Work could begin early next year on the renovation and upgrading of one of the most stunning examples of modernist architecture in the West.
The United States Air Force Academy Cadet Chapel in Colorado Springs was completed in 1962 and has, for more than 5 decades now, inspired tens of millions of worshippers and visitors who have thrilled to its clean-cut and inspiring look.
“We are close to having 800,000 people a year who enter the chapel, including many international visitors as well,” says Pete Peterson, the chapel’s public relations director.
One of the reasons for that number is that the chapel is a house of worship for people of all faiths, a concept that was particularly unique at the time of its construction.
The other reason is due to the simple beauty of the chapel itself.
With seventeen triangular spires shooting into the sky, on top of a 150-foot tall triangular building, the chapel is by anyone’s measure, a thing to behold.
Designed by architect Walter Netsch, Jr., the chapel, according to the website Atlas Obscura, represents an “iconic fusing of technology, worship, and aesthetically pleasing futuristic architecture.”
In his book On the Wings of Modernism, author Robert Allen Nauman notes: “Essentially rectangular, the chapel has exterior walls constructed of precast concrete panels with stained glass inserts that provide illumination.”
Upon the chapel’s completion in 1962, Time magazine made note of its “gentle arches and stonework,” which it said “suggests the architecture and masonry of the Romanesque cathedral.”
Now the planned renovation of the building will center on getting rid of the structure’s aluminum exterior and applying flexible plastic seals to make the chapel watertight.
“You have to go back to the original construction of the chapel to understand what its problem today is,” says Dwayne Boyle, resident architect with the Air Force Academy.
“The aluminum on the building now was basically meant to be rainscreen, so that water would shed off it.”
“But water did end up getting through the joints,” he continues.
That water was then supposed to be intercepted by internal flashings and carried away from the structure.
However, continues Boyle, the internal flashings were “value engineered out in favor of using 32 miles of caulking on the building, and that has never really held up very well.”
End result: the chapel has on and off through the years had water issues, creating what Boyle calls “a constant maintenance problem of basically resealing the building.”
Because the chapel renovation will put a premium on precision, various aspects of the project are almost mind-numbing in their detail. A good example is the roughly 24,000 individual stained glass tiles that will be removed and cleaned.
Those stained glass tiles will then be catalogued and numbered, before eventually being put back into their original positions.
“All of the pews will also be taken out, and there are 76 of them,” says Patterson. “They will initially be stored, and then finally fully restored and put back in place.”
The chapel’s massive pipe organ, to the rear of the chancel, will also be removed. This is an instrument with 61 stops, 67 registers, and 4,286 pipes. Some of the pipes are 32 feet in height, while others have the dimension of a pencil.
“Just as with the pews, the organ will be fully restored and then returned to its original place before the new chapel is opened,” says Patterson.
While the renovation work, with a price tag starting at $58 million, necessarily emphasizes needed exterior work, what has always inspired worshippers and visitors the most is the chapel’s breath-taking interior.
“Once inside the chapel, you will stop in your tracks,” Dawn Wilson, a writer and photographer, noted two years ago in the Coloradoan newspaper.
“The colors are vivid and breathtaking,” continued Wilson. “The glow of the light from the stained glass windows illuminates the entire chapels in shades of purple, blue, and pink.”
“I have engaged with the public every single day for the last eleven years and have seen the reactions from senior citizens all the way down to kids who walk into the chapel for the first time,” says Patterson.
“When you watch a 9 year-old boy’s face light up and his jaw drop, you know the architect did something special.”
Work on the chapel renovation, once it’s launched next year, is expected to take around 4 years to complete.
By Garry Boulard
Get stories like these right to your inbox. Sign up for our newsletter