While echoing the octagonal architecture of Monticello, the new pavilion's seven exterior sides (the eighth is incorporated into the Levy Center's atrium) also evoke Jewish symbolism, specifically Abraham's multisided tent and the seven days of Genesis. A Star of David appears beneath the cornice of each side of the pavilion.
Journey to the Chapel
The first floor of the Levy Center is given over to the Miller Memorial Chapel, east of the Berlin Atrium, and the Fred Stein Fellowship Hall to the west. The second and third floors above the fellowship hall are conference rooms and honor court facilities, serving the entire academy. The east wing of the Levy Center is occupied entirely by the multistory chapel.
A duality of Jewish use and symbolism and Naval Academy use and symbolism is carried throughout the building. Paid for entirely by outside contributions — through the Friends of the Jewish Chapel campaign spearheaded by Jewish alumni of the academy, wealthy local supporters, and others — the building was given, after completion, to the U.S. Naval Academy.
On entry, the visitor's eye is drawn from the double helix in the floor upward to the oculus of the pavilion and the three-dimensional Star of David skylight in the atrium.
Counterpoint to this vertical movement is a horizontal movement from the secular exterior to the reflective, spiritual space of the sanctuary. Further emphasizing this soul-cleansing transition is a space just inside the sanctuary, where etched glass partitions separate the chapel's foyer from the seating area. The Naval Academy's Jewish chaplain, Rabbi Irv Elson, refers to this foyer as a quiet meditative space.
This physical and spiritual journey appropriately culminates in the sanctuary. The high rear wall of warm-colored Jerusalem stone and the tall wooden ark are flooded by soft daylight filtered through Shogi glass. The ark — enclosing the Torahs, which are read from during services — stands below a continually burning gas lamp.
Further drawing one's gaze upward are stainless steel light-filtering scrims along the north and south walls of the chapel. These scrims recall nautical shapes, specifically sails, while lifting the viewer's eye to the ceiling of silver-leaf, an alloy that will not tarnish. Architect Boggs says, "when looking up from the pews you see virtually nothing; this uncluttered view was designed to alleviate distraction and lift spirits."
While designing the chapel, Boggs traveled to Israel to visit historic synagogues and personally inspect the Jerusalem stone from Hebron that was shipped for the chapel's construction. This beautiful and expensive stone is especially fitting for this sanctuary because it recalls the surviving West Wall of the destroyed ancient temple in Jerusalem.
Serving the Navy
After services, the midshipmen and guests can go across the atrium to the fellowship hall where they are served kosher refreshments. The hall also functions as a gathering space for discussions or for viewing presentations on an extensive multimedia system. Like the conference rooms and honor court on the floors above, the fellowship hall serves the entire academy.
The chapel seats 306 people on the main level and another 119 in the balcony for a capacity of 425, roughly four times the number of Jewish midshipmen. This large capacity demonstrates that the chapel welcomes not only the academy's Jewish population, but also any civilian Jews wishing to attend services there.
When Rabbi Elson was asked if the chapel was Reform, Conservative, or Orthodox, he replied that the Jewish chapel at any navy facility reflects the orientation of the chaplain. Because Elson, who served two combat tours in Iraq as a Navy chaplain, is a Conservative Jew, the new chapel at the Naval Academy is Conservative.
And yet, he points out, two women students at nearby St. John's College attend services, and they sit in the balcony suggesting they are Orthodox and following the Orthodox belief that men and women should sit separately in synagogue.
Rabbi Elson has high praise for the new building. "The Levy Center accomplishes exactly what a synagogue should do," he says." It provides a setting where the architecture itself evokes the prayers of the congregation. Boggs & Partners have been able to create for our midshipmen a prayer in wood and stone." The architect has served all his clients at the Naval Academy equally well.
Discuss this article in the Architecture Forum...
William Lebovich is an architectural historian and photographer. His most recent project was "Shared Sacred Spaces: Washington, DC Synagogues That Became African American Churches."