Dahlgren Hall is the chameleon of the U.S. Naval Academy. Built in 1903 as an armory for Ernest Flagg’s “new academy,” it has seen more changes than a midshipman’s uniform during Commissioning Week. The beauty of this building is that it is perfectly suited to each use, whether as an ordnance warehouse—or the home of the famous Wright Flyer—and so many other interesting iterations throughout the years. If they took a stroll through it today, the midshipmen attending the Naval Academy of the past would recognize the iconic shell of the building, but would feel as though they are walking through a different world in the interior.
Life As An Armory
Appropriately named for Civil War-era Rear Admiral John A. Dahlgren, the historic hall first contained the training weaponry for the growing Brigade, including rifles and shipboard guns with which this founder of the Navy’s Ordnance Department was so familiar. Dahlgren worked at the Navy Yard; he was known for inventing a number of large-caliber guns for the Navy. Two of his namesakes are the Dahlgren Rifle and the Dahlgren 30 pounder, one of which is positioned at the landward end of Dahlgren Hall. You can also find the inventor’s bust on the stairway heading down to the current Drydock Restaurant.
The hall itself is striking. It bookends Bancroft Hall and resembles the other half of a fortified gate, made complete with Macdonough Hall, which originally started as a gymnasium and still serves that purpose today (albeit with more modern equipment). Together, these two halls represented the military and naval pursuits of the USNA. With their enormous windows, they resemble train stations in Europe, crafted of masonry, glass and metal.
On the inside, Dahlgren Hall features open bronze trusses and an impressive interior. While an armory, the USNA often hosted sporting events and ceremonial celebrations in this incredible space. One of the most famous of these was when President Theodore Roosevelet addressed the midshipmen on April 24, 1906, when John Paul Jones’ remains were brought to the Yard. During this period, the hall was used as an indoor drill area for Naval Academy students and as the Weapons Department laboratory.
The Center of Celebrations
Starting in 1903, Dahlgren Hall was also the festive scene for basketball games, graduations (one of the most prolific sites on the Yard to this day), and many “hops,” the fun dances hosted by the Brigade. The annual USNA Ring Dance where the 2nd class midshipmen receive their class rings has taken place here for many years. Dahlgren Hall is given a gorgeous update to align the current year’s theme and couples walk in grand style through a carpeted dias underneath a gigantic gilded representation of their class ring, complete with glowing crystals. While the Ring Dance was moved in 1957 to Radford Terrace between Michelson and Chauvenet Halls or Forrest Sherman Field—and the dances followed suit, today, the dances have returned to Dahlgren Hall and traditions continue. From 1974-2006, it delighted midshipmen and locals alike with a full sized ice rink for hockey and winter skating, until the Brigade Sports Complex was built in 2006.
Food, Fellowship and a Flyer
Now, the Naval Academy Business Services Division (NABSD) makes their home there, along with the Midshipman activity center and lounge. The large space hosts different activities and events, including class reunions, concerts and dances, as well as practice and rehearsal spaces for club sports like fencing and extracurricular activities like spirit and the silent drill team. On the lower level, the Drydock Restaurant is a focal point for midshipmen and visitors alike, dishing up cafeteria style food that some have dubbed the best pizza in town. The Class of ’53 Reception Area (landward side, second deck) is a designated ceremonial area used primarily for formal and semi-formal events and ceremonies. Above the ‘53 deck, the trusses are punctuated by the incredible full-sized bi-plane replica of the Wright Flyer, positioned in mid-flight over fifteen years ago.
Now, festive lights strung from the rafters add to the atmosphere, and if you stroll the top floor balcony, you can find some incredibly interesting tidbits of USNA history, including portraits of previous superintendents of the Naval Academy and a large 1870s model of the USS Antietam.
Dahlgren Hall is worth a visit for that very reason—it’s an integral part of the evolving history of the U.S. Naval Academy. Surely, it will continue to serve its purpose as whatever space is required by the Brigade for many years to come. In the meantime, it’s a fascinating space—and the food is fantastic. Come spend some time here and feel the history. You’ll be supporting the Brigade of Midshipmen too, since the Drydock Restaurant gives all proceeds back to the midshipmen.