United States Naval Academy

Baroque and Beaux Arts Architectural Neighbors

PART 1: The Beaux Arts design of the Naval Academy is the aesthetic polar opposite of the Baroque urban plan of Annapolis. The Academy has monumental axial symmetry, rigidly composed buildings presenting uniformity of purpose and institutional clarity. The town has charming irregularity, picturesque idiosyncrasy and the messy vitality of over 300 years of human occupancy. The fact that these two contrasting built environments share the same peninsula of land surrounded by waters of the Chesapeake Bay is just one more example of the architectural richness of Annapolis.

Sir Francis Nicholson designed the street plan of Annapolis in 1694. He placed the State House Circle and Church Circle on natural high ground and worked with the existing topography to create the radiating streets in a fluid Baroque composition.

Architect Earnest Flagg took an entirely different approach in designing the all new campus plan for the Academy in 1902. Flagg used design principles of the French Beaux Arts found in the Les Invalides military complex in Paris. Buildings are arranged in precise axial symmetry, and organized in the hierarchy of importance. Topography is graded to eliminate natural irregularities and is shaped to reinforce organizational rank. Flagg was given a clean slate for the new Academy campus plan and he designed all of the primary buildings in it.

The 1902 campus master plan by Ernest Flagg featured a large park like quadrangle, the four edges defined by Bancroft Hall, Mahan Hall, the Chapel, and the ceremonial boat basin.

Flagg’s design is composed with axial precision and monumental clarity around the central quadrangle. The dormitory Bancroft Hall with its heroic entrance stair is axially opposite the classroom Mahan Hall. Perpendicular to this axis and also centered in the quadrangle is the axis established by the Chapel and a grand boat basin. These five physical features embody the educational program: camaraderie at the dormitory; spirituality at the Chapel; intellectuality at the classroom; naval skills at the boat basin; and unity of purpose at the quadrangle. The Chapel is given primary status in the campus. It is the tallest structure, placed on the highest ground; all land is shaped to slope uniformly away from it. The scale, texture and monumentality of Flagg’s master plan can still be experienced today. The quadrangle with its mature trees and collection of naval monuments cements an extraordinary architectural ensemble.

The Naval Academy campus plan is one of the best examples of French Beaux Arts architecture in America. The Chapel today (at left above) is still the centerpiece of the impressive park like quadrangle. A picturesque view of the Brice House (at right above) is framed by the street from the Academy quadrangle to Gate 2. The Academy campus design of 1902 was purposefully integrated into the Annapolis city plan of 1694.

Unfortunately a significant part of Flagg’s design has been lost. The boat basin was large enough to be used for training and grand enough for ceremonial presentations. The twin beacons at the mouth of the basin would have created a dramatic naval entrance opposite the Chapel dome. The view from the sloping quadrangle to the basin and beyond to the Severn River would have been a constant reminder that schooling on the land was only a preamble to Naval duty.  Tragically the boat basin has been demolished. The removal of the horizontal reflecting water plane diminishes the vertical spiritual dome of the Chapel, and the quadrangle lost contact with the high seas. The basin was filled in and replaced with mediocre 1960’s classroom buildings and a sports field.

While the Beaux Arts design of the Academy contrasts with the Baroque plan of Annapolis, architect Ernest Flagg sensitively and deliberately connected the two. The major streets defining the campus quadrangle align with Nicholson’s Annapolis streets. The main gate to the campus is at Maryland Avenue, a primary street radiating from the important State Circle. Gate 2 aligns with Martin Street. Both of these Academy gates offer iconic views back to Annapolis: the majestic State House Dome of 1779; and the tall chimneys of the James Brice House built in 1773. These views back to town are picturesque and romantic. The Brice house is a most lovely oblique silhouette. The State House Dome is slightly off center with the axis of Maryland Avenue. These irregularities and idiosyncrasies define the town’s charm. Flagg thoughtfully captured their views back into the walled confines of his campus.

There are the two great traditions in architecture: one embraces the natural, sublime and picturesque; the other embraces the order and mores of the classical. Both traditions are exuberantly expressed here in Annapolis.

PART 2: The United States Naval Academy is an extremely rare example of multiple buildings and their setting, all designed in the American Beaux Arts style. New York architect Ernest Flagg designed the campus and all the buildings surrounding the quadrangle in 1902. The architectural design principles of the Beaux Arts contrast sharply with the Baroque concepts used by Sir Francis Nicholson when he designed the town plan of Annapolis in 1694.

American architecture between 1890 and 1920 was dominated by the buildings of architects schooled in Paris at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts. The historic U.S. Naval Academy campus is the perfect place to experience the stylistic features of American Beaux Arts architecture. The buildings have strict symmetrical lines centered on the front entrance, deeply grooved masonry, main entrance elevated above the ground, and architectural elements referring to the Roman Empire. The creative use of lush decorative trims, moldings, cornices, and other highly detailed architectural features are fully integrated into the architectural composition, not added on later as afterthoughts.

The impact of French architectural education on American building cannot be overstated. The New York Public Library, Grand Central Station, the Library of Congress, Union Station in Washington D.C. and Penn Station in Baltimore are just a few buildings designed by Ecole trained architects. The Chicago Columbia Exposition of 1892, the world’s fair of its day, began the nationally popular run of American Beaux Arts architecture that lasted until the Great Depression of 1929.

Formal training for architects in America was not available until the Massachusetts Institute of Technology opened a program in 1865. Most architects learned the art by apprenticeship or mastering a building trade. The finest architectural school in the world during the nineteenth century was the Ecole des Beaux-Arts in Paris. In 1846 Richard Morris Hunt became the first American to attend the school. Hunt was an extremely successful architect, designing the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, the Breakers and Marble House mansions in Newport, Rhode Island, and the Biltmore estate for the Vanderbilt family. The first wave of American architects trained at the Ecole included Henry Hobson Richardson and Charles McKim of McKim Mead and White, among many others. The second wave included every American architectural candidate that aspired to first tier status in the profession. Among the second wave was Louis Sullivan of Chicago, and Annapolitan architect T. Henry Randall (1862-1905) who worked for McKim Mead & White and then opened his own office in New York. Earnest Flagg attended the Ecole from 1889 to 1891. He was devoted to Ecole architectural principles his entire career, which culminated in the design of the buildings and campus of the Naval Academy.

Many Beaux Arts buildings remain throughout the country, but only a few examples of Beaux Arts urban planning survive. The Chicago Columbia Exposition plan was a tour de force in Beaux Arts urban planning. Monumental with broad vistas to symmetrical buildings; it created a popular sensation and inspired the City Beautiful movement. The Exposition buildings were destroyed, as planned, shortly after the fair closed. An excellent existing example of grand scale Beaux Arts city planning is the National Mall in Washington D.C., which was redesigned in 1901 by architect Charles McKim. The U.S. Naval Academy campus remains a rare environment with multiple buildings and urban planning using Beaux Arts architectural principles.

The main entrance façade of Bancroft Hall faces the park-like quadrangle, and is directly aligned with the entrance of Mahan Hall. Beaux Arts architects were well trained in the creation of architectural ornamentation. Note the battle ships plowing out of the Bancroft Hall roof parapets. This ornamentation is not a slavish copy of classical architectural details, but a wholly unique creation explicit to this building.

Beaux Arts architects were also trained to create specific unique floor plans for the building functions. They itemized the needs of the users, identified functional adjacencies, and applied principles of circulation to create distinctive site specific floor plans intended to function practically and efficiently. While all of Flagg’s Naval Academy buildings have been modified or expanded, the original primary interior spaces are intact, and continue to function with efficient grace.

Mahan Hall was designed as the main classroom building. It includes many features of Beaux Arts architectural principles. The symmetrical entrance is raised a floor above grade with a bold double staircase. The entrance axis is further emphasized by the clock tower, cupola, and segmented round pediment. Sculptures of allegorical figures, repetitive arches and a variety of pediments, brackets and balustrades complete the complex yet tightly controlled composition. Note the wonderful architectural hardware and lighting designed with nautical motifs.

Mahan Hall (at left above). The nave of the Chapel (at right above) was extended by an addition in 1939 by architect Paul Phillip Cret. This changed the form of the Chapel from a cruciform to Latin cross plan.  

In the original 1908 construction, the Chapel dome was sheathed in highly ornate glazed terracotta with naval military symbols. Flagg warned the contractors of their failure to provide proper waterproofing for the dome. This resulted in the eventual failure of the terracotta ornament, and its replacement with the copper roofing we see today.

The U.S. Naval Academy Chapel is a masterpiece of American Beaux Arts architecture. Flagg placed it on the highest ground and central to the entire campus composition. The dome is based on the design of the 1708 Royal Chapel at Les Invalides in Paris; designed by architect Hardouin Mansart. There are two very interesting parallels here: the Royal Chapel contains the 1840 bombastic imperial burial site of Napoleon while the Naval Chapel contains the crypt of John Paul Jones, father of the American Navy. Jones’ crypt was built in 1913 with a design inspired by Napoleon’s tomb, much more modest but still impressive.  The second parallel: the Baroque Royal Chapel was designed and built at the same time that Nicholson designed and built the Baroque urban plan of Annapolis. This is further evidence of how au courant the Annapolis town plan was in the world in 1694.

Dahlgren Hall

Bancroft Hall

Bancroft Hall

Bancroft Hall

Bancroft Hall

Techumseh Court

Buchanan House




Mahan Hall

Mahan Hall

Mahan Hall