GOLD-DIGGERS It all began with the gold rush of 1873. The U.S. defense forces were pushed to build an air base, when the city of Colorado Springs felt the need of military presence and added government protection. That was the genesis of the U.S. Air Force Academy. Located on more than 18,500 acres of forests and foothills about 10 miles north of downtown Colorado Springs, this showcase of military instruction and leadership is the youngest of America’s five military service academies; its first graduating class of second lieutenants was commissioned in 1959. While the premise in itself is impressive, what steals the show is the AFA’s Cadet Chapel. Designed in 1959 by Skidmore Owings & Merrill (SOM) architect Walter A. Netsch Jr., the building is an iconic fusing of technology, worship and aesthetically pleasing futuristic architecture. It was finished in 1963 after four years of work and a budget of $3.5 million. From the outside, the conspicuous 17 spires dominate the landscape, but the technological know how of the interior is truly inspiring.
A CONTEMPORARY CHAPEL
The frame of the entire chapel is constructed out of 100 identical tetrahedrons, weighing five tons a piece. Each of the tetrahedrons is colored according to pattern, some with clear aluminum and others with vibrant colored glass. The careful planning and design of the interior structure give the place of worship a spectacular palette of deep blues and pastels when light shines against the roof. Built to inspire all who worship in its halls, the Chapel has a multi-religious approach, with a Protestant chapel on the top floor, a Catholic chapel on the middle floor, a Muslim prayer room, and a circular Jewish chapel on the lower floor. Although Christian worship dominates the chapel, the Jewish chapel features a famous “Holocaust Scroll” that was donated to the church after being found in an abandoned warehouse in Poland. Although the chapel was controversial for its pluralism when it was first built, it has come be accepted and loved. It is open for visits and worship every day. For visitors hoping to just catch a glimpse while passing through, the huge Chapel is visible from Interstate 25 a few miles away. Netsch’s final design was selected by the U.S. Air Force after several changes to the initial draft.. Netsch and his colleagues designed the entire Air Force Academy campus but his chapel, completed in 1963, soars above the horizontal and vertical lines of the boxy buildings on the 17,500-acre site and has become a popular and critical success. It is Colorado’s most visited man-made tourist destination, and has received the American Institute of Architects’ 25 Year Award in 1996.
62 years later, last year, the firm returned to the site with a new building that serves as an education and research facility. The Center for Character and Leadership Development’ (CCLD) creates a new architectural landmark for the campus, serving as a visual counterpoint to the academy’s distinctive cadet chapel. If you haven’t seen this visual marvel as yet, do so within this year—academy superintendent Lt. Gen. Michelle Johnson said in her annual “State of USAFA” address Tuesday that repairs to the nearly 53-yearold chapel are long overdue and it will remain closed for two years in 2018.