Architectural Preservation

Annapolis Chapel Dome Recognized as Outstanding Restoration Project



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The RLF-led rehabilitation of the U.S. Naval Academy Chapel copper dome was recently recognized by the Copper Development Association's North American Copper in Architecture (NACIA) awards as an outstanding restoration project. The awards program highlights architectural copper projects that highlight craftsmanship, attention to detail, and architectural vision.

The U.S. Naval Academy Chapel, a historic religious facility that is 110 years old and spans 40,320 square feet, is a key element of architect Ernest Flagg's ambitious design for the Academy. This chapel was crucial to the Naval Academy's designation as a National Historic Landmark in July 1961. The distinctive copper-clad dome stands out on the grounds and is a prominent feature of the Annapolis townscape.

The Chapel is known for its Beaux-Arts architecture, featuring a large dome, spire, and intricate details. It plays a central role in various Naval Academy traditions and ceremonies and serves as the venue for weddings, funerals, and religious services for the academy community.

Flagg drew inspiration for the design of his chapel from the royal chapel at L’Hotel national des Invalides (known popularly as Les Invalides), a late seventeenth-century masterpiece of French Baroque architecture that was itself inspired by St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome. Like the plans for those two structures, the general plan of the chapel called for a domed building of monumental stature, which would reflect the heightened image of the Naval Academy that was emerging at the turn of the twentieth century.

Leaks in the dome chapel were noted as early as 1906 and continued throughout the years with many investigations and attempts to fix the ongoing problems. In 2014, RLF was hired to assess and plan renovations and repairs for the building's envelope, addressing issues with the current waterproofing systems. Prior to the start of design, the RLF team consulted with an archaeologist/historian to complete a Historic Preservation Research Study on the history of the Chapel and its roof. The investigation involved research into a wide variety of historical records, including architectural drawings and plans, photographs, maps, aerial photographs, correspondence, construction contracts, memorandums, promotional brochures, newspaper and magazine articles, and oral history interviews. Research revealed that the chapel was originally constructed from 1904 to 1908, that it was substantially enlarged in 1939/40, and that it has been subject to several significant episodes of renovation or repair from that time until the present.

This evaluation was an invaluable resource when making important decisions, and helped our team gain quick approval from the Maryland Historical Trust. The team then performed numerous field tests and exploratory work to fully understand the building’s construction to provide the best possible design solution. Careful planning was required to keep the facility fully operational at all times and ensure protection for facility staff and visitors.
The work included selective demolition to replace all copper cladding on the dome and lantern, replacing flashing across the roofs, introducing through-wall flashing at the parapets along the perimeter of the dome and nave, corrections to hairline cracking, replacing the lightning protection system, replicating the gold-leafed ornamentation, installing custom copper-clad skylights, and designing permanent storm-rated protection for the chapel’s two symbolic and four memorial stain-glass windows.

A feasibility analysis encompassed the design and cost considerations for a potential complete replacement of the dome and cupola with copper, ensuring the replication of existing details. Additionally, it included repairs to the masonry drums and parapets. However, copper replacement was the least favored choice by all parties involved. The primary concern was that it would significantly alter the physical appearance of the dome for a prolonged period of 25 to 30 years before the natural oxidation process could restore the distinctive green patina that is widely recognized and valued.

Renovations of a historic structure have many inherent challenges, few of which are as complex as repairing an iconic dome roof 150 feet in the air. Before work could commence, the dome’s as-built condition had to be documented. Instead of traditional field measurements, the RLF team used a full 3D laser scan with data imported into Revit. This electronic survey was further enhanced with up-close human inspections and observations using a team of craftsmen who carefully repelled the dome using ropes. During this inspection, all surface defects, as well as the waterproofing system underneath, were documented by individually removing each copper section and reinstalling them in the same order as they were removed.

The project was awarded a 2022 Award of Excellence from the Associated Builders & Contractors.

Photo Credit: Anice Hoachlander