The past is present in Naval Academy houses

July 23, 1995|By Kris Antonelli | Kris Antonelli,Sun Staff Writer

Shortly after settlers rushed to claim land in the Oklahoma of 1893, Naval officers and their families were lining up to mark their own territory -- the newly completed red-brick duplexes at the edge of the Naval Academy parade field.

The neighborhood soon became known as "Oklahoma" because the arrival of all the wagons with household goods waiting for the gates to open reminded people of the land rush in the Oklahoma Territory," said James W. Cheevers, senior curator at the Naval Academy Museum.

Now, the houses on Upshur and Rodgers roads are among the oldest buildings on the yard. With their wrap around porches, intricate woodwork and numerous bedrooms, they offer a glimpse into life at the academy at the turn of the century, when it was common for large, middle-class families to have live-in servants. And they have another, probably unintended, effect.

"This has cured me of wanting a big house," said Janet Rodenbarger who lives with her husband, Capt. Syd W. Rodenbarger, and their two children in a 4,000-square-foot house on Upshur Road. "This is plenty to keep clean."

Mrs. Rodenbarger's home has seven bedrooms, five bathrooms and five fireplaces, two of which are working. It is the fireplaces, with their oak and cherry hand-carved mantles that catch a visitor's eye.

The living room fireplace once was covered over with white paint, but a former occupant scraped off the paint, revealing a carved lion's head, rosettes and other decorations, Mrs. Rodenbarger said.

In the late 1800s, housing for academy staff members and their families was scarce on the yard, historians say. Many officers were forced to live in Annapolis, paying rents often inflated by landlords who knew their tenants had little choice over where they could live.

To solve the problem, the federal government bought 12 acres from St. John's College in 1891, according to Vicki Escude, author of a book, thus far unpublished, on the historic homes and life at the academy.

The Navy hired O. von Nerta, a Washington, D.C., architect, to design the new homes that would be built on streets named after previous superintendents. The first two homes on Upshur Road, named after the second superintendent, George P. Upshur, were completed in 1893 and the last in 1899, Ms. Escude wrote. The second street was named after Admiral Christopher P. Rodgers, the superintendent from 1878 to 1881.

The large, single-family home at 29 Upshur Road was reserved for the superintendent from 1902 to 1909 while what is now Buchanan House was under construction.

While the houses in the neighborhood were being built, other problems in the yard surfaced, according to Mrs. Escude's book.

The buildings, once part of Fort Severn and some more than 100 years old, were run down beyond repair. Because of inadequate plumbing, raw sewage ran through the streets into the Severn River, leaving a stench in the air, and backed up in the pipes inside some buildings.

Navy officials appointed a commission to solve these problems. The commission hired New York architect Ernest Flagg to

completely redesign the academy's buildings and grounds, Mrs. Escude said.

His master plan required that the academy grounds be expanded, with landfills along its river and harbor shores. The buildings, in the French Renaissance style, were in units. With the exception of two guard houses, the old Fort Severn was demolished by 1909 when all buildings in the Flagg plan were completed at a cost of $8.5 million, according to Jack Sweetman's book, "The U.S. Naval Academy, An Illustrated History."

Mr. Flagg designed the chapel on the central high ground where it stands today. He planned a new dormitory for 480 midshipmen -- what is now Bancroft Hall -- and a group of academic buildings that still stand. He also planned officer housing -- dubbed Captains Row -- along Porter Road. Those homes were completed in the early 1900s.

Mr. Flagg also designed Buchanan House, the 16,000-square-foot mansion, completed in 1906 for $77,539, for the superintendents.

Unfortunately for Mr. Flagg and some superintendents, the Board of Visitors decided the house was too grand for the superintendent. For three years, it was used as sick quarters until the board members changed their minds and allowed the superintendent to move in.

Since Buchanan House and the Captain's Row homes were completed in the early part of the 20th century, dozens of Naval officers and their families have moved in and out, including the commandant of midshipmen, Captain Randy Bogle and his wife, JoAnn, of 14 Porter Road.

"It's pretty exciting to live here," Mrs. Bogle said. "This is certainly the biggest house we have lived in. A few months ago, I had a tea for some of the young Navy wives and I was quick to point out that this is not the norm for Navy housing."

The 8,000-square-foot house has seven fireplaces, two of which are working. There are two kitchens, one on the main floor and the original kitchen in the basement with a dumbwaiter that was used to send food to the main floor.

There is a large receiving room, library, living room, dining room and kitchen, all with 16-foot ceilings, and an enclosed porch on the first floor.

The house also has two staircases, one in the kitchen that was used by servants and the main staircase with a cherry-wood railing in the center of the house. There are voice tubes in the wall to summon servants and a button in the library to buzz servants in the kitchen.

"When we first moved in here, it was so overwhelming," Mrs. Bogle said. "It's just the two of us and for a while, it didn't seem like home. But after we had some friends visit us last fall, it became our home. It is the memories that make this a home."

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