Dome, sweet dome

November 12, 1993

The most imposing building on the U.S. Naval Academy's sprawling campus in Annapolis is the 85-year-old chapel, easily recognizable from its copper-covered dome towering 192 feet toward the sky.

Shaped like a Roman cross, the building has long been one of the most popular tourist attractions in one of the most popular tourist cities in Maryland. Countless weddings and funerals have taken place in its sanctuaries, which boast large stained glass windows designed in the studios of Louis Comfort Tiffany.

The chapel also contains the crypt of John Paul Jones, the gallant and colorful Revolutionary officer who gave the Navy its earliest traditions of heroism and victory. The crypt's display includes papers signed by John Hancock and George Washington and a dress sword presented to the naval hero by King Louis XVI of France.

Toward the end of his life, John Paul Jones became an adviser to Catherine the Great of Russia. He served Catherine with the approval of President Thomas Jefferson, and she rewarded his work with the rank of admiral. Even so, the American was never fully accepted by his Russian rivals, and he left that country deeply embittered. He died in France in 1792 and was buried in Paris. His remains were later brought to the Naval Academy and, in 1913, they were enshrined in a sculpted marble sarcophagus.

Many recent visitors have been pained by the deteriorating appearance of the chapel, which was enlarged in 1940 to increase seating capacity to 2,500. Brick and masonry are crumbling, leaks have developed in the patina-green copper dome and water stains appear on the exterior concrete. Fortunately, help is on the way: The New York architectural firm of Beyer Blinder Belle has been awarded a $196,000 contract to plan for renovations.

The design consultants have about three months to prepare their report on the chapel's condition and on the cost estimate for repairs. What happens then is still cloudy because no money has been allocated by the government for the actual renovation work.

This assessment of the chapel's condition comes none too soon. Once it is completed, the academy must move with urgency to secure funds because the longer the deterioration continues, the higher will be the repair bill for this important building, the spiritual and aesthetic heart of the campus.

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