An Annapolis Landmark – The USNA Chapel
By Ellen Moyer
It dominates the skyline.
From the Severn River, City Harbor, Ritchie Highway and King George Street, the green patina of the U.S. Naval Academy Chapel’s giant dome in Annapolis compels our attention. It hovers above us, a beacon beckoning us to find shelter, and once there, to discover our moral compass and spiritual strength.
The current USNA Chapel is the third in academy history since its founding in 1845. The first chapel, built in 1854 burned. The second was built in 1868 after the Civil War. It was a simple brick Victorian gothic church with a steeple up front located where the superintendent’s house is now located. Remnants of each of these chapels exist today in stained glass windows. One located in Bancroft Hall is dedicated to those American Navy personnel killed in the Samoan Hurricane of 1889. Another, now lost, memorialized Commodore Foxhall Parker who is the only superintendent to die while serving in that position. Both set a pattern for memorializing character and courage and fortitude that would dominate the current chapel dedicated in 1908.
Architect Ernest Flagg was commissioned in the 1890s to design the buildings for the new campus that had a growing student body. Flagg studied at the Ecole de Beaux Arts in Paris and later in his life became president of the New York Society of Beaux Arts Architects, a style that dominated public buildings in America between 1880 and 1920. He designed Bancroft, Mahan, Maury and Sampson halls, the superintendent’s house and the chapel in the neoclassical beaux art tradition notable for grand entrances, sweeping staircases, eye-catching monuments, sculptural decorations and theatrical nobility that embraced allegorical ideals throughout history.
Adm. George Dewey, an 1858 Naval Academy graduate and in 1900 a Democratic candidate for president, laid the corner stone for the chapel in 1904. The chapel has been renovated twice since then. The 1940 renovation increased the central nave to allow for seating 2,500 people. During the second renovation in 2009, workers discovered a 20-foot diameter skylight in the dome that had been covered over. The dome, with a diameter of 65 feet, soars 180 feet above the chapel base. Designated a national historic landmark in 1961, the chapel has remained the center of the campus on its highest ground, a symbol of the vital role for moral and spiritual guidance important to midshipman and future military leaders.
The symbol of spirituality wrapped up in the iconic dome permeates the entirety of the chapel. Standing on Cooper Road and looking up the broad granite staircase, visitors face 22- by 10-foot bronze doors symbolizing “War and Peace, Patriotism, Wisdom and Science for God and Country.” In 1906, a competition for the doors for the chapel was announced. Thirty artists entered. The winner was Evelyn Longman. The Independent News, stated that “ … on a close analysis, her design, does not compare favorably with the best doors of the world in interest, but in a certain charm of line a part of ideas.”
As Longman was the only woman in a field of male competitors, it is interesting that her doors opened the chapel for what was than an entirely male student body. Installed in 1909, the bronze doors involve allegorical sculptures symbolizing various phases of war and peace. Patriotism is illustrated with a female figure suggestive of the Delphic Sibyl of Michelangelo calling a youth to service.
The grand bronze doors open into a space surrounded by stained-glass windows, memorials to others intended to inspire strength of moral character. Over the alter, the carved legs of which represent Biblical figures of Matthew, Luke, Mark and John, is a stained-glass remnant of Jesus walking on water that came from the original chapel built after 1845.
The first new window in the chapel was commissioned by the widow of Cmdr. Theodorous B.M Mason, the founder and first head of the U.S. Office of Naval Intelligence and a Naval Academy graduate, class of 1868. It represents an allegorical portrait of Sir Galahad. Arthur Alfred Lord Tennyson wrote of this Knight of the Roundtable and pursuer of the Holy Grail, “My strength is as strength of 10 because my heart is pure” The work, therefore, symbolizes that the pure of heart will conquer enemies. The work is designed by Frederick Wilson and was made in the Tiffany Studios.
Tiffany Studio artist Frederick Wilson also designed memorial windows for Adm. David Dixon Porter, the USNA superintendent after the Civil War, William T. Sampson and David Farragut. Farragut became a midshipman at the age of nine, was given command of a US Naval vessel at the age of 23 and became the nation’s first four-star admiral. He is remembered for his charge during the Battle of Mobile Bay, a decisive battle in the Civil War, “Damn the torpedoes; full speed ahead.”
Another major stained-glass work of art made in Tiffany Studios for the chapel was donated by the class of 1927. It is called “Commission Invisible” and is based on the likeness of Tom Hamilton, president of the class of 1927. Tom Hamilton was also a major football hero for Navy, which in 1926 was ranked number one in the nation. But in the Navy-Army Game of that year Navy was losing. Late in the game, Hamilton scored for Navy, tying the game and saving Navy’s first-place ranking.
And so the USNA chapel depicts works to inspire courage, trust, moral character and spirit for winning. Underneath the chapel’s main floor, the crypt of John Paul Jones, father of the Navy, holds this spirit. Battling the British and faced with disaster in his sinking flagship, the “Bonhomme Richard,” he refused to strike his colors, saying, “I have not yet begun to fight.” He went on to win the battle and capture the British ship, the HMS Serapis.
Jones defined a naval officer as one who was a capable mariner but a great deal more. “He should be as well a gentleman of liberal education, refined manners, punctilious courtesy, and the nicest sense of personal honor … He should be the soul of tact, patience, justice, firmness and charity.”
The neoclassic beaux art dome of the USNA Chapel that dominates the skyline of Annapolis symbolizes Jones’ admonition for the highest of human standards.
Ellen (EllenMoyer@yahoo.com), a former mayor of Annapolis, was assisted by Jim Cheevers, senior curator, US Naval Academy Museum, who provided information for this article.
For upcoming performances in the Chapel, log onto:
Sun 9:00 Main Chapel
Sun 11:30 St Andrew’s Chapel (lower level)
Daily 12:50 St. Andrew’s Chapel (lower level)
Christian Science Services
Tues. 6:30 call for location
Eastern Orthodox Christian Services
Sun 9:00 call for location
Tues 7:00 call for location
Fri 7:15 Uriah P. Levy Center
Sun 8:15 St. Andrew Chapel (lower level)
Sun 11:00 Main Chapel
Services are open to the public with proper ID to gain admittance to the USNA. For more information and to locate other services log onto: