In 1896 New York architect Ernest Flagg was commissioned to create a comprehensive campus plan for the U.S. Naval Academy, a school established in 1845 at Fort Severn on the banks of the Severn River in Annapolis. Flagg’s design would replace almost all of the existing nineteenth-century buildings. Between 1899 and 1910, twenty-seven new buildings were erected, including a core group of monumental French Renaissance Revival structures designed by Flagg and arranged around a formal quadrangle. In spite of shortfalls in the construction budget, the U.S. Naval Academy represents a fully realized and still intact example of a Beaux-Arts classical campus.
The Naval Academy’s nineteenth-century development had resulted in piecemeal construction of over fifty buildings. An 1895 report found that the existing facilities were outdated and inefficient, and recommended development of a new master plan with substantially improved buildings. Growing awareness of the importance of naval supremacy for America’s international affairs prompted the rebuilding of the campus. Only the waiting room (1878) and the guard house (1881), two small buildings at the main gate, now remain from the earlier period.
The campus was located on a peninsula directly adjacent to the downtown neighborhoods of Annapolis. Architect Flagg, a strong proponent of Beaux-Arts classicism, was hired to create the master plan and design the new buildings as a uniform and monumental ensemble. Flagg retained the existing mature trees and curvilinear paths and overlaid them with an axial grid. The Parade Ground was moved to the southeast on reclaimed land along Spa Creek. The centerpiece of the new campus was the quadrangle, also called the Yard, which was designed to be open on one side with views to the Severn River.
Flagg arranged his key buildings around the other sides of the Yard in three groups. The focal point of the ensemble is the monumental domed chapel, originally built on a Greek cross plan, facing the river on the highest point on the campus. The chapel is flanked by an administration building and the superintendent’s residence. The massive dormitory and mess hall for the midshipmen, Bancroft Hall, sits on the southeast side of the Yard. Colonnades connect Bancroft Hall to its flanking structures: Macdonough Hall (built as a boathouse and quickly converted into a gymnasium) and Dahlgren Hall (originally an armory). The remaining side of the Yard features a group of three attached academic buildings. Mahan Hall, designed as the library and auditorium with an impressive center tower, faces Bancroft Hall across the Yard. The two flanking classroom buildings—Maury and Sampson halls—are connected to the front corners of Mahan Hall. Flagg also designed a series of officers’ houses along the perimeter wall at King George Street as a transition to the adjacent neighborhood.
Flagg’s ornate French Renaissance Revival buildings were initially to be executed in red brick and limestone, in deference to Annapolis’s Colonial and Federal period architecture. A politically motivated order from Congress to use New England granite as the primary building material altered Flagg’s plans. Soon after construction began in 1899, both construction costs and enrollment increased dramatically, making the planned appropriations inadequate. While granite was used for Dahlgren Hall, Macdonough Hall, and other buildings in the early phases of construction, soon Flagg was pressed to revise his designs to lower costs. Terra-cotta and gray-faced brick were substituted for granite in order to maintain the cohesiveness of the design. While the architect lamented these constraints and the features lost from his original scheme, the need for economy did inspire Flagg to develop innovative solutions. His use of structural concrete, particularly for the framing and dome of the chapel, was widely celebrated as the most advanced use of that technology in the United States to date.
While Flagg’s buildings and master plan still define the character of the Naval Academy, there have been several later building campaigns to accommodate the growth of the institution. Seven buildings were added between 1918 and 1924, with another twenty-five structures built in 1939–1941. A major project to fill in Dewey Basin at the Severn River side of the Yard was initiated in 1957, adding over fifty acres to the campus. A new master plan prepared John Carl Warnecke and Associates in 1964 was informed by Flagg’s original one, but called for major new construction on the fill. Michelson and Chauvenet halls were placed on a low terrace with an opening to preserve a river view from the chapel. However, Flagg’s power plant and some other buildings were demolished in the process.
The campus was declared a National Historic Landmark in 1961, in an early recognition of the significance of the U.S. Naval Academy’s Beaux-Arts ensemble. Today the Naval Academy’s 300-plus acres include more than 200 major buildings for use by over 4,500 midshipmen.
Bacon, Mardges. Ernest Flagg: Beaux-Arts Architect and Urban Reformer. Cambridge: MIT Press, 1986.
Flagg, Ernest. “New Buildings for The United States Naval Academy, Annapolis, Md., Part I and Part II.” The American Architect and Building News94, no. 1697-1698 (July 1, 1908 and July 8, 1908): 1-7, 9-13, Plates.
“U.S. Naval Academy.” In Architecture in Annapolis: A Field Guide, edited by Marcia M. Miller and Orlando Ridout V, 203-208. Crownsville, MD and Newark, DE: Vernacular Architecture Forum and Maryland Historical Trust Press, 1998.