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Special Collections & Archives

The rare or unique holdings of Nimitz Library.

The New Naval Academy That Never Was, Revisited

by David D'Onofrio on 2021-02-23T10:26:00-05:00 in Special Collections & Archives, History | Comments

In a previous post, we discussed the unrealized vision for the development of the Naval Academy put forth by the Moreell Commission and architect Edward Durell Stone in the 1960s. Today, we will take a look at another unrealized vision for the Naval Academy: that of architect Ernest Flagg. At first glance, the preceding statement likely seems to make little to no sense. Stand in the middle of the Yard, look in almost any direction, and you will see the fruits of Flagg's labor: a collection of Beaux-Arts buildings, including Bancroft Hall, the Chapel, and the Sampson/Mahan/Maury group, constructed around a seemingly cohesive plan. However, in architecture and public planning, much as in film making, there is much that is left on the cutting the room floor. Such is the case with the architectural vision of Ernest Flagg, a portion of which never made it off the drafting table.

As the nineteenth century drew to a close, the physical plant of the Naval Academy was ailing and in desperate need of an overhaul. To address these shortcomings, the Navy appointed a commission under the leadership of Rear Admiral E. O. Matthews. Together with New York architect Ernest Flagg, the commission submitted a proposal for the rebuilding of the academy. While similar in many ways to what was ultimately constructed, there are several key omissions and changes between the initial plan shown below and what eventually came to be.

Map of Ernest Flagg's original plan for the Naval Academy, noting major changes and omissions.

Reading through the legend of structures in the 1896 plan for the academy, you will notice that the superintendent's quarters are directly in front of Dahlgren Hall, rather than next to the Chapel. While Flagg's plan called for the summary razing of nearly every structure on the Yard, there are two that were originally slated for retention and renovation, but were ultimately removed from the final master plan. One was Fort Severn and the other was the colonial-era Maryland Governor's Mansion, which had served as the superintendent's office and the academy's library since 1869. Flagg had originally called for the "restoration of this interesting and historic relic to its original condition, and utilizing it as a residence of the commander."

Front elevation and first floor plan for Ernest Flagg's proposed renovation of the old Governor's Mansion.

Eventually, concerns over the structural integrity of the mansion overrode the desire for historic preservation, and the master plan was altered in favor of the construction of an entirely new residence for the superintendent.

Looking back at the 1896 plan of the academy, to the left of academic complex that would eventually take form as Mahan, Sampson, and Maury Halls, there is a building that could easily be mistaken for Preble Hall, home of the Naval Academy Museum. However, looking down the legend of structures, you will see that this space was originally designated as an academic building: the Physics & Chemistry Building.

Front elevation and first floor plan of Ernest Flagg's proposed Physics & Chemistry Building.

As construction costs began to without any new appropriations of funds, Flagg noted that the Navy was "determined to recast the whole plan of the group in a cheaper mould, and to combine the Physics and Chemistry Building with the Library and Academic Building." In fact, the very notion of the combination of the Library and Academic Building (Mahan) into a single structure itself was the result of the realities of funding. Although not reflected in the 1896 plan above, designs for an independent library building to be situated opposite the Chapel along Dewey Basin were submitted, but never became reality.

Elevations for Ernest Flagg's abandoned library plans.

Having mentioned the proposed library along Dewey Basin (modern day Ingram Field), it is appropriate to focus on the basin itself. As Flagg stated, one of his major goals was "to open up a charming view of the river with the basin in the foreground, the latter enclosed with massive sea walls of granite, its entrance flanked by stone beacons standing at the ends of the two piers which partially separate it from the river." At the edge of the basin facing the Chapel was to be a "sort of semi-circular place suggestive of an amphitheater."

Artist Hughson Hawley's rendering of Ernest Flagg's overall layout of the new Naval Academy, depicting the basin with its proposed amphitheater and beacons, as well as the Chapel, Academic Building and Library, Boat House, Armory, Cadet Quarters, and Power Plant.

While Dewey Basin was indeed constructed and served as the home of the academy's training cutters for decades, the shoreline amphitheater and elaborate stone beacons marking its entrance never came to fruition.

Looking further down the legend on the 1896 map of the academy, we come to our final two unrealized buildings: the Gymnasium and the Boat House. Much like the general statement of Flagg's vision not being realized, the statement that his gymnasium also wasn't built might also seem confusing. After all, Flagg did design Macdonough Hall, and Macdonough Hall is a gymnasium. However, Flagg initially designed a different gymnasium, to be located along Balch Road near Worden Field. Despite going through two iterations, those plans for a gymnasium were never realized.

Ernest Flagg's initial elevations and floor plans for a proposed gymnasium.
Revised floor plans for the proposed gymnasium.

This, of course, raises the question of what Macdonough Hall was intended to be if not a gym? The architect himself stated that, originally, Bancroft Hall was to be "flanked on one side by the boathouse and on the other side by the armory." Located directly on Dewey Basin, the building that would eventually become Macdonough Hall was designed to be, and even initially constructed as, the home of Seamanship and Navigation. Sporting an interior equally as cavernous as its mirror image in Dahlgren Hall, and connected to the basin by a short canal, the building was intended to serve not only as academic space, but as the boathouse for the cutters used in seamanship instruction.

Close up view of Hughson Hawley's rendering of Flagg's plan for the academy, showing training boats lined up to steam into the boathouse.
Training boats lined up inside Macdonough Hall when still configured as a boat house, from the photograph album of George W. Kenyon.

The cancellation of the planned gymnasium on Balch Road led to, as Flagg noted, "one important change from the original plan...the conversion of a part of the boat house or seamanship building into a gymnasium." With the eventual completion of Luce Hall next door, Macdonough Hall would be turned over completely to athletic pursuits.

By the time Ernest Flagg's final building at the Naval Academy was completed with the dedication of the new Chapel's doors in 1909, much had been done to alter Flagg's original vision for the Naval Academy. Facades of red brick had given way to granite, which had in turn given way to gray brick; interiors of limestone had given way to plaster; and entire buildings were either reimagined or completely omitted. Yet, the campus that was realized, born of vision and compromise, has largely stood the test of time, serving as the heart of the Yard for more than one hundred years.


Architectural Drawings, RG 405, Special Collections & Archives, Nimitz Library.

Flagg, Ernest. "Architectural Features of the Naval Academy," The Evening Mail (September 30, 1905): 7-8.

Flagg, Ernest. "New Buildings for the United States Naval Academy, Annapolis, Md." The American Architect and Building News XCIV, no. 1698 (July 8, 1908): 9-13.

Flagg, Ernest. "The New Naval Academy." United States Naval Institute Proceedings XXV, no. 4 (December 1899): 865-873.

George W. Kenyon Photograph Album, MS 434, Special Collections & Archives, Nimitz Library.

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