The Naval Academy Chapel Dome prior to it’s renovation. Image courtesy of the author.
Wherever you are in downtown Annapolis--whether you’re strolling along a cobbled street or sailing a local creek or peeking out a historic window--you’ll likely catch a glimpse of the iconic Naval Academy Chapel dome. For as long as any of us can remember, the Chapel’s copper dome has displayed a classic green patina. That burnished green was proudly acquired over nearly a century of standing tall in wind and weather. Now, the dome exterior has been clad in an intricate beehive of scaffolding. The scaffolding was erected to enable replacement of the copper dome. Now, at long last, the platforms and ladders are soon coming down.
The new and improved Chapel Dome will at first have the bright copper color of a newly minted penny, but the dome will soon turn a dark brown color. Then over time, the new copper will once again slowly achieve a classic green patina due to chemical interactions with the environment. Experts estimate that this process will take twenty years or more.
The Chapel was originally constructed over a ten-year period during the first decade of the 1900s. The Chapel dome’s copper cladding was installed later in 1929. The copper replaced a prior dome surface that was covered in elaborate terra cotta decorations resembling a huge frosted wedding cake. The terra cotta dome was prone to leaking. In 1928, a fifteen pound chunk of terra cotta fell off into the sanctuary below. (Talk about a wedding crasher!) This deterioration led to replacement of the terra cotta with the copper roof that has lasted more than ninety years.
Iconic in every way- the new dome will have a darker copper hue that will take approximately 20 years or so to turn green through environmental factors. Image courtesy of Visit Annapolis.
In 2018, the Naval Academy set out to repair the century-old Chapel dome, anticipating completion within one year. While repairing the church nave roof, the contractors and USNA personnel determined that the copper roof of the Chapel was more deteriorated than they first thought.
New Dome Construction
The dome has sixteen copper roof sections, and the seams between these copper panels are covered by copper battens, or seam covers. Each of these panels and seam covers was replaced, one by one.
A view of the old chapel dome from the water. Image courtesy of the author.
Additionally, the cupola on top of the dome is topped by a mini lantern dome, also made of copper panels adorned by ornamental copper, all of which has been replaced. For each section, the ornamental copper panels were removed from the cupola and used as templates for the new panels and ornamental work. Specialists are now applying real gold gilding to the surfaces of the lantern dome and its spire. The building contractors have diligently worked through the pandemic with stringent procedures in place. Unusually severe weather also slowed the work, but it is now expected that the job will be completed this winter. As a result, the scaffolding will come down in phases as each section is completed and inspected.
The Historic USNA Chapel
The Naval Academy Chapel building was designated a National Historic Landmark in 1961. The Chapel hosts worship services, performances, weddings, and funerals for the Brigade of Midshipmen and alumni, serving them throughout their lives.
The original Naval Academy Chapel Dome was made of an intricate terra-cotta design. Image courtesy of Herff-Jones website.
The Naval Academy Chapel is the architectural crown of a 1902 plan for the Naval Academy Yard, or campus, designed by renowned architect Ernest Flagg. The Ernest Flagg plan completely redesigned the Yard configuration and called for construction of the ten core buildings surrounding the quadrangle. The plan was part of a transformation of the Academy deemed necessary to reinvigorate the United States Navy after the Civil War. Flagg used design principles of the Beaux-Arts style favored by architects schooled at the Paris Ecole des Beaux-Arts. Thus, the Academy’s buildings are arranged in exact axial symmetry and organized by importance.
Almost complete- the Naval Academy Chapel Dome at the United States Naval Academy. Image courtesy of the USNA History Department’s Instagram page.
Today, you can own a piece of the Chapel’s original copper dome. The historic copper will live on in heirlooms available through the Naval Academy Alumni Association. The Alumni Association has chosen the firm of Herff Jones, to create heirlooms forged from the dome’s salvaged copper. Proceeds will be donated to the Academy. The keepsakes include jewelry, challenge coins, ornaments, framed heirlooms, and other beautiful items crafted from the dome’s discarded copper. Just in time for the holidays! To purchase copper keepsakes of your own, click here. For more information about the Naval Academy, visit their website. Watch a time lapse video of the Chapel dome refurbishment here.