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Reviving a Classic: Restoration Does Honor to Ernest Flagg’s Naval Academy Chapel

Friday, October 30, 2009

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by Joe Maty, Editor, JAC

U.S. Naval Academy Chapel

The U.S. Naval Academy Chapel, designed by the noted Beaux-Arts master Ernest Flagg, had in recent years begun to show the effects of its 100 years of existence at the Naval Academy grounds in Annapolis, MD.

A major restoration program was clearly in order for the landmark building, one of several Naval Academy buildings designed by Flagg around the turn of the 19th century.

In formulating a program to address the effects of the chapel interior’s deterioration, the Navy brass commissioned Fiarde Architectural Design, based in Menlo Park, CA, to repair and restore the building’s expansive interior plaster surfaces and ornamentation.

The water-stained and cracked ornamental plaster walls and ceiling were repaired and painted in the spirit of Flagg's original design scheme. “The chapel had not had a full restoration since it was built around the turn of the century,” says Tobias Freccia, project executive for Fiarde Architectural Design.

The completed restoration was celebrated at a rededication of the 2,500-seat chapel on Oct. 24.

Flagg: Influential figure in the Beaux-Arts movement

Flagg, of New York, played a key role in the development of building zoning and height regulations in the city, and served as president of the New York Society of Beaux-Arts Architects. His noteworthy designs included the Singer Building in Manhattan, for a short time the world’s tallest building—612 feet—when completed in 1908. The building was razed in 1968, reportedly the victim of functional obsolescence.

Other notable Flagg buildings include the Corcoran Gallery of Art, Washington DC; the Scribner Building in New York; the Sheldon Library, Concord, NH; and numerous residences.

U.S. Naval Academy Chapel 

As architect of the Naval Academy, Flagg designed the massive Bancroft Hall, the Superintendent’s residence, and Sampson, Maury, and Mahan halls. Flagg is regarded as a significant American interpreter of the Beaux-Arts style who also championed the cause of social responsibility in architecture.

Beaux-Arts architecture is considered a relatively recent form of Neoclassicism that combines elements of Greek and Roman models with Renaissance and other artistic influences. The Beaux-Arts style made a major mark on U.S. architecture in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, before giving way to the Modernist era. Technically, Beaux-Arts architecture is defined as the academic architectural style taught at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts in Paris.

Beaux-Arts architecture emphasizes the classicism of Roman and Greek antiquity, but with extensive sculptural embellishments. Trademark Beaux-Arts features include arched windows, arched and pedimented doors, symmetry, and classical architectural details. The style’s most fervent and best-known adherents included the architectural firm McKim, Mead, and White, and the style’s most iconic interpretations include New York’s Grand Central Station and the New York Public Library.

Resurrecting the chapel’s glory

The $3.2 million Naval Academy Chapel restoration, which was funded by the contributions from the academy’s class of 1969 and the federal government, began in February and was completed in two phases. The chapel nave, built in 1939, was restored in the first phase; the rotunda, completed in 1904, was restored in the second phase. The Chapel's nave and rotunda were separated by a 57-foot wall during restoration so that services could be held while each phase was in progress.

U.S. Naval Academy Chapel

Key participants in the project included contractors Tuckman Barbee, Upper Marlboro, MD, and Church Restoration Group, Pittsburgh, PA. Fiarde Architectural Design served as restoration expert, and carried out plaster repair and painting. Also contributing were West Interior Services, Pittsburgh, PA, which restored the chapel pews, and Master Care Flooring Inc., Baltimore, MD, which restored the chapel floors.
Frecchia, in a discussion of the project with PaintSquare, says Fiarde Architectural Design sought to return the chapel interior to the original, Ernest Flagg design while using “eco-safe,” contemporary technologies.

The extensive plaster repairs were executed in both the original structure, where traditional wood lath and plaster wall and ceiling construction remained, and the later addition, where plaster was applied to concrete masonry. Both areas were affected by extensive cracking and localized areas of “blown out” plaster. Failed plaster areas were reconstructed, while cracks were routed and repaired. Where needed, molds were created to reconstruct damaged or deteriorated ornamental plaster.

Paint and coatings for the plaster surfaces consisted of standard interior water-based primer and basecoat materials, with acrylic glazes used as a finish coat.

Frecchia says little documentation existed to guide the restoration process in the selection of paint colors and the final appearance characteristics. The primary color, a light beige/taupe, evokes the look of limestone, with darker accent shades for adjacent ornamental areas.

The primer used was from Benjamin Moore & Co., and the basecoats were from Pittsburgh Paints, a PPG Industries Inc. brand. Acrylic glazes were from Polyvine Ltd., with Fiarde adding its own customization with tint and varnish blends to achieve the desired appearance characteristics.

Primer and basecoat coatings were applied by spray, with glazes applied by brush and rag.

The scope of the project also included a complete refinishing of pine floors and the chapel’s 200 pews, and restoration of balconies and railings.

The chapel, crowned with a 225-foot copper-clad dome, serves as a focal point of the Naval Academy complex. In one of the stained glass windows facing the altar, Sir Galahad holds his sheathed sword portraying service ideals of duty, honor, and loyalty. In another stained-glass window, the figure of Christ points naval officers toward the flag. The remains of early naval hero John Paul Jones lie interred underneath the chapel in a 21-ton Grand Pyrenees marble sarcophagus.

“Some of the bravest men and women in the world pass through the chapel's doors,” Freccia said in a formal announcement issued following the project’s completion. “We were very honored to be selected for the chapel's restoration.”


Tagged categories: Architects; Architecture; Historic Preservation; Restoration

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