Indulgence: SS Imperator / RMS Berengaria

Liners are magnificent entities — isolated cloisters of human amenity wrapped within a metal skin. But what goes through the minds of those responsible for designing passenger vessels? Today, the cruise industry is producing vessels at an alarmingly increased rate, copying and pasting cookie-cutter hull designs that, while proven and tested, make it all feel incredibly plastic and hollow compared to the old days. The interiors on some cruise liners are awe-inspiring, gorgeous and lush, while others are akin to a neon-drenched mall with no heartbeat or personality.

So, what's a firm example of the magic and creative spark that used to exist in shipbuilding?

SS Imperator. 

The pride of the Hamburg America Line and the first liner to surpass the RMS Titanic in length, Imperator was an imposing and inspiring sight upon her completion in June 1913. Her three brilliant gold funnels, gleaming white superstructure and the way her beautifully arranged aft decks mingled harmoniously with her lower promenade openings made her a head-turner wherever she went.

And when passengers boarded, one can imagine their heads spinning in all directions as they marvelled at this exquisite German monster's interiors. Designed by architect Charles Mewès, the Imperator's interiors were specifically designed to shake the Cunard line's design team out of their seats and catch the attention on would-be passengers for their ships. Kaiser Wilhelm II was adamant about Germany dominating the ocean liner trade as, at the time, magnificent new passenger vessels were seen as a country showing their strength. Hamburg America Line president Albert Ballin agreed, though stopped short of supporting the eventual shift into naval warfare and insisted that it ought to be nothing more than a bit of competition. It was intended from the get-go that Imperator would impress and attract the travelling public's chequebooks like a magnet of gold, silver and marble. In fact, she was the first of three increasingly massive ships to be built for the Germans, later followed by fleet-mates Vaterland and Bismark. 

Photo Credit: Atlantic Liners, Ultimate Imperator

Photo Credit: Atlantic Liners, Ultimate Imperator

Mewès' theme for the 50,000-ton German giant was 18th-century France and, if anything, the end result of his countless house of heartfelt devotion to the design of the Imperator made her a true floating palace. Huge, sprawling public spaces adorned with skylights and eloquent marble, wood panelling and plasterwork were all over the ship, some of which spanned multiple decks.

The Imperator's iconic Pompeiian-style swimming pool — festooned with vividly coloured tiles and a metric mountain of marble-work — is one such example of the overindulgence in extravagance present in the design of the liner. The first class dining room was absolutely transcendent, gleaming in creamy white marble and dome-topped. The ship's various lounges, fitness rooms and cabins were equally grand and imposing — much like boarding the Normandie over two decades later, surely. 

Photo Credit: Atlantic Liners, Ultimate Imperator

Photo Credit: Atlantic Liners, Ultimate Imperator

Specific design elements were implemented to maximize the "wow" effect the vessel could produce via increased space in public rooms. The three massive funnels were separated more widely than on other ships, allowing for skylights and, thus, larger public rooms which would take advantage of them. Staircases were meticulously fashioned and sculpted from marble, African hardwoods and other fine materials to give the liner an added air of regality.

Photo Credit: Atlantic Liners, Ultimate Imperator

Photo Credit: Atlantic Liners, Ultimate Imperator

Another decision made by Mewès was to make the social rooms onboard much more informal and comfortable than on Cunard's Lusitania, Mauretania, and presumably the soon-to-be-launched Aquitania. It was intended to invoke larger gatherings and also coerce husbands and wives to be together. When the time came for the men and women to have their own spaces, specially-created areas such as the men's smoking room or women's writing salon could easily accommodate for otherwise unregulated sexual segregation.

But Mewès didn't stop there. Not by far. Imperator had to be imposing and powerful-looking, both to instil a sense of security amongst passengers in a post-Titanic era and to flash German pride in strength in the face of the Cunard line. Take into account the length and sheer size of this monstrous vessel and, yes, you'd sense the imposition. However, there's one more element to Imperator's design that can't be ignored. In fact, it's what most people associate with the ship and, when seen, makes it recognizable amongst enthusiasts immediately.

Photo Credit: The Great War Blog

Photo Credit: The Great War Blog

A great, monstrous eagle, perched upon the tip of the bow with wings spread on either side. The crown-topped beast boasted a fierce, piercing stare and clutched a globe inscribed with the words "My field is the world", the Hamburg America Line's motto. This slightly off-putting beast had a real purpose other than to look terrifying to small children. In fact, the length of that great eagle made the Imperator longer than the RMS Aquitania, allowing the Germans to proclaim her as the largest ship in the world (which brought much publicity and business).

This didn't last, however, as the eagle had its wings clipped by a 1914 Atlantic storm. They're still at the bottom somewhere, and I wonder if they'll ever be found. At any rate, afterwards, the flightless beast was removed entirely, and the Germans simply shunted the upper bow forward to maintain that precious extra length. Golden scrollwork designs were applied to Imperator's bow where the wings of the eagle once were, similar to the brilliant design emblazoned upon the ship's stern. It made little to no difference to the ship's reputation, and no liners have been installed with such a gaudy publicity stunt on their bows since, so there's something to be thankful for, I suppose.

Imperator's impressive eagle figurehead, its wings shorn free by the North Atlantic. Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Imperator's impressive eagle figurehead, its wings shorn free by the North Atlantic. Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Bad luck continued to follow Imperator for most of her life as a German liner. While she was incredibly well-received by the travelling public and met with much enthusiasm and adoration, it seems Imperator and her crew just couldn't catch a break.

For one thing, Charles Mewès had installed such an astronomical amount of marble all over the upper superstructure's illustrious interiors. This resulted in the ship developing a permanent list to port which could never be fully corrected by the Germans — even after performing $200,000 worth of work that entailed the removal of tons of marble, cutting the ship's funnels by 10-15 feet, and even pouring 2,000 tons of cement in her double bottom to function as ballast and lower her unstable centre of gravity. The ship had also been subjected to several scares with small fires, and thus a comprehensive fire sprinkler system was installed as a preventative measure.

What really ended the Imperator's career as a German vessel was the war — ironic, given the Kaiser and Ballin's divided opinions on war but shared passion for the ocean liner industry.

Ballin, utterly distraught at the thought of having to hand over Imperator, Vaterland and Bismark in repayment for Germany's role in the wartook an overdose of sleeping pills just days before the armistice. In his passing, the peace-loving director of Hamburg America Line left parting words in a note.

Better an end with dread than dread without end.

Ballin's fears were well and truly realized and, as he predicted, all three liners were surrendered as prizes of war. In repatriation for the tragic and unnecessary loss of Cunard's Lusitania, the Imperator was handed over to Albert Ballin's rivals and became the RMS Berengaria. Requiring extensive renovations and repairs after initially arriving in poor condition, the newly-named Berengaria became Cunard's flagship in a twisted form of irony. She served Cunard admirably for several years, even serving during prohibition and the depression at reduced rates, resulting in her being nicknamed "Bargain-era". However, as electrical issues and age began to make the ship less of a head-turner and more of a stale ride through a bygone era, she was eventually sold for scrap. She was completely erased down to the waterline, with final demolition taking place in 1946, two World Wars and two lives later.

Imperator, repurposed as Cunard's flagship, Berengaria. Notice the exquisite gold scrollwork adorning her stern. Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons.

Imperator, repurposed as Cunard's flagship, Berengaria. Notice the exquisite gold scrollwork adorning her stern. Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons.

One thing I can say about Imperator / Berengaria is that, compared to other liners lost far too soon, she had a long and fruitful — if eventful — life as a passenger liner. She was the envy of many an oceangoing traveller for some time, and her charm and majesty endures to this day amongst us ocean liner enthusiasts, however few of us remain. Her illustrious and exciting career deserves to be respected and acknowledged, and honestly I consider her one of the finest, most beautifully designed liners of her day. Germany had a special ingredient with Albert Ballin and Charles Mewès, and with their deaths in 1918 and 1914 respectively, that special era of majestic German oceangoing atmosphere died with them. We need to remember that these liners were built by hand. As hard as the shipyard workers pounded those rivets and fashioned steel, the architects and designers of these grand vessels forced their minds and hearts in equal measure to venture into uncharted and exhilarating territory. It was hard work, and hell for many. But those who worked away at creating the next great source of seagoing pride for their respective countries had the fire in their hearts, hotter than any of the red-hot rivets hammered into the skeletons of these magnificent floating palaces. 

I have nothing but absolute respect for each and every single one of them, politics aside.