The Cadet Chapel at the United States Air Force Academy — touted as the most-visited building in Colorado — is closed for at least four years of extensive renovation.
Shortcuts in the original construction have plagued the building since it was completed in 1963. Chapel architect, Walter Netsch Jr., had originally planned an elaborate network of rain gutters just underneath the building’s iconic aluminum exterior. Those gutters were shelved because of budget constraints and were replaced by miles of caulking along the seams between aluminum panels.
“(The) caulking projects have never worked,” Academy architect Duane Boyle said. “We spent enormous amounts of money over the last decades trying to re-caulk it.”
“Our old friend, my old friend, needs some help and has leaked from the day that it was opened,” Academy superintendent, Lt. Gen. Jay Silveria said.
Decades of leaks have extensively damaged the interior of the chapel, including the walnut and mahogany wood pews and the chapel’s main organ, a massive instrument of about 4,500 pipes.
“It's actually quite devastating to lose both my instruments for the next however long it takes,” Academy Catholic music director Katherine Johnson said.
Johnson normally plays the smaller organ in the Catholic Chapel, which is downstairs in the structure, along with four other chapels for different religions. However, on the day of a recent media tour, she was upstairs playing the primary organ in the main hall — the Protestant Chapel.
The Air Force Academy student body primarily identified as Protestant when the building was designed in the 1950s, and the percentage of students following other religions was reflected in the size of the structure’s other chapels.
Walking among the pews of the main hall, it was the first time Gail Frost had been inside since her son was married in the chapel 11 years ago.
“Oh, the architecture with the spires pointing up to heaven and the glasswork is so, so beautiful,” Frost said.
Twenty-four-thousand brick-sized pieces of stained glass in 24 colors run in bands up the entire height of the building to create a web of interconnecting diamonds. The light in the chapel is constantly changing, throughout the day and the seasons.
Each piece of glass and all of the aluminum panels are all coming down in the $158 million renovation.
The project originally was to start much earlier in 2019. But the Air Force re-routed the money allocated to Tyndall Air Force Base in Florida to address damage in the wake of Hurricane Michael in 2018.
Now, with new money from Congress in hand, the Air Force will pull everything out of the chapel and build what is essentially an enormous airplane hangar over the entire structure. Then, crews will strip the chapel down to its steel skeleton, add in that original network of rain gutters Netsch designed, then put every aluminum panel and every single piece of glass back exactly where it was. The furniture and organs will also be fully renovated.
“It’s a major project,” Boyle said.
“I’m just sad for the cadets that aren’t going to have this as part of their view as they walk to class every day,” said Shannon Cagler as she milled about the chapel with her husband, Sean Krolikowski. The couple was married in the iconic space last November.
The Air Force hopes to have the Cadet Chapel renovation complete by November 2022.
This story was produced by the American Homefront Project, a public media collaboration that reports on American military life and veterans. Funding comes from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.