Beyond bricks and mortar Chapel: The $3.1 million renovation at the Naval Academy is revealing a rich history -- as well as some high jinks by midshipmen.

March 26, 1998|By Neal Thompson | Neal Thompson,SUN STAFF

Like a tyke on a jungle gym, Dale Waters scales the skeletal innards of this holy place.

He scampers up ladders and dangles from metal scaffolding, pointing out tidbits of history and arcana inside the Naval Academy's 94-year-old chapel -- a cracked and troubled landmark he is trying to save from further decay.

What began as rehabilitation of the enormous Tiffany stained-glass windows expanded until Waters was scouring dingy granite, grinding paint from 5-ton anchors and replacing long-lost modillions -- stone ornaments that fell from their moorings decades ago.

But Waters, whose Virginia company, Waters Craftsmen, specializes in courthouse and church restorations, has come across more than bricks and mortar under the chapel dome. And now, as the $3.1 million renovation nears its end, he can recount some of the stories discovered during his months of saving history.

Here is the altar where naval chaplains -- including John J. O'Connor, now New York's well-known cardinal -- once wore T-shirts beneath their religious raiment to withstand the dizzying heat before air conditioning was installed in 1992.

Here, he points out, is where midshipmen scribbled their names during illegal forays into the upper reaches of the dome, including someone who wrote, "Beale-feld, 1968," though the academy has no graduate by that name. They apparently had crawled through air ducts.

And here, atop the finial -- the highest point of the 187-foot-high dome -- is where midshipmen occasionally climbed to skewer something on the peak. Once it was a pumpkin. Another time it was a midshipman's white cap -- apparently in honor of a classmate who died.

"The story goes that it was put up there out of respect for her," said Bob Pokoj (pronounced po-kay), an academy construction engineer and Waters' project manager.

Making their mark

Waters, who needs scaffolding to reach the same apex, said he's amazed that Mids somehow scaled the second-highest peak in Annapolis (after the State House).

"It'll kill you if you fall," he said, looking earthward as he leaned out over the low railing of the bell tower on a recent windy afternoon.

Indeed, risking their lives for a prank is consistent with midshipmen's historical tendency to make their mark on some obscure piece of the academy.

"Same as writing your name in fresh concrete," Pokoj said.

But the chapel has most often been an object of Mids' respect, not graffiti.

It plays an important role in students' lives, not only as a place of religious worship but also as a symbolic place they'll return to as officers to marry and baptize their children. The baptismal font is made of wood from the centuries-old USS Constitution. Many Mids are also eulogized in the chapel.

Each May, in the days after graduation, the chapel turns out as many as 10 newly married graduates and their spouses -- Mids can't be married as students.

Mary Torrese, the academy's wedding coordinator since 1988, has ushered 2,000 couples through the wedding grinder, including the bridegroom who gave his bride her own dog tags, and the couple whose wedding cake was the color of Desert Storm fatigues.

A Parisian hotel

The chapel was built in 1904 during a renaissance period at the academy, which was riding high after the Navy's success in the Spanish-American War. Designed by architect Ernest Flagg, who redesigned the Yard about the same time, the chapel was modeled after the Hotel des Invalides in Paris and cost $400,000. It was expanded 35 years later.

The chapel's most famous feature has long been the occupant of the basement: Revolutionary War hero John Paul Jones, whose body lies in a crypt, embalmed.

Its renovation -- under the direction of architect Jim Rhodes of Beyer Blinder Belle in New York, who designed the overhaul of Ellis Island and the Statue of Liberty -- is part of a wider effort to modernize the academy's aging structures. A committee appointed last year to review problems at the school reprimanded academy officials for allowing a $324 million backlog of maintenance projects.

"The building was just on the edge of falling apart," Waters said. "As we got into it, we were finding more and more and more that was wrong. Mortar was coming loose. Stones were coming out." Buildings in general, he said, start to fall apart after about 80 years.

Waters said he hopes the restoration will change that and draw attention to some of the fine details of the chapel, such as the NTC three-layer-thick Tiffany stained-glass windows.

"They're valued at, like, $3,000 a square foot. They're like Rembrandts," he said.

Waters said his crews have used advanced and complicated techniques to stave off decay, including a just-invented breathable concrete patching material from the Netherlands and a high-tech cleansing method from Canada to scour old stone without damaging it.

And yet, except for new lighting to help the oxidized-green copper dome glow at night, Waters said the building won't look much different. Stained glass will shine brighter. A close inspection will show new-looking mortar between bricks.

But basically, it will be the same old building -- which is the whole point.

"This trick is to make it look like it hasn't been done," Waters said. "As if we'd never been here."

Pub Date: 3/26/98

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