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History of Dormitories at the U.S. Naval Academy

by Samuel Limneos on 2020-07-31T13:19:33-04:00 | 0 Comments


The above photograph features a scene familiar to those who visit or attend the Naval Academy. The figurehead of the USS Delaware (1820), brought to the Naval Academy in 1866, gazes stoically across T-Court at Bancroft Hall. Photograph taken in 1930. 

For those plebes of the Class of 2024 who recently took their socially-distanced oath of office in T-Court and officially began their summer training, life has been anything but normal. Restriction of Movement (ROM) orders to help stop the spread of COVID-19 have required everyone, plebes and detailers alike, to spend a good deal of time quarantined inside Bancroft Hall. While those who have called the dormitory home recall its vaulted ceilings and numerous passageways with a sense of pride or fond reminiscences, visitors first seeing Bancroft Hall's grand Beaux-Arts style details cannot help but feel a sense of awe. Bancroft, or "Mother B," is the largest college residence hall in the world. Since 1904, Bancroft Hall has been and remains the epicenter of the Naval Academy's traditions and heritage, with more than 115 classes of U.S. Navy leaders living under the dormitory's mansard roofs. However, Bancroft certainly was not the first dormitory to house midshipmen on the yard. This blog post will outline a history of the dormitories housing midshipmen over the Naval Academy's 175 year lifespan. 

The grounds of the Naval School as acquired from the US Army in 1845. The various buildings were utilized as quarters and recitation spaces, while the circular structure in the southeast, Fort Severn, was used for artillery exercises. Structures 3 (original recitation hall),4,5, and 6 (all midshipman quarters) were razed in the late 1840s and early 1850s to make room for construction of new midshipman dormitories. All of these buildings are now covered by Bancroft Hall. 

When the US Naval School was established in October 1845, the original structures used by the US Army garrison at Fort Severn were turned over to the Navy. The series of rudimentary wooden shacks and facilities were allocated as needed for use by the small number of faculty and students at the school. When the school was reorganized as the US Naval Academy in 1850, major improvements were made to the physical footprint including five brick midshipman dormitories, each one two or three stories high, constructed adjacent to the fort.  

Two photographs of the midshipman dormitories on Stribling Row taken in the 1870s. The three-story building at far left is the Recitation Hall. At far right in the center photograph is Fort Severn. At right is an official portrait of the dormitories' namesake, Superintendent Cornelius Stribling. 

The new dormitories opened during the superintendency of Commander Cornelius Stribling, between 1851 and 1853. These dormitory buildings stretched from west to east in a straight line toward Fort Severn. In front of the dormitories to the south lay the old drill and parade grounds. Referred to as the "Old Quarters," the dormitories comprised the eastern end of Stribling Row, which also included a recitation and mess hall, and a chapel building to the west. The road these structures once lined is preserved presently as "Stribling Walk," the tree-lined pathway between Bancroft Hall and the academic group buildings to the northwest. The Old Quarters contained a total of ninety-eight 225-square-foot double rooms. In the early days of the academy, these buildings housed midshipmen of all dates of entry and classes. The individual student’s stored belongings, and general use of their quarters, was strictly governed by regulations, very much like today.

Midshipmen in formation for dress parade in front of the Old Quarters 1861, shortly before the academy relocated to Newport, Rhode Island. Fort Severn is faintly visible on the right.  

During the 1850s midshipmen were required to keep their personal belongings and quarters orderly and clean, while rooms in the Old Quarters had attendants tasked with various responsibilities. The Board of Visitors’ Report for October 10, 1851 states,“before breakfast the students are required to make up their beds, and clean out their rooms. The attendant[s] supply water, brush shoes and clothes, remove water from the rooms, scrub them out when necessary, keep the passages clean, and attend generally to the quarters, grounds, and pavement around them ... at 10 p.m. the lights are put out, and the students are not permitted to leave their quarters during the night, except for necessary purposes...One attendant is allowed for eight rooms; two students occupy one room. Each room is furnished with two bedsteads, two bureaus, two chairs, one table, wash-stand, lamp, oil and fuel.” 

Midshipmen posing outside the front entrances of the Stribling Row dormitories, 1868. 

During the Civil War the academy relocated to Newport, Rhode Island. During the conflict's duration, the buildings on Stribling Row served various purposes, including as barracks and storehouses for the Union Army. After the return of the academy to Annapolis in 1865, it became quickly evident that the original midshipman quarters on Stribling Row proved entirely inadequate to meet the needs of the 566 midshipmen authorized by law. Superintendent David D. Porter and his administration (1865-1869) launched an extensive construction program to expand the academy's physical plant and accommodate the postbellum influx. On November 5, 1867, the Naval Academy purchased ten acres of land from the Visitors and Governors of St. John’s College between the college yard opposite King George Street and Dorsey Creek for the sum of $19,000. Upon these grounds, Porter planned the construction of the New Quarters.

This map, drawn to scale by Cadet Midshipman E. E. Hayden in 1876, shows the additional land purchased and buildings constructed during Admiral Porter's superintendency. The New Quarters building is the long building at left, while the Old Quarters are the line of four buildings stretching west to east adjacent to Fort Severn. 

The specific site of the dormitory was on the northwestern side of Maryland Avenue. The planning, design, and construction of the New Quarters was completed by architect Daniel M. Sprogle for the total cost of $98,643. Construction was completed in the summer of 1869 and the building was ready for occupancy the following October. It was referred to as the “New Quarters,” or “Upper Buildings,” to distinguish it from the old buildings on Stribling Row. The latter came to be called the “Old Quarters,” or the “Lower Buildings.” The New Quarters was a four-story structure, complete with a basement and attic, composed of a 57-square-foot center building, and two wings each 117 feet long and 45 feet deep. The center portion of the building was surmounted by a domed cupola and clocktower supplied with a clock consisting of four dials that illuminated at night. The exterior walls were mainly yellow brick and finished with red clay brick for the trim lining the roof, tower, cupola and window frames. An iron veranda adorned the front of the building stretching 293 feet. Ornate, decorative railings, characteristic of Moorish style, and typical of Victorian architecture, adorned the building's veranda and balconies. The Tripoli Monument, which still sits on the yard today in a slightly different location to the northwest, was originally placed in front of the New Quarters building. 

The New Quarters, photographed in 1869, designed and built during Rear Admiral David D. Porter's Superintendency. The Brigade of Midshipmen would line up for formation along the walkway in front of the New Quarters for various reasons including inspections, meal formations, classes, parades, and graduation ceremonies. 

The first floor center section contained a reception room. The first floor west wing contained the mess hall, and in the first floor east wing were offices for the Commandant of Midshipmen, the officer of the day, and recitation rooms. The east wing basement contained the kitchens, servants’ quarters, and storerooms. The center section basement contained a pantry and boiler room, while the west wing basement contained bathrooms and a barber shop. The west wing basement also housed the academy’s laundry room until 1881 when a new building was erected nearby for that specific purpose.

This staged photograph captures the interior of the New Quarters' mess hall in 1884.

The upper three floors were all of the same general layout: the wings were divided into individual living spaces, each 14 feet square, while the center section contained recitation rooms. The attic was composed of two separate garrets running the length of the entire building. Throughout the thirty-plus years the New Quarters served as a dormitory, these garrets were used for various purposes, including a drawing room and recitation space for monthly and semiannual examinations near the end of their lifespan. Each living space was occupied by two cadets (contemporary term for midshipmen from 1870 to 1902) and existing regulations always prescribed the furniture and fittings with strict exactness. The New Quarters were designed to accommodate approximately 200 students.

Scene inside of a cadet midshipman room in the New Quarters, late 1890s. 

To fix sanitation and ventilation problems, $3,000 was appropriated in 1881 for construction of a 40-square foot, four-story tower in the building’s rear, roughly equidistant to both the building’s ends, containing toilets and urinals. Eight years prior, Commodore James C. Palmer, Surgeon General of the United States, at the behest of Superintendent John L. Worden, had inspected the sanitary conditions of the New Quarters building and reported to the Secretary of the Navy:

The water closets are situated over one another, on three floors of the building: from these, there emanates a perpetual, stifling atmosphere of ammonia, mingled with the foulest odors, and diffused throughout the passages, into the sleeping apartments. The ceilings and walls are stained, and, immediately around and below the urinals, fairly saturated with unavoidable filth; the floors reeking also: and, in fine, the whole building penetrated with emanations which cannot fail, sooner or later, to prove pestilential. Of less importance to health, but involving great unpleasantness, if not disgust, are the vapors constantly arising from the kitchens and laundry. Even to the casual visitor, these, commingled with the factor first described, convey most unpleasant impressions; but constituting as they do, a permanent atmosphere to the lodgers in these long corridors, they are tolerated only under the circumstances that make them unavoidable; No hotel subject to such objections could expect public patronage.

Cadet midshipmen studying in their rooms inside the New Quarters, 1893.

In 1877 the head of the sidewalk leading from Maryland Avenue to the New Quarters was encircled by a set of ornate benches.The Journal of the Officer of the Day of Friday, September 28, 1877, documents an order published by Superintendent Rear Admiral Christopher R.P. Rodgers stating, “work on seats in front of New Quarters progressed, the frame of one set being put up...Two orders were published at supper, one prohibiting use of new seats to all except cadets.” Again, on Monday, October 1, at dinner formation General Order 112 was published stating, “the ‘Trophy Seats’ in front of the new Cadet Quarters, are intended, altogether, for the convenience of the Cadets, and the improvement of their quarters. Inasmuch as their use by officers, or visitors, might interfere with their occupation by those, for whose convenience they were intended, the Superintendent has directed that none but Cadets shall use them and he hereby places them under their care, and protection.”

The benches became known as the First Class and Second Class benches, with the names denoting who could use them. In 1938, when Preble Hall was completed, and Decatur Walk widened into Decatur Road to handle motor traffic, the two benches were removed to their present position facing T-Court, encircling Stribling Walk, in front of Bancroft Hall's main entrance.

An 1884 photograph featuring the decorative benches enclosing the main walk in front of the New Quarters. When the New Quarters was torn down in 1905 this walk was extended through to Balch Road, which in turn ran directly to No. 4 Gate and borders the southwest side of Worden Field. Referred to by cadets as the main walk, it remained otherwise nameless until January 21, 1925, when it was given the name of Decatur Walk.

In June, 1884, Superintendent Francis M. Ramsay wrote the Secretary of the Navy, enclosing proposed plans for a new quarters, mess hall, and kitchen for the cadets. According to Ramsay’s letter the New Quarters building could only accommodate 3/4 of the cadets, with the remainder quartered in the Old Quarters. Ramsay considered “objectionable” having the dormitories, kitchen and mess hall all within the same building because the “odors of the food pervade the building at all times and especially at night.” Ramsay also noted the building was badly ventilated, “badly planned for cadets’ quarters,” would be dangerous in the event of fire, had a bad location, and contained rooms too small for the cadets. Ramsay’s proposed buildings were not approved by the Navy Department.

A staged photograph in the New Quarters demonstrating a cadet midshipman officer of the watch awakening heavy sleepers late to morning formation, ca. 1900. 

Over time, the Old Quarters' buildings became known as ancient relics of the old academy, often referred to as 'rookeries' by the Academy authorities due to the dormitories' decaying accommodations. In the late 1880s and 1890s the Old Quarters' buildings were used as quarters for officers and cadets, store rooms, and offices. In a December 1897 report to the Assistant Secretary of the Navy, Superintendent Philip S. Cooper wrote of the Old Quarters' buildings, “having been poorly built and on the verge of made grounds [landfills] these buildings have been gradually approaching collapse and should be removed as soon as possible.”

 Midshipmen and drags of the Class of 1905 strolling and lounging outside the New Quarters. 

During the building’s lifetime, the New Quarters housed 32 graduating classes of midshipmen. However, the building’s reputation never improved. In a report to the Assistant Secretary of the Navy in December, 1897, Cooper wrote of the New Quarters, “this building is a disgrace to the nation and would not be tolerated in any self respecting municipality - cheap, unsanitary and in a state of decrepitude.” With impetus building for the complete renovation of the academy’s aging infrastructure, the New Quarters’ fate was fast approaching. A report for the superintendent by the academy’s officer in charge of buildings and grounds dated June 28, 1899, noted the building was condemned by a Board of Survey earlier that year and recommended provision be made to house the students in any other quarters as soon as possible. During the first half of 1899 the clock tower crowning New Quarters was torn down, and general overhauling and remodeling was undertaken to increase the safety and comfort of its accommodations for the following year.

The Brigade of Midshipmen on dress parade on Worden Field, June 1905. The New Quarters building is in center background, the cupola and clocktower having been removed five years earlier. Note Isherwood Hall in the left and construction of Mahan Hall behind it; and the Worden Field gazebo in the photograph's mid-right; ongoing construction of the new chapel is visible the right background. This is one of the last photographs of the New Quarters, as it was torn down later that month.

The New Quarters were torn down in June,1905 in order to permit more rapid progress on the construction of Sampson and Mahan Halls. A stone marker to indicate where the New Quarters once stood, ironically reading "Old Cadets Quarters," was placed on the sidewalk between Sampson Hall and the Tripoli monument, which was moved approximately 100 feet northwest to its present location at the same time.The pile driving and laying of the foundation for Bancroft Hall began in 1901.

The foundation for Ernest Flagg's new dormitory, Bancroft Hall, early 1902. The building in the background is MacDonough Hall, which was originally designed as a boat house. Fort Severn is visible on the right. 

Bancroft Hall was designed several years earlier by eminent New York architect Ernest Flagg. Flagg's overall design for the Naval Academy called for an expansion of the yard by substantial landfills on both its Severn River and harbor shores. A ship basin was planned for the riverside directly opposite a new chapel on the Academy's landward-side. Flagg designed grand French Renaissance style buildings, grouped by functional units, to border the basin and chapel, and face each other on the eastern and western ends of the yard. Flagg's plan included placing a new dormitory, with a capacity for 480 midshipmen, in the eastern section of the expanded yard. The crowning feature of Flagg's plan, Bancroft Hall was designed to exhibit many grand, Beaux Arts-style features including arched door frames, heavy bronze doors, and elaborate stone gargoyles and decorations. The dormitory was also planned with an eye for an expanded brigade of midshipmen, and space was provided for the easy addition of new wings. The original cost for the new dormitory was $3,513,855. In June 1904, it was announced that the new dormitory would be called Bancroft Hall, in honor of George Bancroft, Secretary of the Navy when the Naval Academy was founded in 1845.

This photograph was taken from the new chapel dome in 1906 and features the front of Bancroft Hall. The first chapel building at the far left and the old mess hall building adjacent to it were both remnants of Stribling Row of the old Naval Academy. Behind these buildings is the Santee Wharf, the predecessor of the present Santee Basin. 

In October 1904, the northeast wing of Bancroft Hall was ready for occupancy. The first senior class to be quartered in that wing of the new dormitory was the class of 1905, which included Midshipman Chester W. Nimitz, who occupied a room on the third floor.  According to historian Jack Sweetman, Nimitz and his friends quickly found an access point to the roof of one of the new dormitory's other wings still under construction, and amused themselves by drinking under the moonlight and dropping their beer bottles to crash on construction material and equipment below. On April 24, 1906, President Theodore Roosevelt presided over a ceremony in Dahlgren Hall to commemorate the return to the United States of the remains of Captain John Paul Jones, hero of the Continental Navy.  After the ceremony, Jones' remains were temporarily placed beneath the marble staircase in Bancroft Hall where they remained until 1913, when Jones' body was finally laid to rest in a circular crypt built beneath the new chapel chancel. 

The interior entrance of Bancroft Hall, featuring the rotunda and flight of marble steps leading to Memorial Hall. John Paul Jones' remains were stored beneath the marble staircase pictured here from 1906-1913.This photograph was taken during filming of the Christy Cabanne-directed movie, "The Midshipman," produced by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer in 1925. 

Inside the main entrance of Bancroft Hall the visitor is greeted by a marble-floored rotunda leading to a wide marble stairway. At the top of the stairs is a cathedral-ceilinged room that Flagg originally designed to be consecrated to the memory of fallen Navy heroes and as an assembly and social space. Originally, the swearing-in ceremony for new plebes, alumni dinners, and even formal dances were held in Memorial Hall. In 1922 this space was officially reserved to honor alumni killed in the line of duty, and a similar room directly beneath it, termed Smoke Hall, was provided for recreation. In addition to these grand spaces at the dormitory's entrance, the building was designed to contain the mess hall, kitchen, offices for the Commandant of Midshipmen, and the Executive Department offices. Two additional wings were added to the dormitory's seaward side in 1919 at the cost of $1.075 million, and two more on the landward side in 1941 for a total of $7 million.

The quarters of two midshipmen in Bancroft Hall, 1936. 

In 1961, a third major addition was proposed, and $19.14 million was appropriated for renovation of the existing wings as well as the construction of the seventh and eighth wings. Bancroft Hall in 1962 featured almost five miles of corridors, and more than 1,800 rooms, bringing the final accommodation to approximately 4,100 midshipmen. Bancroft Hall's additional services included a ten-lane bowling alley, cobbler, barber and tailor shops, medical and dental clinics, express and post offices, midshipman store and pay office, radio station, and rifle and pistol ranges. Significant renovations have occurred over the past 60 years including a nine-year project completed in 2003 to upgrade the dormitory's wiring and network capabilities. 

A midshipman formation marching outside Bancroft Hall, 1980. 

Dormitories at the Naval Academy have come quite a long way from the original frame buildings on Fort Severn that the Navy appropriated from the Army in 1845. The Naval Academy's rich heritage and proud legacy is reflected in the various buildings and monuments adorning the yard. As the countdown to the 175th Anniversary of the Naval Academy's founding on October 10, 2020 proceeds, stick with the Nimitz Library Special Collections and Archives blog where we will continue to publish posts reflecting on the institution's lore and history that highlight our archival collections. 



“Board of Visitors Report, 1851.” Folder 1: Reports 1851-1889. Box 1: Reports 1851-1935. Entry 209A: Reports of the Board of Visitors. Records of Boards and Committees. RG 405: Records of the U.S. Naval Academy. Special Collections and Archives, Nimitz Library.

Bolander, Louis. H. "Colors of Naval Academy Buildings About 1880-1890." Reference File - Buildings and Grounds - Miscellaneous. Special Collections and Archives, Nimitz Library. United States Naval Academy. 

Brown, Wilson, Superintendent. “Letter to George J. Meyers, dated March 28, 1938.” Folder 1, Box 4, Subseries 9b: Exhibits, 1905-1963, Series 9: Museum/Memorials and Exhibits, 1904-1963, Entry 39b: Office of the Superintendent: General Correspondence, 1845-1989. RG 405: Records of the United States Naval Academy. Special Collections and Archives, Nimitz Library. United States Naval Academy.

Cooper, Philip H. “Report No. 476 to the Assistant Secretary of the Navy Regarding Adoption of Plan for Rebuilding the Naval Academy, December 16, 1897.” Folder 1,  Box 1, Entry 116: Letters Relating to Proposed Rebuilding of the Naval Academy, 1895-1904. RG 405: Records of the United States Naval Academy. Special Collections and Archives, Nimitz Library. United States Naval Academy.

Dodge, Omenzo George, Professor. “Annual Report of the Officer in Charge of Buildings and Grounds, June 28, 1899.” Volume 446, Box 2, Entry 181: Press Copies of Letters Sent by Officer in Charge of Buildings and Grounds, 1875-1911. RG 405: Records of the United States Naval Academy. Special Collections and Archives, Nimitz Library. United States Naval Academy.

Dodge, Omenzo George, Professor. “Memorandum for the Superintendent Relative to the Work of Rebuilding, June 26, 1905.” Volume 486, Box 7, Entry 181: Press Copies of Letters Sent by Officer in Charge of Buildings and Grounds, 1875-1911. RG 405: Records of the United States Naval Academy. Special Collections and Archives, Nimitz Library. United States Naval Academy.

Hunt, William H. Secretary of the Navy, “Letter to C.R.P. Rodgers, Superintendent, U.S. Naval Academy, July 18, 1881.” Folder 10: Buildings, 1880-1888, Box 22, Entry 25: Letters Received by the Superintendent, 1845-1906. RG 405: Records of the United States Naval Academy. Special Collections and Archives, Nimitz Library. United States Naval Academy. 

Memorandum: Special Appropriations for New Midshipmens’ Quarters at U.S. Naval Academy, March 22, 1869.” Folder 5: Buildings, 1865-1869, Box 9, Entry 25: Letters Received by the Superintendent, 1845-1906. RG 405: Records of the United States Naval Academy. Special Collections and Archives, Nimitz Library. United States Naval Academy. 

Palmer, James C. “Letter to Secretary of the Navy George M. Robeson, April 18, 1873.” Folder 6: Buildings, 1873-1874. Box 15, Entry 25: Letters Received by the Superintendent, 1845-1906. RG 405: Records of the United States Naval Academy. Special Collections and Archives, Nimitz Library. United States Naval Academy. 

Ramsay, Francis M., Superintendent. “Letter to William E. Chandler, Secretary of the Navy concerning proposed plans for New Cadets’ Quarters, Kitchens, and Mess Hall at the U.S. Naval Academy, June 16, 1884”, Volume 53: 1882, September 2 - 1887, March 2. Entry 10: Letters Sent by the Superintendent to the Secretary of the Navy, 1874-1887. RG 405: Records of the United States Naval Academy. Special Collections and Archives, Nimitz Library. United States Naval Academy.

Rodriguez, David. All Stiff and and New and White: A Study of Bancroft Hall,1986. Reference File - Buildings and Grounds - Bancroft Hall. Special Collections and Archives, Nimitz Library. United States Naval Academy. 

Sweetman, Jack. The U.S. Naval Academy: An Illustrated History. Annapolis, Maryland: The Naval Institute Press, 1979.

Watts, Peter G. "Cadets Quarters" 1986. Reference File - Buildings and Grounds - New Quarters 1869-1905. Special Collections and Archives, Nimitz Library. United States Naval Academy. 

Wilson, Henry B., Superintendent. "Naval Academy Order No. 49-23: Memorial Hall Restriction and Recreation Hall Designation. Reference File - Buildings and Grounds - Bancroft Hall. Special Collections and Archives, Nimitz Library. United States Naval Academy. 

Wilson, L.H.B. "History of the Benches, Compilation dated September 12, 1952. Reference File - Buildings and Grounds - Benches. Special Collections and Archives, Nimitz Library. United States Naval Academy. 



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