color scheme has been entirely changed, and the room has received new carpeting, furniture and drapes. There are two entirely new rooms. A second, air conditioned, motion picture theater, for use of Cabin and Tourist class passengers makes her the only vessel afloat to be equipped with two such popular entertainment features. A Tropical Bar has been constructed for particular appeal to cruise passengers, on the Main Deck, aft, adjacent to a newly installed Delft-tiled swimming pool. Another innovation is the enlargement of the Cabin class lounge with “wings” extending to the sides of the vessel, following arrangements of the First Class smoking room, which was so popular before the war.

The other public rooms, such as the domed dining saloon, Ritz-Carlton room, smoking room; two indoor pools, Turkish Baths, and the twelve unique cabins de luxe, have been fully restored.

The vessel made a great reputation for herself with the traveling public in seventeen and a half round trips of the Atlantic and on several cruises until the fall of 1939 when war broke out in Europe. During the “phony war” period she was tied up at her Hoboken pier, but in the early part of 1940, Holland still being neutral, she was scheduled for a short series of West Indies cruises to neutral ports. The Netherlands was invaded by the Nazis on May 10, 1940. The Nieuw Amsterdam was between the two Venezuelan ports of la Guaira and Puerto Cabello, with 600 American tourists. The cruise was immediately curtailed and the vessel raced back to New York where she arrived on May 14. This was the day the terrible “token bombing” of Rotterdam occurred and every member of the crew, from Captain Johannes J. Bijl down, was inflamed with rage. They got their revenge alter when their ship became a large factor in the downfall of the Third Reich by the services she performed in the  Allied cause.

The largest vessel in the Netherlands merchant marine was converted into a troop transport in September 1940 and, together with some three million tons of other Dutch shipping, did an outstanding job. She carried, from September 12, 1940 to April 10, 1946, 378,361 persons on errands of war, steaming 530,452 miles or a distance equal to twenty-one times around the world. This represented an average of 8,599 persons on each of forty-four voyages of 12,056 miles apiece!

The work of breaking out the beautiful public rooms and living quarters on the  ship was performed largely in Singapore by Chinese labor. That which could not be removed was protected as well as possible, but much of it suffered grievous damage through haste, carelessness and misuse. Furniture, carpets and decorations remained in piles, in all kinds of weather, on the Singapore docks for weeks. It was later reloaded into the ship’s holds and put ashore again in Australia where it remained for two years before being transported to San Francisco for storage.

Part of the breaking out for war service included the complete stripping of the whole of “C” Deck, and part of “B” Deck, of cabins , and fittings for more than a thousand hammocks installed. The Grand hall was turned into a “duplex dormitory” to accommodate 600 men in three tiered standees. The motion picture theater slept 386 and each cabin de luxe 22 officers.

She carried Australian, British, Canadian, Netherlands, New Zealand and South African troops, prisoners of war, and repatriated persons.

Fifteen weeks were required to break out the troop equipment and fittings, such as kitchens, wash places, special electrical installations, hammocks, alarm installations, and defensive armament (there were 36 guns) standees, etc. the breaking out list comprised thirty eight pages in single space type. By the beginning of August, 1946, the vessel was ready for rebuilding.

In the preceding February, March and April, 200,0000 cubic feet (about 2,000 tons measurement) of furniture and decorations had been brought back to Rotterdam from the U.S. in various ships. This was the equipment which had been taken out nearly six years before, and it was in poor condition. There were over 3,000 chairs and 500 tables, for instance, which were sent back to the original contractors for repair and reupholstering. Twenty percent had to be entirely replaced. Factories all over Holland tooth combed their storage facilities for material and fabrics, much of which had been concealed from the Germans during the occupation. In many cases, small metal parts, such as door hinges, and clamps, had to be made by hand because machinery for their manufacture had been stolen by the enemy.

The entire rubber flooring of the ship was renewed and eighty five percent of the carpeting. All steel work was scaled and preserved and all pipes throughout the vessel cleaned. All ceilings and walls were removed; all closets and fixtures in cabins replaced, and all of the vessel’s 374 private bathrooms were entirely replaced with new equipment, obtained in the face of discouraging shortages of material and skilled help. In 268 first class cabins, the  irremovable wooden paneling, which had been scarred scratched and mutilated, was planed down to half its thickness and then refinished and re-lacquered. All electric wiring throughout the ship was renewed, a stupendous job.

Other items which made the rebuilding of the ship a more difficult job than the original construction included: 12,000 square feet of glass renewed, which had been painted over for the blackout and had cracked in the tropic sun; decks renewed with 2,700 square feet of teakwood, and all rails scraped free of carved initials; rubber packing for 2,200 portholes replaced and the entire brass work re-burnished.

(Holland-America Line press release, November 5, 1947)

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Room Plans


Prewar Gallery

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