Naval Academy to open new visitor center


For a maritime institution, the United States Naval Academy hasn't always made the most of its proximity to the Annapolis harbor. Much of the campus turns inward and away from the water, while some of the newer buildings actually block water views once enjoyed by all.

But the Navy has begun to make up for that deficiency with a beguiling new building that will open Friday as part of the academy's yearlong celebration of its 150th anniversary.

The $7.85 million Armel-Leftwich Visitor Center, located inside Gate 1 on the academy grounds, a short distance from City Dock, is one of the few unabashedly modern buildings to appear on the Annapolis waterfront in recent years.

For outsiders looking in, it's a gateway to campus, containing a theater, exhibits about life on "the Yard," a guide service, and a Navy-oriented souvenir shop -- all intended to help put a positive new face on the academy.

For insiders looking out, it's a window on the water, with a curving two-story glass wall that features panoramic views of Spa Creek, the Severn River, Greenbury Point and the Chesapeake Bay beyond.

More than anything else, the visitor center is a metaphor for the Naval Academy, a collage of architectural imagery inspired by the sea and those who navigate it. Architectural details make subtle references to everything from a ship's deck to sonar screens to the Herndon Monument, the 21-foot-tall obelisk whose scaling by plebes has become an annual rite of spring in Maryland.

With its aqueous shapes and shimmering surfaces, this is a building that will make waves. As the academy's 150th anniversary gift to itself, it also represents the beginnings of an important bridge between the campus and the larger Annapolis community.

Named after two 1953 Naval Academy graduates, Lyle O. Armel II and William G. Leftwich Jr., the project is part of a nationwide trend in which colleges are building impressive visitors' centers as a way to attract top-caliber students. In the MTV era, it's no longer enough to invite a prospect to the admissions office to stare at a rack of pamphlets.

For the prestigious Naval Academy, which receives 10 applications for every one it accepts, the center is meant to do more than drum up applications. With 1.5 million visitors a year, the academy is one of the biggest tourist attractions in the state capital and needed a better starting point for its tours. This was a chance to turn part of the campus around to face the water and create a front yard where a back yard used to be.

Finally, this is a feel-good project for the Navy, which doesn't always enjoy the smoothest of sailing in the publicity department. Newspapers carry plenty of negative news about the academy -- from students cheating on exams to buying stolen cars. A project such as the visitor center provides a chance to counter downbeat images by calling attention to the more positive, patriotic accomplishments of the academy, such as the number of graduates who went on to become astronauts.

Window on the water

Although it now occupies 338 acres, the academy began as a reservation of 9 3/4 acres on the east side of Annapolis. A former Army post that was established in 1808 and known as Fort Severn, the property was transferred to the Navy Department in 1845 for use as the United States Naval School. Today, the academy has 4,000 midshipmen (a term that applies to women as well as men, since women have been admitted since 1976), from every state in the union and 19 foreign countries. Its 150th anniversary is Oct. 10, 1995.

The job of designing a building that satisfied all of the Navy's objectives fell to Cochran Stephenson & Donkervoet Inc., the Baltimore-based firm that put a giant new window on the Maryland Science Center in the 1980s to reorient it from Key Highway to the Inner Harbor. In a sense, the visitor center represented the same sort of assignment, except that Naval Academy buildings are largely battleship gray instead of red brick, and even more impenetrable than Edward Durell Stone's octagonal modules on Key Highway.

Fred Hiser and Mickey Miller were the project architects for CS&D; Thomas Spies was the principal-in-charge. Other design team members included Swanson Design Inc., which was responsible for the retail fixtures and finishes; Douglas/Gallagher Washington, the exhibit designers; Kondos Lighting Associates of New York; and Graham Landscape Architecture of Annapolis. CER of Baltimore was the general contractor.

The visitor center was originally conceived as an addition to Ricketts Hall, home of the Naval Academy Athletic Association, and would have blocked views of the water for those approaching from King George Street. CS&D; recommended shifting it to a site just south of Halsey Field House, where it would block no water views and could take advantage of links to that building.

With the new site agreed on, the architects designed a two-story structure that wrapped around the south and east faces of Halsey. The granite-clad east side is more solid and contextual ,, and seems to grow out of Halsey. The south side is more of a void, with a curving glass-and-stainless steel window wall that overlooks Spa Creek.

Where the sides meet an angled frontispiece bears a large trident, the Naval Academy symbol, in stainless steel. It's a memorable marker that says this building could not be anywhere but the Naval Academy. Yet unlike many Naval Academy buildings, this one is quite light and airy, almost playful. From the north and east, it's possible to see through the entrance to the water. From the south and west, the glass wall practically disappears against the sky.

A welcome to visitors

"This is the new front door for the campus, the new public edge. It's really the closest area to downtown Annapolis," Mr. Hiser said. "The idea was to make the whole building a giant window that opens up the campus to the water and the city. When you're inside, it captures the view for you. When you're outside, it's transparent. It's a welcoming gesture."

The interior has been divided into several areas, enabling visitors to roam wherever they please. On the first level is the 84-seat theater, which will continuously show a 12-minute orientation film titled "To Lead and To Serve," a concession "galley," an information desk that doubles as the starting point for tours, and a large gift shop.

The second level contains museum-quality exhibits that bring various aspects of the Naval Academy to life. Throughout this area, lifelike casts of human figures depict midshipmen in activities such as swimming, sailing and running an obstacle course. By following them, visitors can trace the path the mids take from plebe summer to graduation and beyond.

There are also videos of plebes explaining why they entered the academy; interactive exhibits on subjects such as phrases plebes must learn; and lists of academy alumni and career paths available to academy graduates. (For those inclined to delve deeper, there is a full-fledged Naval Academy Museum in Preble Hall, featuring one of the world's finest collections of ship models.)

Exhibits aren't the only elements of the building that convey information about the Naval Academy. Just as the architects of the National Postal Museum in Washington created a building whose architecture evokes all things philatelic, the designers transformed this building into a compendium of nautical references.

The information desk, for example, was designed to evoke a ship coming into dock. Its side is made of teak, and its counter top is blue pearl granite, which sparkles when the sun hits it. Certain walls are covered with sycamore, whose grain suggests watermarks. The rotunda, with a stair linking the first and second levels, has a floor made of terrazzo and crushed mother-of-pearl seashells. Its pattern suggests a sonar screen in a submarine, with stainless steel objects representing ships at sea.

The ceiling above the stair is designed to be an abstracted version of a traditional compass rose, a navigational tool used by sailors. Lights and recessed sprinkler heads are used to demarcate the cardinal points and quarter points on the compass, respectively.

On the second level, a curving balcony moves from inside the enclosed space to outside, where visitors can take in sweeping views of the bay as if they were on the prow of a ship. A narrow walkway at the top of the stairs resembles a ship's bridge. Cast in terrazzo on the floor are representations of nautical flags that spell out "Go Navy." ("It was going to say 'Beat Army,' but we had to change it because that wasn't politically correct," Mr. Hiser said.)

"The exterior is a simple statement in a way, a glass membrane," Mr. Hiser said. "It's the interior that's unexpected. The swooping curves and dynamic angles really set it apart."

While the nautical flags and other references get the point across, the design team tried not to go overboard, he added. "It had to tell a story. It had to represent who the client is. But we didn't want to fall into kitsch, either. In no way did we want to be disrespectful."

Miniature obelisks

The souvenir shop, by Swanson Design, continues the nautical theme in a two-story space just inside the curving glass wall. Shelves and fixtures make clear references to portholes, rigging, hulls and other parts of ships. The wooden floor evokes a ship's deck, set against Navy blue carpet that serves as a stand-in for the sea. Aisles contain miniature obelisks that resemble the Herndon Monument.

As in the rest of the project, craftsmanship and quality of materials in this area are exceptional. Unfortunately, some of Brian Swanson's clever details are likely to be obscured by the merchandise, which includes T-shirts, running shorts, calendars and bumper stickers.

Clearly, the gift shop is a key source of revenue for the academy, and it's likely to be mobbed. By giving it so much space and visibility, however, the designers may have made the commercial aspect of the project more prominent than it ought to be. It's not as if Annapolis were in dire need of another T-shirt emporium.

Bridge to the city

After buying their T-shirts, visitors will be able to walk out of the building and see one of the most far-sighted aspects of the project -- the way it begins to link the campus and the city beyond.

Along the shoreline, the academy has created a landscaped esplanade that beckons people to the water's edge. Once cut off from the water by trash bins and chain-link fencing, a 900-foot-long stretch of land was remade with brick and granite pavers, bollards and a handsome wrought-iron and granite railing. The academy also upgraded the road leading to the visitor center from Gate 1.

Landscape architect Jay Graham specified that sycamores be planted between Halsey and the water to soften the view of the field house. He and his associates also studied older parts of the Yard to come up with designs for light poles and other fixtures along the waterfront. "We were trying to make it look like it belonged to the old grounds," he explained.

Mr. Graham said he believes the promenade ought to be extended westward to link the City Dock and the Naval Academy. "We've tried to suggest that it can continue," he said. "We'd love to see it happen."

A new face

Much of the architectural significance of the visitor center and esplanade lies with the precedent it sets by enlivening the water's edge and making it accessible to the public. It's an enlightened attitude that has implications for other parts of the campus -- and the rest of Annapolis.

Even by itself, though, the visitor center has much to offer. Some may see it as the ultimate in pro-Navy propaganda, an addition that puts a happy face on the academy in more ways that one. If so, propaganda has never looked better.

But along with the public relations undertones, the visitor center offers a substantive and engaging experience that makes it a valuable addition to the Naval Academy and the city in general. Like the compass rose re-created in the ceiling, it's a powerful magnet that will appeal not just to hard-core Navy types but to anyone with an interest in Naval Academy history and traditions.

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