Home base: Built between 1890 and 1910, Naval Academy residences have served families for centuries

The Navy brass isn’t prone to spouting superlatives, but when Capt. James Bates saw his new digs at the Academy — a historic three-story home — the accolades flowed.

“My first thoughts were: it’s majestic, palatial and cavernous,” Bates said of the 6,500-square-foot, red-brick home, 120 years old and one of 36 similar residences on Academy grounds afforded to high-ranking officers, academic faculty and their families. Bates, chief of staff, arrived in 2020 with his wife, Jennifer, and their two teenage children. The house at 29 Upshur Road has nine bedrooms, five full baths, five fireplaces, 15-foot ceilings and a three-story spiral staircase with a skylight at the top.

Jennifer Bates and U.S. Navy Capt. Jim Bates pose where they're living, a century home at 29 Upshur Road inside the U.S. Naval Academy.

“I call it the stairway to heaven, except I’m not ready for that, so I turn left instead and go to our bedroom,” said Bates, 52.

For Midshipmen, the stately homes have long been shrouded in mystery and viewed with an almost sacrosanct reverence. For more than a century, the august dwellings that line Upshur, Porter and Rodgers roads on campus have been occupied by prominent naval personnel, whose names appear on brass plates inside the entrance of each.


The houses, all built between 1890 and 1910, are of red or gray brick and are among the oldest on campus. To Navy lifers, they represent the stability of the Academy — ballast, if you will, for an institution steeped in tradition.

“When I look at these old homes, I feel deep sense of history, and how this place hasn’t changed,” said Sam Limneos, assistant archivist and a steward of the school’s past. “I see a legacy of honor and integrity as attributes of the high standards that we try to hold onto. The opportunity to have a home on The Yard is a big deal.”

To that, Bates can attest.

A view of a century-plus home on 29 Upshur Road inside the U.S. Naval Academy Thursday., Aug. 4, 2022. (Karl Merton Ferron/Baltimore Sun Staff)

“When I [studied] here, I rowed crew and ran to practice past these homes on a daily basis. I looked at them and thought about them but never considered that the chance to live in one would be within my grasp,” said Bates, a 1995 graduate. “Now, to sit on the front porch and watch the crew team run by is pretty cool. I hope that, in a few years, they are doing the same as me.”

The home flaunts its vintage past: a claw-foot bathtub, ornate brass doorknobs and elegant hinges and moldings. There’s a back stairway leading to onetime servants’ quarters and a swinging door with glass windows, off the kitchen, which allowed the dining staff to gauge each course without intruding. There are creaks and squeaks but no ghost stories to tell.

“Before our family moved in, I was here by myself and, going down the stairs [at twilight], I turned quickly and saw something the size of a human head that seemed to be following,” Bates said. “It was one of the large finials [balls] on top of the posts on the staircase.”

The porch overlooks Warden Field, hallowed site of ceremonial pomp. Visiting the Academy in 1907, Mark Twain sat here, cigar in hand, and reviewed the parade of Midshipmen that still march by at traditional times each year.

“Some folks think that living on The Yard [Academy grounds] is like living in a fishbowl, but we don’t see it that way,” said Bates.


“It’s like living a dream,” his wife said.

While it took the family several months to furnish the house, when they move (Bates can retire in two years), what will become of all of their stuff?

“We might have a big Facebook Marketplace party,” Jennifer Bates said.

A garage sale isn’t likely.

“Strange as it sounds, there are no yard sales on The Yard,” her husband said.

Lisa Mendenhall and Jeremiah Boyd, a recent naval academy grad whom the Mendenhalls sponsored during his time there, along with Leo the dog, on the porch of their century-plus home at 45 Rodgers Road inside the U.S. Naval Academy.

“Stepping into a piece of history”

When Capt. Greg Mendenhall and his wife, Lisa, moved into the house at 45 Rodgers Road three years ago, they could hardly get past the front door. The entrance is so imposing that they had to stop and marvel.


“It’s this massive, beautiful wooden door, almost 4 feet wide,” Lisa Mendenhall said. Their belongings easily fit through. Once inside, the couple felt they’d stepped into a time warp, with the lofty ceilings, dizzying staircase, seven fireplaces, servants’ entry and other nods to a Downton Abbey setting. Not to mention the engraved plate on the wall naming those who’d come before.

“We felt such awe and humility, like we were stepping into a piece of history,” she recalled. “You can easily throw yourself back to another era in time.”

An exterior of a century-plus home on 45 Rodgers Road inside the U.S. Naval Academy.

One name on that brass plate struck home: Capt. (now Rear Admiral) Edward Kristensen, whose teenage son, Erik, lived there with his parents from 1987 to 1990. Erik, who was 15 on arrival, would later attend the Academy, become a Navy SEAL and perish tragically, with two others, during a rescue mission in Afghanistan in 2005. A 2013 film, “Lone Survivor,” tells their story.

“Erik was a big inspiration to our son, Jake, who has the same room as Erik, and is attending the same school [Gonzaga College High in Washington, D.C.],” his mother said. “It’s an honor to be living in this house.”

The bedroom of Jake Mendenhall at a century-plus home at 45 Rodgers Road inside the U.S. Naval Academy Tuesday., Aug. 2, 2022. (Karl Merton Ferron/Baltimore Sun Staff)

Greg Mendenhall, 47, is the Academy’s director of special events and a former battalion officer. At times, Midshipmen acquaintances will stop by to chill or “to pick Capt. Mendenhall’s brain,” his wife said. “The third floor [once servants’ quarters] is basically a bunkhouse for them, with six beds and a bunch of blowup mattresses.”

Eerie happenings have occurred in the house, Lisa Mendenhall said:


“The TVs have turned themselves on and off a few times. At one point, our dog Leo [a Rhodesian Ridgeback] would not walk past a certain plank in our bedroom. It was almost like he was seeing something, which did freak me out a little.”

The décor is beach chic, with furniture bought during a hitch in Japan and rugs of hot pink and turquoise. The walls are their original hues: blue-green in the dining room and light green in the kitchen.

“You’re allowed to paint the walls, as long as you paint them back to the original colors before you leave,” she said. “I have no intention of painting a 6,500-square-foot house; these colors work just fine.”

A view outside a century home at 48 Rodgers Road inside the U.S. Naval Academy Thursday., Aug. 4, 2022. (Karl Merton Ferron/Baltimore Sun Staff)

Room for everyone

The six-bedroom house at 48 Rodgers Road appeared to beckon Jana and David Vavasseur and their brood when they arrived nearly five years ago. Fill me up, it seemed to say. The family of seven obliged.

“Even with five children, we had plenty of elbow room,” David Vavasseur said. The couple, both Navy grads, had earned the right to live there. He was a Marine veteran and a stay-at-home dad; she, the Academy’s Honor Education and Remediation officer and a former surface warfare commander. Their arrival brought the pitter-patter of little feet to the same hardwood floors where, for more than 100 years, military might has trod. Not that the home’s five-star past cowed the kids.

The porch light of a century home at 48 Rodgers Road inside the U.S. Naval Academy Thursday., Aug. 4, 2022. (Karl Merton Ferron/Baltimore Sun Staff)

“They loved throwing rubber balls from the top of the staircase and watching them bounce,” their father said. “Or attaching parachutes to their toys and floating them down.”


On the first floor, the cathedral ceilings offered another chance to play.

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“They threw ‘sticky toys’ in the air to see which ones would stay up there. Those that stuck, we couldn’t get down,” David Vavasseur said. “Some toys stayed on the ceiling for months.”

The walls bore lots of art — not portraits from America’s naval past, but the proud scribbles and scrawls of children’s’ hands. And at Christmas, when the family went to get a tree, the size of the pine was irrelevant.

“One year, we had a 12-footer,” he said. “Never had to trim the top.”

When his wife retired in May, the Vavasseurs moved to a smaller home on Turkey Point Island in Edgewater. But they miss the old place.

“We adored it,” he said, right down to “the 19th century craftsmanship of all the nuances of the house that can’t be duplicated today. It was solid and sturdy; you felt safe there.”


And if those walls could talk?

“They’d say that all Navy families are the same,” he said. “They live here, love here and serve their country here. After 100 years, it’s more of the same.”