Even though I moved here over two years ago, I still think of myself as the new kid – and I’m still learning the neighborhood and its history. And that history is in more places than you’d think. Take the steam whistles at Pratt – this was the first New Year’s Eve I saw them, and I got a huge kick out of sounding a couple of them. A couple days later, though, I wondered where those whistles had come from. As it turns out, one of them had quite a history before Pratt’s Chief Engineer Conrad Milster got his hands on it; it was the steam whistle for the ocean liner S.S. Normandie..
In her day, the Normandie was the largest and fastest ship in the world, and still holds the record for the most powerful steam-powered passenger ship ever built. The French build her to take advantage of American tourism – the financial boom of the 1920’s gave more Americans than ever the money to afford luxury travel, and European countries were building lavish transatlantic cruise ships to cater to the craze. On her maiden voyage transatlantic voyage in 1935, the Normandie proved sailed from Normandy, France to New York City in only four days, setting a new record for fastest transatlantic voyage.
But the Normandie wasn’t just fast – she was gorgeous. Passengers enjoyed an outdoor and indoor pool, chapel, theater, moviehouse, and even a garden. Some rooms even came with private dining rooms and music rooms complete with baby grand pianos. French artist Jean de Brunhoff, creator of Babar the elephant, was personally commissioned for a series of Babar murals in the childrens’ areas. The first class dining hall – almost the length of a football field – seated 700 diners and was lit with lamps encased in huge glass pillars, earning the Normandie the nickname “Ship of Light”. The luxury attracted passengers like Ernest Hemingway, Noël Coward, Fred Astaire, Walt Disney, James Stewart, and even the von Trapp family Singers.
Sadly, the Normandie’s life on the sea was short –World War II caught her in New York, and the U.S. Navy took her over as a troopship. While she was being refitted for combat, sparks from a welding torch set fire to a stack of life preservers in the first-class dining hall. The ship’s sprinkler system had been disconnected, and firefighters were unable to contain the blaze. She finally capsized and sank onto her side in the Hudson, remaining there until she was sold for salvage in 1946.
Some of the interior décor had been saved and sold at a special auction beforehand, though – the lighted pillars, some of the furniture, and several statues and other art pieces which decorated the ship. Another bit of the Normandie is elsewhere in Brooklyn; the church doors of Our Lady of Lebanon Maronite Catholic Church, in Brooklyn Heights, used to be the doors to the first class dining room.
And the whistle ended up here in Clinton Hill, sounding off again every New Year’s Eve.