The Minnesota architects involved in the four-year, $158 million renovation of the U.S. Air Force Academy Cadet Chapel make a steep descent into the modern landmark’s rich history

By Andy Sturdevant

“Bean counters!” exclaims historic-preservation architect Michael Bjornberg, FAIA, when asked who the visionary driving force was behind one of the great landmarks of midcentury-modern architecture: the 1962 Air Force Academy Cadet Chapel in Colorado Springs, Colorado.

The centerpiece of the nation’s newest military academy, the dramatically angular chapel represented a clean break with the past, but it was also economical. (The U.S. Senate approved $3 million for the shell of the structure and its surrounding grounds.) The fight over what it would look like and how much it would cost lasted for years, and it involved not just the bean counters and the architects but also the popular press, the architectural establishment, the public, and seemingly every elected official with an opinion about what an American building should look like.

“That’s the fun part,” says Bjornberg, from his home office in Minneapolis, thumbing through a copy of On The Wings of Modernism, a comprehensive study of the chapel’s creation. “The nitty-gritty details of the original controversies, and how it all came to look like this when it was completed.” Bjornberg and his colleagues at LEO A DALY have been working as historic treatment specialists for general contractor JE Dunn on a massive restoration of the modernist icon, now lauded as one of the great achievements of the era. The project’s architecture and engineering team (listed below) includes the Air Force Civil Engineering Center, AECOM, WJE, and Hartman-Cox Architects. The building closed for the four-year renovation late last summer.

Innovations and Flaws
Opened in 1958 at the base of the Rocky Mountain foothills, the Air Force Academy, designed by Skidmore, Owings & Merrill (SOM), was more corporate than collegiate, the new face of warfare in an era where combat was waged not just by soldiers and sailors but also by Air Force navigators who used celestial, radar, and grid navigation techniques to guide bombers carrying nuclear warheads for thousands of miles. In the way that the Gothic Revival West Point reflected the traditions of the Army and the Beaux Arts Naval Academy represented those of the Navy, the Air Force Academy Cadet Chapel was shaped to reflect high-tech modernity.

Designed by SOM’s Walter Netsch, the chapel is composed of a line of 17 tetrahedron spires reminiscent of the gleaming wings of an early fighter jet. While the building houses separate chapel spaces for Protestant, Catholic, Jewish, Buddhist, and Muslim cadets, plus an All Faiths room, it’s notably free of identifying markers of any faith tradition on its aluminum and glass exterior. It featured innovations in glazing and heating, ventilation, and air-conditioning (HVAC), and was among the first wave of building projects to employ computer-aided design.

It also had its flaws. The original design called for a system of integrated water-diverting rain gutters, but cost-cutting measures stripped it out. As a result, the building has carried a reputation since the 1960s for having a damp microclimate inside, evident in the water-damaged wooden pews. In order to address this ongoing issue, the chapel’s aluminum cladding will need to be dismantled piece by piece and replaced with an improved water-mitigating skin system.

Other celebrated elements of the design will be disassembled and cleaned up as well. Every panel of dalle de verre stained glass—a glass-art technique in which colored glass is hammered or cut into pieces, then arranged as a mosaic in a slab of concrete and epoxy resin—will be cleaned, repaired, and reinstalled. The thousands of pipes that make up the Walter Holtkamp–designed organ, built by M.P. Moller Pipe Organ Company, will be taken off-site for restoration. Over the course of the renovation, the 150-foot-tall chapel will be stripped down to its tubular-steel framing, appearing much like it did when under construction in the early 1960s—except this time, it will be shrouded.

“Up in the Rocky Mountains, wind is a big factor, and we’ve got these 17 airplane wings standing up in the air,” says JE Dunn’s Jeff Callinan, project principal in the firm’s Minneapolis office. “How do you disassemble the structure safely, and then reassemble it with quality and efficiency in mind? We designed a complete building enclosure around the building, and it does a lot of things: It protects us from the elements, and it integrates four bridge cranes within the structure, so we can be focused on four places at once and closer visually to the work.”

From New to Old
In the years it took to prepare for the restoration, the architects, engineers, and consultants spent hours poring over original plans, microfiche cards, correspondence, interviews, and construction photos to understand the evolution of the design and construction, because they knew changes had been made during construction to attempt to address the leakage problem. Bjornberg relished the opportunity to learn how the building had come together—physically and politically.

One of his favorite early criticisms of the design for the U.S. government’s first modernist commission came from U.S. Representative John E. Fogarty of Rhode Island. A former bricklayer and president of Local 1 of the Rhode Island Bricklayers Union, Fogarty called the design “not American in conception” and “unworthy of the traditions of this nation.” For Fogarty, the “traditions of this nation” were laid in brick—like West Point, or Annapolis.

Of course, the whole point of the Air Force Academy Cadet Chapel was to make a decisive break with tradition. And in doing so, it had a part in shaping a new tradition of modern buildings constructed of concrete, glass, steel, and aluminum. (Even the John E. Fogarty Memorial Building, constructed in the congressman’s honor in Providence a year after his death in 1968, was constructed in the brutalist style, without the use of a single brick.)

The marvel of the Cadet Chapel is that it still looks futuristic today, nearly 60 years after it opened. Indeed, the perennial newness of the design belies the fact that the chapel has undergone the same architectural cycle as groundbreaking buildings that came before it: Materials with no precedence are slowly formalized into a way of working. Methods are codified, traditions are reinterpreted. Eventually, as new methods become accepted, then routine, then outdated, and then simply historic, those materials begin to sag, leak, and fall apart.

“Today, 65 percent of the building stock is modern,” says Bjornberg, noting that the preservation work of the next 50 years will focus on those buildings, and their particular quirks and nuances.

Testing Its Metal
As is often the case with government commissions, the construction of the chapel was exceptionally well documented, giving the restoration team a trove of process photographs to refer back to. But photographs and blueprints only go so far.

One of the biggest challenges for the architects and contractor is replacing the exterior metal panels with modern-day aluminum that closely approximates the ethereal qualities of the original after decades of weathering in the High Plains sun, rain, and wind. There’s no way to re-create aluminum from the 1950s and 1960s, because metallurgy has made enormous advances over the past 50 years. The project team is going to great lengths to create the best match, and the process for that is part chemistry, part forensic science, and part historical reenactment.

“The reflectivity and nuanced color of the aluminum-panel exterior is so important to the character of the chapel,” says LEO A DALY’s Kimberly Sandbulte, AIA. “The way the building responds to changing light conditions makes it feel warm and organic. If we don’t replicate that, the chapel will seem cold.”

“Our goal is to have the building look like we haven’t been there—but not leak!” says Hartman-Cox Architects’ Mary Kay Lanzillotta, FAIA. “This is also the biggest challenge, especially as it relates to the glazing and luster of the aluminum planks.”

Members of the project team have reviewed and tested a number of aluminum samples. Most recently, in May, they attached 21 samples—all slightly different in tone and finish—to the chapel for two days of assessment, which eliminated 13. The next review will take place in July or August, because sample production requires a two-month lead time. The team needs to evaluate the samples in various conditions—in morning light, evening light, fog, rain, and snow. Meanwhile, JE Dunn is constructing the enclosure around the building, which adds urgency to the review.

“There’s also a balancing point,” says Sandbulte, “between what’s accurate and what will function.”

The time Bjornberg and Sandbulte have spent on campus over the past few years has made the virtues of the chapel experience abundantly clear. The Air Force Academy demands rigorous physical and mental conditioning of its cadets; Bjornberg describes seeing freshmen snapping unerringly to the rectilinear gridwork of the campus’s pathways as they run to classes, and more than 4,000 cadets at a time marching through the mess hall for a 15-minute meal.

“Watching all of that, I sense the chapel offers the cadets respite from the regimentation and rigor of everything else,” he says. “To walk into the chapel must be a release for them, emotionally and spiritually. The landscape around the chapel is incredible, but to walk into that space is otherworldly. They go in and sit down, and there is a moment of transcendence.”

Architecture and Engineering Restoration
Architect and engineer of record: AECOM
Preservation architect: Hartman-Cox Architects
Structural engineer and enclosure architect: Wiss, Janney, Elstner Associates (WJE)
Organ consultant: Bynum Petty
Contractor: JE Dunn
Historic treatment specialist: LEO A DALY
Organ restoration: AE Schlueter Pipe Organ Company
Curtain wall replication: Alliance Glazing Technologies
Interior ceiling panel replication: EverGreene Architectural Arts
Dalles de verre glass restoration and repair: Judson Studios
Pew restoration: Woodwork Restoration
Aluminum exterior panels: A Zahner Company