The United States Air Force Academy Cadet Chapel is part of a larger complex, known as the United States Air Force Academy Cadet Area. The academy was commissioned on April 1, 1954, when president Dwight D. Eisenhower signed Public Law 325, providing for the establishment of the United States Air Force Academy as the primary undergraduate educational institution for the newly established Air Force. On July 23, 1954, the firm of Skidmore, Owings and Merrill (SOM) was awarded the academy commission. Following the award of the contract, SOM established a project team. Walter Netsch was the director of the design office and played the most important role in the commission by selecting the other team members and overseeing every aspect of the Academy's design. Although he managed all of the design team, Netsch took primary personal responsibility for the Cadet Chapel, among two other structures on the site.
Netsch began working on the Chapel in 1954. The initial model was a folded plate building set on a slightly higher terrace than the Court of Honor and had an east-west orientation. It drew intense criticism from many sources, including Colorado Governor Edwin Johnson, who declared, ÒThe paganistic distortion conceived by them as a place of religion is an insult to religion and Colorado (NPS designation report). After these brutal attacks, the Air Force and SOM withdrew these plans and promised revisions. Congress approved funds for initial construction in 1955, but required a separate appropriation for the chapel.
Netsch spent several weeks in spring 1956 crossing Europe in search of a precedent for inspiration for the Cadet Chapel. He cited St. Francis of Assisi, La Sainte-Chapelle, and Chatres Cathedral as some of his inspirations. In terms of the overall form, Netsch claimed that the final design came to him through a doodle of a horizontal line, then a series of near-vertical connected lines. From this form, the idea of using tetrahedrons came to mind. He incorporated 100 four-sided structures of steel tubing to serve as the building blocks of a series of spires that would reach towards heaven, yet still flow logically from the design. "By literally placing the tetrahedrons on top of one another," stated Netsch, "I made an enclosure that embodies the concept of light and space – and that is the dominant part of church architecture" (TIME). The plan of the Protestant, Catholic, and Jewish chapels being stacked on two levels responds to a design directive to create three distinct worship areas under a single roof and Netsch's desire not to create a "supermarket cathedral," or a single chapel that can change faith at will. Since Protestants were in the majority, they received the largest chapel, with the Catholic and Jewish chapels below. The revised design was met with a more enthusiastic response. However, Netsch's design would put the chapel project over budget by $1 million. They questioned the rationale for having nineteen spires when in the past one spire per church had been sufficient. In the end, Netsch re-worked the design to only include seventeen spires and the plan and $3 million budget were passed by Congress in 1957, allowing construction to finally begin. Netsch originally specified sheet-metal flashing to prevent rainwater from entering the interior of the structure, but the Air Force Academy Construction Agency deemed it too expensive and opted to utilize caulk instead. Despite this concession, the chapel was constructed true to Netsch's plan. Its completion and dedication on September 22, 1963 marked the end of the first phase of construction of the Air Force Academy.
The Cadet Chapel is oriented in a north-south location on the southeast corner of the level of the Court of Honor. It is visually separated from the Court of Honor by a wide ramp, different surface treatments, and dissimilar landscaping to the west.
The structure consists of a tubular steel frame of 100 identical tetrahedrons. Each tetrahedron is 75'-0" long, weighs five tons, and is enclosed with clear aluminum panels. They are comprised of six-inch tubes with four-inch secondary cross-braces, which were manufactured in Missouri and shipped to the site by rail. Each tetrahedron is spaced a foot apart, which creates gaps in the framework that are filled with one-inch thick colored glass designed in Chartres, France. At the chapel level, the tetrahedrons between the spires are filled with a mosaic of colored glass in an aluminum frame. The structure rises 150'-0" from hinge to pinnacle, has an overall length of 280'-0", and is 84'-0" wide from hinge to hinge. The south-facing front façade has a wide granite stairway with steel railings capped by aluminum handrails and leads up to a one story landing. At the landing is a band of gold anodized aluminum doors. Above the doors is a glass wall. The triangular north façade consists of a glass curtain wall in an aluminum frame.
As previously mentioned, the structure contains three chapels of different denominations. The Protestant Chapel is on the main floor and is reached by exterior ascending stairs. It is designed to seat 900 cadets. Upon entering the doors, one walks through a wood-paneled narthex into the nave. This space measures 64'-0" x 168'-0" reaches 94 feet to the highest peak. The colored glass strips are comprised of twenty-four hues. The colors range in tone from violet at the narthex through red and blue to gold and the altar. Each gable end is glazed with amber glass. Above the narthex, at the rear of the chapel, is a choir balcony and organ. Both were constructed by M.P. Moller Compay of Hagerstown, MD. Harold E. Wagoner designed the liturgical furnishings for the Protestant and Catholic chapels.
The Catholic Chapel is located beneath the Protestant chapel and its nave consists of an essentially horizontal space that is 63'-0" wide by 113'-0" long and 19'-0" high, seating 500. With its gentle arches and stonework, the chapel suggests the architecture and masonry of a Romanesque Cathedral. It has a pre-stressed concrete ceiling that is coffered in a diamond pattern, which recalls the tetrahedron shape of the aluminum exterior.
The Jewish Chapel is also on the lower level and is a circular shape that seats 100. It has a diameter of 42'-0" and a height of 19'-0". The space is enclosed by a vertical grill with inserts of clear glass, which opens to the foyer. According to Netsch's design, all structural elements were eliminated, which he says, "…goes back to the ancient tents of the wandering Tribes of Israel, for each tent created…a non-structural space"(TIME).
Under the National Security Act of 1947, the United States reorganized its military, establishing the Air Force as an independent service equal to the Army and Navy. On April 1, 1954, then president Dwight D. Eisenhower signed Public Law 325, providing for the establishment of the United States Air Force Academy as the primary undergraduate educational institution for this new service. The law also included provisions to find a permanent site for the academy and to arrange for its design and construction.
By the end of April, 1954, 582 potential sites had been proposed for the academy's location. Secretary of the Air Force Harold Talbott announced the selection of Colorado Springs as the academy site on June 24, 1954. At the same time, a competition was being held to select an architectural firm for the project. On July 23, 1954, the firm of Skidmore, Owings and Merrill (SOM) was awarded the academy commission. The firm had vast experience in government projects and had been chosen from over 300 applicants. SOM oversaw the entire academy project, which cost $126 million. However, it was the Cadet Area that received the most national attention since it was recognized as one of the most important architectural projects of the Cold War era as well as one of the country's largest single educational projects ever and one of the period's largest government projects. Like the earlier academies of Annapolis and West Point, the United States Air Force Academy became a national symbol of the American Military. Yet, it broke with both of these institutions in that the Academy was the first national shrine that was designed in the modern style. Additionally, it impacted the course of American architecture, partially due to the Congressional hearings at which its design was addressed. Congress controlled the construction funds and these hearings included discussions on which, "…architectural style would most appropriately communicate the philosophical and cultural agendas that defined this country following World War II." (Future Anterior) The design for the Academy was first unveiled to Congress and invited members of the press on May 14, 1955 at the Colorado Springs Fine Arts Center. SOM's choice of an International Style modernist vocabulary was deemed controversial from the outset. SOM partner Nathaniel Owings justified the design, stating, "The challenge – our challenge – is to produce for generation to come – not just for today or for fifty years hence – an efficient, flexible, and simple solution to the design of your Academy; and yet – and above all – beautiful, lastingly beautiful. In other words, our challenge is to produce a timeless beautiful thing that works….We believe that the architectural concepts of the Academy buildings should represent this national character of the Academy, that they should represent in steel and glass, marble and stone the simple, direct, modern way of life – that they should be as modern, as timeless, and as style-less in their architectural concept, as efficient and as flexible in their basic layout as the most modern projected aircraft"(Future Anterior).
From the time Local Law 325 was signed by President Eisenhower, people understood that the creation and design of the new Air Force Academy was of national importance. The Cadet Area received the most national attention since it was recognized as one of the most important architectural projects of the Cold War era as well as one of the country's largest single educational projects ever and one of the period's largest government projects. Like the earlier academies of Annapolis and West Point, the United States Air Force Academy became a national symbol of the American Military. Yet, it broke with both of these institutions in that the Academy was the first national shrine that was designed in the modern style. The building, combined a mix of political, military, and religious symbols during the very years that the United States adopted the motto, "In God We Trust," and added the phrase, "Under God" to the Pledge of Allegiance. Additionally, it impacted the course of American architecture, partially due to the Congressional hearings at which its design was addressed. The Academy Chapel presented Congress with the nation's first major government-supported combination of religion and modern movement architecture.
Walter Netsch had a unique challenge in having to design for and satisfy more than one specific congregation and one creed. Additionally, he was required to build a private place of worship for the cadets as well as create a national monument. Netsch felt that a single-spire motif would imply one religion, and a three-spire motif would not make any sense. The ultimate problem was how to design a building that would unmistakably be a house of worship without using traditional exterior architectural hallmarks of any one faith.
When Netsch unveiled his original design, the critical reaction was brutal. Some people were outraged by the chapel's unorthodox architecture and it was referred to as "an assembly of wigwams," "a travesty on religion," and, "…an aluminum monstrosity that will look like a row of polished teepees upon the side of the mountains" (National Trust). Netsch stated that he, "…would rather people have some reaction to it, than have the cadets merely shrug and say, ‘And that's the chapel'"(TIME). Many of Netsch's architectural colleagues initially criticized him for not relating the building more closely to the setting. They felt that the jagged structure clashed with the rolling mountains nearby. Netsch felt that had he tried to relate more to the mountains, he might have clashed with the campus. His main priority was the cadet community.
1964: Cadet Chapel is WAS awarded the R.S. Reynolds Memorial Award from the AIA.
1965: Cadet Chapel is WAS awarded the Silver Medal of Honor from the Architectural League of New York for Design and Craftsmanship.
1996: AIA gave the chapel its prestigious 25 Year award, which recognizes American buildings of "enduring significance."
2008: AIA conducts a poll of the country's 150 favorite works of architecture. The Chapel is ranked #51.
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