Thursday, 4 February 2010
The Four Mess Halls of West Point
Although all living graduates are quite familiar with the imposing Cadet mess hall known as Washington Hall, either in its original or expanded form, getting one’s meals was not always so simple for cadets at West Point. Prior to 1805, cadets maintained their own separate messes or boarded with families. Both arrangements were expensive, however, and cadets had little of their pay left for uniforms and other needs. In August 1805, Superintendent Jonathan Williams, with the approval of Secretary of War Dearborn, established a centralized mess in a set of quarters, but it ceased operating after a year. In 1813, it was revived in the same location.
The first building designed specifically as a mess hall opened in 1815 and had dining rooms on two floors. Because it catered to cadets, officers, and visitors, the kitchen was enlarged and additional staff quarters added in 1823. Completed in 1851 and named Grant Hall in 1887, the Academy’s third mess hall, built in Tudor Gothic, boasted a spacious cadet dining room with tall windows and also housed the officers’ mess until 1904. Visitors by then, however, had long been accommodated at the West Point Hotel, built just off the Plain in 1829 by Superintendent Sylvanus Thayer.
The current facility, Washington Hall, was begun in 1925 and completed in 1929. A graceful, neo-gothic structure, it contained three wings and easily accommodated a Corps of 1,340. The kitchen occupied the center wing with dining wings to each side. When the Corps expanded to 2,496 in 1947, the kitchen was relocated to the rear of the center wing and the tables placed closer together. The interior of the hall featured a stone floor, dark wooden wainscoting, tall windows, and a lofty, timbered ceiling. On the “poop deck,” above the main entrance, the First Captain and his staff ate, and announcements were read to the Corps from there at mid-meal by the adjutant. Distinguished guests also took their meals there. When the Corps expanded to 4,417 in the latter half of the sixties, Washington Hall added three new wings, the last completed in 1969. Its gothic style was maintained, along with the front facade and the poop deck, but these now stand at the building’s center. In essence, the expansion added mirror images wings to the original three.
In 1820, Superintendent Sylvanus Thayer hired William L. Cozzens, a civilian contractor, to manage the mess hall, which he did until 1829, when he became the manager of the West Point Hotel. The “Bill of Fare” that Cozzens contracted to provide relied heavily on meat – beef, veal, mutton, ham, and pork – and potatoes, “which shall always be given.” The Bill of Fare changed relatively little during the rest of the century. From the Class of 1871 Scrapbook: “The fare of the cadets in those days….consisted almost exclusively of beef, boiled, roasted, or baked for dinner; cold, sliced, or smoked for breakfast and supper; beef soup twice a week, and bread pudding with molasses on soup days.” During the 20th Century, the meals gradually improved in quality and variety. In 1998, a $28 million renovation tripled the size of the kitchen and added state-of-the-art equipment to serve 2.6 million meals annually.
Only breakfast, lunch, and Thursday dinner are mandatory now, but the cadets still march to mandatory meals and sit at ten-person tables, their places determined by rank and class. The plebes don’t brace, but they still sit at attention and have duties to perform. The Mess Hall staff of 300, split equally between government and contract workers, still manages to deliver hot food to all 430 tables within six minutes of “Take Seats.” And class lights still signal when cadets may leave. But gone are the “Sammy pitchers,” lidded silver pitchers for molasses and later honey, named for a mess hall mouser named Sammy, allegedly found dead one day, with a smile on his face, entombed in the last barrel of molasses in the storeroom. Also gone are the cloth napkins and engraved napkin rings issued upon the successful completion of Plebe year and, in an earlier era, melted down to make a cup for the first son born to each graduated class.
The Mural in one wing of Washington Hall was designed and painted by Major T. Loftin Johnson, a Yale graduate teaching art at West Point. Completed in egg tempera on plaster in 1936, the mural measures 70 feet wide by 30 feet high and depicts the history of the “Twenty Most Decisive Battles of the World”, beginning with the fall of Cyrus at Babylon in 536 BC and ending with the First Battle of the Marne in World War I. Two women are featured, Queen Isabella and Joan of Arc, and King Richard the Lion Hearted holds central position, mounted on a caparisoned steed. The federal government provided funding for the Mural project through the Works Progress Administration (WPA). GEN Douglas McArthur, Class of 1903, Army Chief of Staff, and Superintendent MG William D. Connor, Class of 1897, were instrumental in securing its approval. It was restored recently by gifts from the Class of 1976 and Russell T. Bundy, a parent of the Class of 1997.
The installation of the stained glass windows in the northwest wing, another WPA Art Project, took two years and three artists to complete. George Pearse Ennis created the original sketches but died in a car accident in 1936. Archibald D. Sawyer died of a heart attack in 1937. Finally, Oscar H. Julius and 12 assistants finished the windows in 1938. They illustrate important events in the life of George Washington.
In 1974, seven stained glass panels from the Class of 1944 were installed in the new east wing, directly above the main entrance. Columcile Charkey created the preliminary sketches. The windows, approximately 20 feet high and 40 feet wide, “depict the wars in which West Point graduates had fought since the establishment of the Academy in 1802.” Fourteen battle scenes were selected, beginning with the War of 1812, and two major scenes appear in each panel.
On 5 January 1952, as the inaugural event of the Academy’s Sesquicentennial, the National Guard Association presented and unfurled the flags of the States and U.S. Territories in Washington Hall. Portraits of each past Superintendent also grace the walls, and these recently were restored by the Class of 1981. One portrait of a past Superintendent Robert E. Lee, Class of 1829 (1852-55) also hangs in the Library (along with that of Ulysses S. Grant, Class of 1843)—another Sesquicentennial gift, unveiled on 17 January 1952.
Much of the information contained herein was included in an essay for the 2001 Bicentennial Calendar by COL (Ret.) John A. Calabro, Jr. ’68.
Your humble servant, J. Phoenix, Esquire
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