The Newport News Mariners Museum ranks with the best institutions dedicated to preserving maritime history. The many artifacts, paintings, and photographs are tastefully displayed and are accompanied by historically and technically correct descriptions. One exhibit that honors an individual attracted my attention. I once met William Francis Gibbs the famous, and some say eccentric, naval architect who led Gibbs & Cox, Inc. when than firm produced many noteworthy designs including the one for the Liberty ships of World War II.
In 1955 I was assigned planning responsibilities in Boston Naval Shipyard for ship construction and conversions. The yard was then building the first of a class of amphibious vessels, USS SUFFOLK COUNTY (LST 1176). As part of my indoctrination I visited Gibbs & Cox, Inc., then located near Manhattan’s Downtown Athletic Club. Friendly Casey Alstein, after presenting the project’s status, led me to the drafting room for the purpose of meeting the design supervisors. In one respect it was like stepping into a business establishment in nineteenth-century London.
The slanted drawing boards were organized in rows and the draftsmen were working while sitting on high stools or standing. Mr. Gibbs, busy writing, was at a desk on a platform behind them. Simply by turning around he had an excellent view of the Hudson River. Alongside his desk was a tripod-mounted telescope presumably for watching passing ships, but that some swore he also used for monitoring drawing progress.
I entered from the opposite end of the room and the supervisors gathered around. Casey and the others seemed to be a bit surprised when Mr. Gibbs descended from his aerie and walked the length of the room just to meet me. He was gracious and after some conversation about my status, per his inquiry I told him where my predecessor was assigned. Mr. Gibbs, while smiling, said, “That’s one disadvantage you Navy officers have. When you really get to know a job you are transferred.”
Since his observation seemed to be in a humorous vein I replied, “It is not always a disadvantage Mr. Gibbs. For example, if I worked for you and we didn’t see eye to eye, neither one of us would have to put up with the other for more than three years.”
The people behind Mr. Gibbs laughed without making noise. Those in front didn’t dare laugh and seemed about to burst. Mr. Gibbs moved one hand to his chin, tilted his head a bit, and started back to his roost. As he walked away we overheard him say, “I never thought of that. I never had to think of that!”
A minute latter in the hallway, I was being congratulated for “telling him off.”
Until then I did not have the slightest idea that he was regarded as the grand-exalted curmudgeon.
Some who wrote about Mr. Gibbs’ edict that there would be no wood in SS UNITED STATES mentioned that the only exceptions that he was forced to allow were the butchers’ chopping blocks and the pianos.
According to the Gibbs & Cox supervisors, material lists for all outfit drawings had to be personally approved by Mr. Gibbs. Thus, the outfit designers conceived and contributed to a pool. The money would go to the first one of them who had something made of wood approved by the boss. The winner was the outfit detailer who specified the butchers’ chopping blocks. But before Mr. Gibbs yielded, they said, he caused a fruitless search for blocks made from a non-flammable material. Thus stung, he specified that the wood must be impregnated with a fire retardant and then announced that there would be no more exceptions.
Soon afterwards another detail designer proposed conventional grand pianos. Mr. Gibbs refused to approve the material list and personally wrote to a noted piano manufacturer. He asked if pianos could be made from a nonflammable material, a plastic perhaps. To the delight of the Gibbs & Cox outfit designers the piano manufacturer’s response tersely advised, “Yes we could. But the piano would sound like hell!”
Copyright © 2005 (text only) by Louis D. Chirillo