Monday, May 30, 2016

Journey of the SS United States' Bell

SS United States' Bell in Trible Library, 2013

Like most items related to the SS United States (including the ship itself), the United States' bell has had a couple of owners and an interesting story along the way.

From 1950 to 1952, the new superliner SS United States was built at the Newport News Shipbuilding & Drydock Co. in Newport News, Virginia. Once completed, she hit the Atlantic for a record-breaking crossing and an accident-free service career. Along for the ride was the the ship's bell. It remained on the ship throughout her service career. When the ship was laid up in 1969, the bell stopped ringing, but remained on board.

1984 rolled around, and the ship's current owners were running out of money. They decided to sell the interiors in an auction. This included the ship's bell. The bell was the most expensive item sold, won for $30,000. Its new owner was Dr. Sarah E. Forbes, a Newport News physician, who had bought a huge chunk of the ship's items.

Forbes used everything she bought to populate her Windmill Point Restaurant, which opened 1987 in Nags Head, North Carolina. Everything from the tables, chairs, bar (kidney-shaped), art, railing, signage, a few doors, even some of the kitchen appliances were from the ship. It became a well-beloved spot in the Outer Banks. (See some pictures of the interiors HERE). The ship's bell was placed by the entrance and was one of the first treasures you could see as you walked through the front doors.

(Why called Windmill Point? The building was originally built in the 1970's as a store to help restart the Outer Banks use of windmill power. An 18th century replica windmill was built outside. It didn't catch on. After the the shop closed, the windmill remained and became a local landmark.)

In 2007, the restaurant closed. Forbes sold the property to the Dare County Tourism Board and the city of Nags Head in late 2008, taking the memorabilia with her. In March 2011, after no one wanted to use it and it was deemed being too expensive to renovate ($300,000), the Windmill Point Restaurant was given to the local fire department to do fire training. The building was burned down. (The windmill was saved, moved to The Island Farm on Roanoke Island)

Forbes decided to donate a large amount of her United States items to the Mariners' Museum in Newport News. Some she kept in storage, which was later put on auction in 2015.

One particular item, however, made its way to Christopher Newport University (CNU). Although she never enrolled there, Forbes was a lifelong supporter of her hometown's college. She donated money to start raising money for a new science building and bell tower. Along with it, she gave the school the SS United States' bell to be used in the tower.

Concept Art for CNU's Bell Tower, c. 2011

In the Fall of 2011, The Mary Brock Forbes Hall opened at CNU. Forbes had requested the building be named in memory of her mother. Unfortunately, Sarah Forbes did not live to see it completed. She died in a car accident earlier that year in June.

CNU's Mary Brock Forbes Hall at night

The Bell Tower would come a few years later. Until it was built, the bell was kept in the Paul & Rosemary Trible Library on campus.

SS United States' bell in case in the
Trible Library, 2013

Construction on the tower would start October 2013. In the final stretch of the build, the bell made the move to its new home in April 2014. The whole tower was complete in time for May's Spring Commencement.

CNU's Bell Tower in Hoinkes Plaza

The Bell Tower features clocks on all four sides and a Carillon. The SS United States' bell is only rung for special occasions, such as Commencement, sports wins, or other notable moments. To prevent wear in one spot, the bell's yoke is specially designed to turn the bell every time it is hit.

SS United States Bell in CNU's Bell Tower

It is my hope, if the ship is saved, the university would consider returning the bell to the ship. I believe it is what Sarah Forbes would have wanted. The Mariners' Museum seems to agree, earlier this year donating all of their SSUS collection to the Conservancy.

I couldn't find a video anywhere of the bell ringing. So, I made a quick video from CNU's 2015 Commencement of the bell ringing

Sources Used:
Investor sought to keep N.C. restaurant site going
Windmill Point set to go out in a blaze of glory
Spotlight on Sarah E. Forbes, MD
Sarah E. Forbes Obituary
Sarah Forbes: A lasting legacy at CNU
Forbes Hall officially opens at Christopher Newport University
Goodbye, Windmill Point
Defining Significance: H. Dieter & Mary Elizabeth Hoinkes
Personal CNU memories

(The Windmill Point Restaurant website is still alive! Check it out HERE.)

No comments:

Post a Comment