Levy Center has inspired design

Naval Academy chapel get resounding praise

October 18, 2006|By Susan Gvozdas | Susan Gvozdas,special to the sun

The sanctuary of the U.S. Naval Academy's new Jewish chapel almost commands an awakening of the human spirit. The roof looks as if it has separated and opened to the heavens. Windows above the balcony bathe the pews in natural light. A tapered aisle creates the illusion of steps leading to the altar.

The sanctuary inspires not only the visitors who step inside. Since the $10 million Uriah P. Levy Center opened a year ago, its construction and design have brought 10 awards for Boggs & Partners Architects in Annapolis.

Joseph Boggs, who said in his West Virginia drawl that he does not practice a religion, set out to design something that would strip away the outside world and allow visitors a spiritual experience.

"I wanted something that made people stop ... and sent a chill up their spine," Boggs said. "I think there is something resonating from the project that is registered on a lot of levels."

Religious leaders have affirmed this.

"[He has] been able to do architecturally what I can only dream to do in sermons," said Rabbi Irving Elson, who serves the 100 or more Jewish midshipmen at the academy. "You feel inspired."

The center's namesake was one of the first Jewish career naval officers. Uriah P. Levy was a 19th-century war hero and crusader for human rights who is also is known for restoring Monticello, Thomas Jefferson's Virginia home.

Portions of the Levy Center pay homage to Monticello. The octagonal entrance is reminiscent of the dome at the estate, said Bonnie Johnson, an associate at Boggs & Partners and manager of the chapel project. The center is an addition to Mitscher Hall so the facade was done in the beaux-arts style of the building and nearby Bancroft Hall, the dormitory for the 4,000 midshipmen. The design garnered the 2006 Preservation Award from the Historic Annapolis Foundation.

The stonework won honors from Architectural Record magazine, and the craftsmanship award from the Building Congress & Exchange. The stone wall is meant to make the chapel's insides resemble a ruin, where worshipers erected a modern building around it, Johnson said.

The sandy Jerusalem stone used in the mosaic tile and for the 45-foot soaring wall behind the altar was imported from Israel. Masons hand-carved the stone so that it would resemble the disjointed blocks in the Western Wall of Jerusalem.

"The idea was to bring a few pieces back [from Israel] so you could actually touch a piece of the homeland," Johnson said.

The use of Jerusalem stone makes the chapel resemble the ancient synagogues of Israel, said Howard Pinskey, founder and president of the Friends of the Jewish Chapel. The nonprofit group raised most of the money for the Levy Center.

Building trade journals recognized the woven metal scrims that create the yawning ceiling effect in the chapel. The white scrims also resemble billowing sails, a nod to naval history.

"Almost every person is just taken with how he [Boggs] blended ancient Israel, ancient synagogues, with stark, modern, wide-open construction," said Pinskey, a 1962 graduate of the academy. Despite being large enough to accommodate 400 people, the chapel maintains intimacy, Johnson said. Pews that radiate from the altar like ripples from a pond help create that feel, she said.

"It's still a very warm chapel," said Elson. "The congregation isn't lost."

The center also houses a library, a study area and conference room on the first floor that is used for weekly meetings of the Jewish midshipmen as well as for the Passover Seder meal. Down the hall are a newly renovated auditorium and interfaith chapel. The Honor Court, which judges honor code violations, is on the upper level along with the balconies of the Jewish chapel.

The Levy Center is open to the public from 7:30 a.m. to 4 p.m. weekdays and from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. Sundays. Services are held at 7:30 p.m. Fridays and at 9 a.m. the first Saturday of every month. For tours, call 410-263-6933.

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