Alumni house opens to the disabled

July 25, 2008|By Karen Shih | Karen Shih,Sun reporter

Adm. Jerome Smith was never able to bring his wife, who uses a wheelchair, to events at the Naval Academy's alumni house. Jill Smith couldn't get up the stairs at the historic mansion, known as Ogle Hall. Even if she could, her chair wouldn't fit through doorways.

But with $2 million in improvements unveiled yesterday at the headquarters of the Naval Academy Alumni Association & Foundation, she will be able to be at his side at reunions there.

It was "impossible for her to get around in the old place," said Smith, who lives just outside Annapolis. "We're really pleased that she now has access to the facility and she can join events there."

The addition to the 269-year-old building includes an elevator and handicapped-accessible bathrooms in the basement and first and second floors, putting the structure that played host to George Washington in compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act. It hosts about 100 events each year, the most popular being wedding receptions.

"It's been a labor of love a long time coming," said Tim Kobosko, vice president of information services for the 50,000-member association and chief executive of the project. "It just became obvious to us as our alumni who are older were having trouble getting access to the building. Of course, guys coming back from the war who were handicapped in some way were also having trouble. ... That really galvanized our president."

The building predates the federal act, so the improvements weren't required, but George P. Watt Jr., president and CEO of the association, said four defining moments spurred the association to action.

First, an alumnus had to carry his disabled adult daughter into her sister's wedding reception because all entrances had stairs. She was also unable to enter the bathroom, which forced her back to her house to use one. Second, an elderly graduate's wife fell on the steps leading out of the building because there were no handrails. Third, during a celebration of 30 years of women in the Navy, a woman who brought her children in strollers couldn't get them into the house without help. Finally, an employee at the association had a stroke, and once she returned to work, she had no way of getting up the stairs to her office.

"To heck to the fact that we were exempt from the law," Watt said.

In addition, the association had seen great surpluses in the past few years. The foundation brought in $34 million last fiscal year.

The project took 15 months to complete, longer than the eight to nine months originally envisioned. The renovations included a new heating and cooling system, and the old house provided obstacles galore for the contractors. Surprises included a radiant heat system installed about 1945, and old wiring in the walls that was no longer up to code.

"Until you unpeel the onion, you don't know what you're up against," said contractor John Pilli, a member of the class of 1973.

The walls contained "the entire history of electrical plumbing and heating," he said.

Watt said they worked hard to keep the changes consistent with the history of the circa 1739 building, which included using bricks in the same style for the elevator addition as in other parts of the house.

The building is the oldest Georgian mansion in Annapolis and boasts the first cantilevered stairs - stairs that jut out from walls and require no underlying support - in the United States.

The house has undergone several additions and restorations: Maryland Gov. Samuel Ogle began renting the townhouse in 1747, and the family added a ballroom in 1776. After a fire in 1921, another addition was added. After the alumni association bought the building in 1944, it dug out the basement to add a bar the next year. Another fire led to repairs in 1971, and the last change was a brick patio added to the back of the house in 1997.

The association now plans smaller changes to enhance the building, including turning the tap room into an alumni center with conference room space by the fall and upgrading the kitchen. The original pine flooring, worn out over the years, needs to be restored.

It was important to get the major changes done before he left, said Watts, who will take a post at the College of Charleston in September. All the building needs now is "simple attention and loving care."

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