By Benjamin Forgey
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, October 23, 2005
The interior beauty of the new Jewish chapel at the U.S. Naval Academy -- the first dedicated worship space for Jews in academy history -- comes as a soaring surprise. Outside, despite a very nice domed entryway, the building is so quietly deferential that you can walk right by with hardly a second glance.
Deference is understandable. Rising behind and on both sides of the new building are the vast granite expanses of Bancroft Hall and its extensive wings. These mansard-roofed goliaths -- said to make up the largest dormitory in the world -- were conceived more than a century ago in an august French style by American architect Ernest Flagg.
The intended result is a kind of imperial monumentality. An individual human being does not, to put it mildly, loom large in this setting.
"You just can't compete with all of that, and today you couldn't afford the stone," says architect Joseph A. Boggs, whose Annapolis firm designed the new structure. Thus the Commodore Uriah P. Levy Center and Jewish Chapel, its precast concrete surfaces scored to emulate the rustication of Bancroft Hall's mighty granite blocks, takes a modest place in Flagg's monumental scheme.
There is, however, nothing modest about the chapel interior. It definitely is a look-at-me space. You walk into the building, glance to your right, and there it is -- irresistible.
The biggest surprise, I suppose, is simply how tall the chapel is. From the outside, the horizontal building looks as if it would house nothing more exciting than three floors of offices and maybe a couple of conference rooms. But the chapel, taking up one half of the front portion of the symmetrically divided structure, is all about verticality. Long and rather narrow in basic shape, the room rises 47 feet from Jerusalem stone floor to aluminum-leaf ceiling, and, because of the ways Boggs manipulated the space, it looks and feels a lot taller.
In a sense, it is like a miniature Gothic cathedral -- all light and uplift. The sides of the rather narrow chamber are defined by curving clear glass panels that make up the balcony "railing." Above these, two rows of curving scrims made of white woven steel are carried on a network of lightweight steel ties and struts. The sail-like metal panels are subtly underlit. Thus the shape, color and lighting of the panels draw a visitor's eyes inevitably up to the ceiling's narrow, shallow, silvery vault.
In contrast, the wall behind the bimah (the raised platform from which services are conducted) is sheathed with three-inch-thick Jerusalem stone, hand-hewn in Israel to resemble the ancient stones of the sacred Western Wall of Herod's temple. The holy ark, an impressive polished wood cylinder where the Torah scrolls are stored, stands like a sentinel in a shallow curved niche. This niche is covered with golden mosaic tiles that highlight a helical pattern in black.
It is a rich vein of contrasting qualities that Boggs has mined with his abstract vocabulary here: lightness and transparency set against solidity and heavy weight; dull surfaces compared with shiny ones; spaciousness combined with intimacy. And, in an abstract way, he found ways to rival the figurative, allegorical motifs that decorate the Bancroft Hall complex. Boggs's sails, nautical struts and that oceanic sense of light somehow rivaling the anchors, cannons and fish carved in the stones of Flagg's architecture.
Similarly, the level of craft in Boggs's building rivals that in Flagg's complex -- if only in selected places. This is nice to see. A lot of justified hand-wringing goes on about the level of building crafts today (and their expense!) but good work still can be done, as we see here. To give credit where it is due, Regie Studney of Rugo Stone, a Lorton company, spent 21 weeks laying in the mosaic tiles behind the ark, on the floor of the corridor outside the chapel and on the inside face of the dome.
Interestingly, before setting out to design a synagogue, Boggs, who is not Jewish, decided not to learn much about the history of synagogue architecture. "The traditions are so deep and go back so many millennia, once you start pulling back the layers you just can't get to the center, so I decided not to know anything. I just wanted to make the purest space possible, just kind of use my intuition to create a space for Jews to worship in."
"I always kid Joe that I am going to make him an honorary Jew because I'm amazed at how well he got it," says Rabbi Irving Elson, a Navy commander. "I almost don't have to preach sermons, because the building speaks for itself."
The chapel (an all-purpose Navy term for a place of worship) also is compelling for non-Jews. I can say that with assurance because I am not Jewish, and I found the chapel to be quietly mesmerizing on two recent visits. It is a serene, contemplative, spiritual place.
If the architectural split between outside and inside is mainly because of the building's context, its ordinary, rectangular shape also conveniently accommodates a variety of other uses the Navy wanted. These included an informal gathering place for midshipmen, an auditorium and classrooms to teach "understanding and tolerance for the beliefs of others," in the words of Vice Adm. Rodney P. Rempt, Naval Academy superintendent. The $15.5 million center was paid for mainly by private donations, with the federal government contributing a mere $1.8 million.
Levy was the ideal -- and obvious -- choice to become the building's namesake. In 1858, after several decades of distinguished service, he became the first Jew to rise to commodore, and commanded the Mediterranean fleet. A proudly Judaic patriot, Levy faced six courts-martial during his career, most if not all growing out of anti-Semitism. All six convictions were overturned -- on three occasions by presidents. His campaign to eliminate flogging is generally credited with the abolition of the practice.
The commodore made one other significant contribution to his country. An ardent admirer of Thomas Jefferson, he purchased the former president's home of Monticello in 1836, when it was in dire straits. Levy worked on the house periodically until his death in 1862 and thus helped to save it for posterity. Jefferson, of course, loved domes and deployed them in his buildings -- awkwardly at Monticello and splendidly at the University of Virginia. Boggs, always a thoughtful architect and often a romantically expressive one, was referring to this connection when he designed a domed structure as a frontispiece to the Levy Center.
It is a fitting historicist gesture that symbolically unites the commodore, the president and the principles of freedom and tolerance both believed in. And inside the building, behind the dome, we find a bold, satisfying, contemporary expression of faith.
The Levy Chapel is open to the public when not in use. Visiting hours at the Naval Academy are 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily. An identity card with a photograph is required for admission. Guided tours are available at the academy's Armel-Leftwich Visitor Center. Up-to-date information on security restrictions can be found athttp://www.usna.edu.