If you haven’t been to the U.S. Air Force Academy Cadet Chapel lately—or ever—you may want to make time for it before year’s end.
As of Jan. 1, 2019, the Chapel will close for four years as it undergoes an extensive and much-needed $25-100 million renovation. The work will include the replacement of its exterior aluminum panels, installation of a new weather sealing system, and the restoration of its pipe organs, pews and signature segments of colored glass.
Despite the inconvenient disruption in tourism to the region’s foremost built attraction—which attracts an estimated 600,000 visitors each year—the renovation is welcome news for the Cadet Chapel, which has suffered major water leaks and a variety of other issues since its completion in 1962.
The Cadet Chapel, designed by Chicago-based architect Walter Netsch of Skidmore, Owings and Merrill, is widely regarded as a fine example of modern architecture and was named a U.S. National Historic Landmark in 2004. Considering the structure’s historic and cultural legacy, USAFA Campus Architect Duane Boyle (previously of Skidmore, Owings and Merrill) explained the imperative nature of its preservation.
“I think it’s important not only to the Academy, but to the Pikes Peak Region, Colorado and the nation,” Boyle says. “It was a marked departure from religious architecture … and is an example of how Walter [Netsch] really pushed the envelope. He was very bold. He wanted a living building, similar to a sculpture in the middle of a plaza.”
Much like a mammoth sculpture in the center of a sprawling plaza, the Cadet Chapel rises from the expansive cadet area and its many low-slung, modernist buildings. It’s 17 spires are composed by a frame of tubular steel and a skin of anodized aluminum panels, which change color and character as the sun crosses the sky. The steel frame is composed of 100 identical, 75-foot-long tetrahedrons, which are each spaced a foot apart to make way for long strips of stained glass.
Netsch intended the aluminum panels to serve as a rainscreen with a system of internal flashing to help the water drain from the structure. But due to budgetary issues, the internal flashing was scrapped for 32 miles of caulking, which has done little over the years to protect the interior of the building from the elements.
“We were getting to the point with the chapel where the sealants were not working well at all—they hadn’t since the beginning,” Boyle says. “The chapel never did look like how Walter wanted it to. So we looked at his original intent … and started looking at ways to bring those details back.”
There have been a handful of renovations to the chapel over the years—updates to the HVAC, electrical and sound systems, as well as a series of band-aid fixes that have included efforts to re-caulk the leaky façade—but never anything of such significant scale.
“It is [a daunting task] because we have to be so careful to ensure we don’t destroy the building,” Boyle says.
The timeline for the project runs from 2019 through 2022, although Boyle is optimistic that the Colorado Springs landmark will be accessible to tourists again before that four years is up.
“We hope that it’s not going to take that long, but it could,” Boyle says, adding that the structure’s status as a National Landmark means extra care that will inevitably take extra time. “For example, each piece of stained glass has to be numbered, cataloged, taken out, repaired and placed back in the same exact spot—very time consuming.”
Know Before You Go
• Cadet Chapel visitor hours of operation are 9:30 a.m. – 4:30 p.m. Monday-Saturday and 1:30 – 4:30 p.m. on Sundays. The Cadet Chapel is closed on Christmas and will be closed for renovations starting Jan. 1, 2019.
• Visitors must enter the Academy through the North Gate. Be prepared to show a photo ID for the driver and each passenger. Firearms are prohibited at all times.
• Guided tours of the Cadet Chapel are available, and self-guided tours are allowed.
• Chapel services are open to the public. Find a schedule at usafa.edu. Call 719-333-2636 to verify service times and check for closures due to private events.
• Be sure to tour the large, main Protestant Chapel, as well as Catholic, Jewish, Buddhist and all-faith chapels on the floor below.
• Bring your camera.
• For more info: usafa.edu