An anchor for Jewish midshipmen and others

ARCHITECTURE

Naval Academy to dedicate uplifting 410-seat chapel

Architecture

September 18, 2005|By Edward Gunts | Edward Gunts,SUN ARCHITECTURE CRITIC

From the outside, the newest building at the U.S. Naval Academy gives little hint of the unprecedented role it will play on campus.

Its traditional stone exterior appears to be a continuation of the massive student housing complex to which it's connected.

But walk through its octagonal entrance pavilion to the atrium, look eastward, and you'll see what sets this building apart: A soaring, sunlit worship space, with curving partitions and glass railings that draw the eye toward heaven.

High above the stone floor is a vaulted ceiling coated in silver leaf. At the far end is a huge wall made of Jerusalem stone, intended to evoke the sacred Western Wall in Israel. Near the top, in aluminum, is a Star of David, the six-pointed symbol of Judaism and the State of Israel.

This groundbreaking structure is the Commodore Uriah P. Levy Center and Jewish Chapel, an $8 million, three-story building that will be dedicated at 1 p.m. today.

The Levy Center has gained widespread attention because it contains the first worship space at the Naval Academy exclusively for Jewish services. Midshipmen previously attended Shabbat services off campus or in the academy's smaller All Faiths Chapel in a nearby building. Other spaces at the Levy Center include a Fellowship Hall, Character Learning Center, media center and meeting room for the academy's Honor Board.

Designed by Joseph Boggs of Boggs & Partners Architects in Annapolis and named after the first Jewish naval officer to reach the rank of commodore, the Levy Center is also noteworthy as a powerful and sensitive addition to the Naval Academy, an unusual melding of traditional and modern architecture. There's a sense of surprise and revelation as one moves from the stone-clad exterior to the vaulted chapel within. Though newly constructed, it has sufficient gravitas to take its place alongside such venerable landmarks as Bancroft Hall, Ernest Flagg's Beaux Arts residence for all midshipmen, and King Hall, the cavernous dining facility.

Destination for visitors

The result is a work of architecture that has the potential to be a key destination for Jews in or visiting Maryland. Equally important is the positive impression it's likely to leave on non-Jewish midshipmen and others who pass by it every day.

It also shows that the Naval Academy is a place that celebrates diversity - in people, religion and architecture. By virtue of its form and function, it promises to be an architectural anchor for visitors of all faiths.

"This is not just for the Jewish midshipmen," said Cmdr. Irving Elson, the academy's rabbi. "This is for all the brigade of midshipmen. ... The chapel is beautiful enough and religion-neutral enough that people of all faiths can come in and worship." With approximately 120 Jewish midshipmen in the brigade of 4,200 - a proportion roughly in step with the U.S. population - the Naval Academy until now has been the only one of America's three main military academies without a space dedicated for Jewish services. (The Air Force Academy included a Jewish sanctuary when its main chapel was built in 1963. The Jewish chapel at West Point opened in 1984.)

Annapolis businessman Harvey Stein led an effort to build a separate worship space on campus, forming a nonprofit group called the Friends of the Jewish Chapel to raise money needed for design and construction. (Although Jewish worship spaces are normally called synagogues, all religious buildings at U.S. military academies are called chapels.)

The Friends selected Boggs, a strong-willed architect known for designing finely detailed, boldly modern commercial and institutional buildings and private residences. The Naval Academy contributed $1.8 million and the construction site, a prominent parcel visible from Spa Creek and flanked by two wings of historic Bancroft Hall.

Traditional exterior

Boggs concluded that this setting would be inappropriate for a sleek, modern building. Instead, he took a traditional approach to the exterior, to make it fit in with the surrounding buildings.

The architect designed Levy Center to be a slipcover of sorts for Mitscher Hall, a low-rise structure that dates from 1961 and already filled in part of the courtyard framed by Bancroft.

He took design cues from Bancroft and Mitscher to create a symmetrical building that nestles into the courtyard and becomes a jewel-like frontispiece for Bancroft, as if it had been there for years.

To mark the entrance from the water side, Boggs created a domed octagonal pavilion that recalls the design of Monticello, the Virginia home of Thomas Jefferson. The pavilion is a nod to Levy (1792-1862), who bought and restored Monticello after Jefferson died.

With its seven identical portals, each with the Star of David recessed in a small window above, the entrance pavilion is also reminiscent of Abraham's tent, a Biblical structure that symbolizes inclusiveness - and also had seven openings.

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