Naval Academy to open new visitor center

ARCHITECTURE REVIEW

May 07, 1995|By Edward Gunts | Edward Gunts,Sun Staff Writer

For a maritime institution, the United States Naval Academy hasn't always made the most of its proximity to the Annapolis harbor. Much of the campus turns inward and away from the water, while some of the newer buildings actually block water views once enjoyed by all.

But the Navy has begun to make up for that deficiency with a beguiling new building that will open Friday as part of the academy's yearlong celebration of its 150th anniversary.

The $7.85 million Armel-Leftwich Visitor Center, located inside Gate 1 on the academy grounds, a short distance from City Dock, is one of the few unabashedly modern buildings to appear on the Annapolis waterfront in recent years.

For outsiders looking in, it's a gateway to campus, containing a theater, exhibits about life on "the Yard," a guide service, and a Navy-oriented souvenir shop -- all intended to help put a positive new face on the academy.

For insiders looking out, it's a window on the water, with a curving two-story glass wall that features panoramic views of Spa Creek, the Severn River, Greenbury Point and the Chesapeake Bay beyond.

More than anything else, the visitor center is a metaphor for the Naval Academy, a collage of architectural imagery inspired by the sea and those who navigate it. Architectural details make subtle references to everything from a ship's deck to sonar screens to the Herndon Monument, the 21-foot-tall obelisk whose scaling by plebes has become an annual rite of spring in Maryland.

With its aqueous shapes and shimmering surfaces, this is a building that will make waves. As the academy's 150th anniversary gift to itself, it also represents the beginnings of an important bridge between the campus and the larger Annapolis community.

Named after two 1953 Naval Academy graduates, Lyle O. Armel II and William G. Leftwich Jr., the project is part of a nationwide trend in which colleges are building impressive visitors' centers as a way to attract top-caliber students. In the MTV era, it's no longer enough to invite a prospect to the admissions office to stare at a rack of pamphlets.

For the prestigious Naval Academy, which receives 10 applications for every one it accepts, the center is meant to do more than drum up applications. With 1.5 million visitors a year, the academy is one of the biggest tourist attractions in the state capital and needed a better starting point for its tours. This was a chance to turn part of the campus around to face the water and create a front yard where a back yard used to be.

Finally, this is a feel-good project for the Navy, which doesn't always enjoy the smoothest of sailing in the publicity department. Newspapers carry plenty of negative news about the academy -- from students cheating on exams to buying stolen cars. A project such as the visitor center provides a chance to counter downbeat images by calling attention to the more positive, patriotic accomplishments of the academy, such as the number of graduates who went on to become astronauts.

Window on the water

Although it now occupies 338 acres, the academy began as a reservation of 9 3/4 acres on the east side of Annapolis. A former Army post that was established in 1808 and known as Fort Severn, the property was transferred to the Navy Department in 1845 for use as the United States Naval School. Today, the academy has 4,000 midshipmen (a term that applies to women as well as men, since women have been admitted since 1976), from every state in the union and 19 foreign countries. Its 150th anniversary is Oct. 10, 1995.

The job of designing a building that satisfied all of the Navy's objectives fell to Cochran Stephenson & Donkervoet Inc., the Baltimore-based firm that put a giant new window on the Maryland Science Center in the 1980s to reorient it from Key Highway to the Inner Harbor. In a sense, the visitor center represented the same sort of assignment, except that Naval Academy buildings are largely battleship gray instead of red brick, and even more impenetrable than Edward Durell Stone's octagonal modules on Key Highway.

Fred Hiser and Mickey Miller were the project architects for CS&D; Thomas Spies was the principal-in-charge. Other design team members included Swanson Design Inc., which was responsible for the retail fixtures and finishes; Douglas/Gallagher Washington, the exhibit designers; Kondos Lighting Associates of New York; and Graham Landscape Architecture of Annapolis. CER of Baltimore was the general contractor.

The visitor center was originally conceived as an addition to Ricketts Hall, home of the Naval Academy Athletic Association, and would have blocked views of the water for those approaching from King George Street. CS&D recommended shifting it to a site just south of Halsey Field House, where it would block no water views and could take advantage of links to that building.

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