New Exhibit: The Steinway Piano from the SS United States

The historic grand piano from the SS United States, once the world’s fastest ocean liner, has gone on public display at Steinway Hall, New York.

The SS United States’ piano on display at Steinway Hall, Manhattan, New York

The Steinway & Sons baby grand piano was designed for the ship’s Grand Ballroom and was recently acquired by the SS United States Conservancy, the organization tasked with restoring the historic luxury liner.

The SS United States was launched in 1951 and operated mostly across the Atlantic between the US and Europe. She held the record for both the eastbound and westbound crossings for some 34 years!

The SS United States arriving at Pier 86, West Side Manhattan (1957). Photo: Mark B. Perry

In 1969 she was taken out of service as the transatlantic run had become unprofitable. By the mid-1990s the liner had been stripped of her fittings and moved to Pier 82 on the Delaware River, where she remains to this day.

In 2011 the SS United States Conservancy purchased the ship, and set about raising the funds to restore this iconic ocean liner — America’s Flagship.

Ships’ Pianos

Like all the great ocean liners, the SS United States had several pianos on board. The Titanic had five Steinways!

A ship’s piano is slightly different from a traditional acoustic instrument. It needs to be able to withstand greater stresses. The casework is therefore strengthened. This is apparent in the photo of the SS United States’ piano. Both the treble and bass legs are far more substantial, and further reinforced with a cross tie. The castors have, of course, gone!

The designs for the SS United States specified that the ship must be 100% fireproof. So the liner’s architect, William Francis Gibbs, insisted that there should be no wood aboard the vessel. He asked Theodore Steinway to build a piano for the ship using aluminium. Steinway refused but set up a demonstration whereby a special fire-resistant mahogany was doused in gasoline and ignited. The wood didn’t burn, and Steinway was allowed to complete the piano using this material.

Ethel Merman performing with Duke Ellington at the piano in the liner’s Grand Ballroom

The piano, a baby grand (no. 337535) based on the Steinway Model S, was located in the Grand Ballroom. Many great stars travelled on the ship including Marilyn Monro, Judy Garland, Prince Rainier, Elizabeth Taylor and four US Presidents (Truman, Eisenhower, Kennedy, and Clinton). And to entertain them the ship’s operators, United States Lines, invited some of the greatest musical celebrities of the time to perform.

When the ship was decommissioned the piano was purchased by Mssrs. Michael Persico and Bob Scofield. They retained possession for some thirty years until, in 2017, the Conservancy acquired the piano. Steinway has stored the instrument ever since, pending the future re-opening of the liner.

Steinway Hall

The SS United States Conservancy, in conjunction with Steinway & Sons, recently decided to put the instrument on display to the general public, and so moved the piano to Steinway Hall in New York.

Steinway Hall (1133 6th Ave, Manhattan) is open to the public Monday through Friday 9am—6pm, Saturdays 9am—5pm and Sundays 12pm—5pm. The SS United States’ piano will be on display until the end of February 2020.

The SS United States is currently docked at Pier 82 on the Delaware River, Philadelphia, but access is restricted. The Conservancy website has more information, along with details of how you can help save this historic ocean liner.


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