A landmark in need of renewal Naval Academy Chapel: A nationally recognized authority is guiding the preservation effort.

Urban Landscape

October 26, 1995|By Edward Gunts | Edward Gunts,SUN STAFF

IT'S THE SETTING for nearly 200 weddings a year -- and as many as 11 a day for a brief period in the spring.

It's the center of religious life for thousands of midshipmen at the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis.

Now the Naval Academy Chapel also has become the subject of a meticulous restoration effort, led by the same firm that helped restore New York's Grand Central Terminal and the main building on Ellis Island.

Beyer Blinder Belle of New York, a nationally recognized authority on historic preservation, is guiding a multimillion dollar restoration of the 2,400-seat stone chapel.

Designed by Ernest Flagg and dedicated in 1908, the Beaux Arts style building with the green copper dome is one of the most visible and popular tourist attractions at the academy, drawing more than a million visitors a year. Its stained glass windows are by Tiffany. The sarcophagus of John Paul Jones, the Revolutionary War hero who is considered the founder of the Navy, is in the basement.

In 1940, the chapel was enlarged by Philippe Cret so it is a Latin Cross in plan rather than a Greek cross. Midshipmen were required to attend services there until the 1960s, and the nondenominational services still are well-attended.

In recent years, the chapel has suffered from leaks and deterioration of stonework, prompting the academy to hire experts.

Marie Price, director of the engineering division in the public works department, characterized the work as normal maintenance and repair.

"This is a 90-year-old building and it is experiencing routine, standard deterioration," Ms. Price said. "The masonry needs to be repointed. There are some pinhole-sized leaks in the copper dome. The bronze doors have sagged over time and need to be rehung. We have done a very extensive study. The architects identified every problem the building has."

Beyer Blinder Belle is preparing construction documents that will be put out to bid around September 1996, she said, for work to begin that fall or in early 1997.

Named 1995 Firm of the Year by the American Institute of Architects, Beyer Blinder Belle specializes in restoration and adaptive reuse of historic buildings. Other projects include Schermerhorn Row at South Street Seaport; Yale University's Art and Architecture Building; and a plan for adapting the Erie Canal for passenger boats.

James W. Rhodes, associate partner of Beyer Blinder Belle and project manager for the chapel restoration, said the building has been restored periodically since the 1940s but does not have all of its original detail. He said it lost much of its terra cotta ornamentation by the late 1920s -- including 72 modillions at the base of the dome -- a result of water damage and deterioration.

He said leaks have developed near where the modillions were removed and the surface was patched poorly with cement. Two 10-foot-high armored figures were lost when the chapel was expanded in the late 1930s.

Beyer Blinder Belle has recommended that the missing terra cotta ornamentation be replicated. It would like the academy to remove black iron grilles from around the stained glass windows and replace them with glass shields.

In general, Mr. Rhodes said, the firm's goal is to repair damaged areas of the chapel and "begin to recapture its ornamentality" wherever possible. But "we should not be doing anything that Ernest Flagg and Philippe Cret haven't already done," he said.

Meanwhile, the academy wants to keep disruptions to a minimum. Every spring, for example, the chapel becomes the setting for a succession of rapid-fire weddings.

Because midshipmen aren't allowed to get married until after they graduate, many do so right after they are commissioned. For several days each spring, the chapel has nearly one wedding an hour, from morning to night.

"Our plan is not to interrupt the services," Ms. Price said. "We want to keep the building attractive and operating, as much as we can."

The new sanctuary at Brown Memorial Woodbrook Presbyterian Church in Baltimore County, designed by Ziger/Snead Architects, won the grand prize in the 1995 design awards program sponsored by the Baltimore chapter of the American Institute of Architects. Henry H. Lewis Contractors was the general contractor.

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