This year marks the 150th anniversary of the United States Naval Academy. It was established in 1845 at what was then the Army's Fort Severn. Today, the Navy and Marine Corps officer training school -- and one of the country's top undergraduate institutions -- now covers more than 300 acres south of the Severn River, much of it land reclaimed from the water.
The physical size of the Naval Academy alone may intimidate some visitors. Not to worry. Guided tours of the grounds are available for those who do not want to do sightseeing on their own. And this month, a much-needed new visitors center was inaugurated.
An estimated 1.5 million people visit the academy each year. Among them are graduates and their families -- and many starry-eyed youngsters who are considering applying to become midshipmen. The new $7 million facility will make orientation much easier.
"The Naval Academy has always welcomed visitors," said Capt. William T. R. Bogle, commandant of midshipmen. "But now we have a first-class visitors center to make the visit more memorable."
Overlooking Annapolis harbor and situated next to Halsey Field House, the new two-story visitors center employs architecture to lend a nautical theme. Curved surfaces evoke the sea and waves. Tiles on the atrium floor resemble a sonar screen.
The building has been divided into several areas, allowing visitors to roam wherever they please. An 84-seat theater on the first level shows a 12-minute orientation film, "To Lead and to Serve." Touch-sensitive video maps highlight the history and significance of academy buildings.
Museum-quality exhibits fill the second level, and a horn-of-plenty gift shop sells Navy memorabilia. The academy thinks the shop will be a winner and predicts annual gross sales of up to $4 million. Downtown Annapolis may have its share of T-shirt shops, but the academy should cash in on the demand for logo athletic apparel, as many other colleges do.
The new center will be quite an asset for Annapolis as well. Because it is open seven days a week, it is one of the few places where a visitor can always count on getting information. As Annapolis' major industry and draw, the academy is also often a visitor's first stop. The new center highlights an important Maryland institution that has become so intertwined with the state capital city that their names have become synonymous.