ANNAPOLIS – Walking up a stairwell in the Naval Academy’s massive Bancroft Hall, Midshipman 3rd Class Grant Garcia points out a noticeable rut in the floor on the outside of the staircase.
“That’s where the plebes have to walk,” he says. The friction of thousands of first-year students’ steps has literally worn a trail into the floor.
Bancroft Hall has that feeling of history about it.
Tens of thousands of midshipmen have passed through Bancroft since it was built as the academy’s dormitory in 1906. Flags captured from enemy ships hang in Smoke Hall and the steps into the building are flanked by the a 15th-century Japanese temple bell and the bell from the USS Enterprise.
But the hall is changing. It is now in the fourth year of a nine-year, $200 million renovation that will tear the dormitory down to its frame and rebuild it and every system in it.
The tracks in the stairs will remain, but extensive work on just about everything else will help bring the early-20th century dorm into the 21st century, said Lt. Cmdr. Paul Beckwith, officer in charge of the project.
“The older sections don’t meet current life-safety code standards,” Beckwith said. “The air ducts are rotting away … the piping systems are getting full of rust … the electrical system isn’t able to handle the current amount of electricity being used.
“The hall is beyond its economic life,” Beckwith said of Bancroft, which has not had a major renovation since the 1960s. “We’re repairing it by replacing it.”
The construction moves in phases, with each wing of the hall stripped down to its basic structure and every system ripped out before the interior is cleaned and the systems rebuilt.
“You name it, it all came out,” Beckwith said.
It’s no simple renovation. Bancroft Hall can house 5,000 midshipmen and is the second-largest college dormitory in the world, behind only the University of Moscow.
Sprawling over 33 acres, six-story Bancroft Hall has 4.5 miles of corridors linking 2,000 dorm rooms in its eight wings. The dormitory also houses a pistol range, a barber, a tailor, clothing shops, a laundry, its own radio station, a gym and eateries.
It even has its own ZIP code.
It takes 300 men, working full-time, a full year to finish renovation of each wing.
Gutting the old building has given construction teams a chance to rediscover and restore some of the history of the 93- year-old building. They are working with state preservationists to bring back parts of the building that had been covered by four previous renovations.
On the middie-rutted stairway, for example, construction teams have found wrought-iron handrails that had been covered by aluminum. The white rubber roof of one wing will be replaced with copper to match the green metal roofs of the others, as the designers intended, Beckwith said.
The main rotunda of the hall is slightly dark despite the hundreds of electric lights that dot the sculpted ceiling high above. On the walls are epic murals of famous naval battles.
Former midshipman Ross Perot remembers his first time entering Bancroft Hall well.
“I came from a small town in Texas, and it was the size of the hall that was impressive,” Perot said. “Everywhere I turned, there was something interesting to see and learn.”
But step through the doors off the rotunda and into the midshipmen’s living quarters and the building begins to resemble a typical college dorm.
The halls are slightly outdated, with bright florescent lights. Bulletin boards line the walls and mids rush to class, study in their rooms or try to catch up on much-needed sleep.
Unlike a typical dorm, however, the corridors here are immaculate. Despite the fact that over 4,000 young men and women share the building, there is little yelling, and stereos are kept quiet.
The midshipmen rushing about are in uniform, even in their down time. Beds are neatly made for inspection and the sole poster in each room is not from the latest hit movie — it bears the code of honor.
“The Navy has always approached the hall as almost like running a ship,” said David Church, a member of the class of 1967 and head of the Academy Alumni Association.
Bancroft was built in 1906, in the wave of good feeling that followed the Spanish-American War. New wings were added in 1920 to deal with a boom in the academy’s student population. More wings were added in 1940 and 1967.
Besides updating and generally polishing up the hall, the renovation of Bancroft Hall should make the lives of midshipmen easier.
Where old rooms had two or three bunk beds, with desks in the middle, the updated rooms free up space by putting bunks above the desks. More lockers and closet space are being added, and new Internet connections are being installed.
“I think it’s a big improvement,” said Garcia, who lives in one of the new rooms. “There’s a lot more space.”
But even as she gets her facelift, those who have lived with “Mother B” are confident that the lifestyle there will not be erased.
“The mids will have a better life in the new rooms,” Church said. “But none of the tradition will change. Mother B still tells you when to get up, when to eat and what uniform to wear.”