On This Date: May 14, 1955

United States Air Force Academy Cadet Chapel design unveiled May 14, 1955.

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.

Image courtesy: Mike Kaplan/Air Force Times

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.

Dates: Commission / Completion:

Commission Granted: July 23, 1954 / Design Unveiled: May 14, 1955 / Start of Site Work: 1957 / Completion: September 22, 1963

Architectural and other Designer(s):
Architect: Walter Netsch of the firm Skidmore, Owings & Merrill (SOM) – Chicago office;
Main Contractor: Robert E. McKee, Inc. (New Mexico);
Restoration Firm: Skidmore, Owings, & Merrill (Unknown project architect(s));
Choir Balcony & Organ: M.P. Moller Compay of Hagerstown, MD;
Liturgical furnishings for Protestant & Catholic chapels: Harold E. Wagoner
Article Information Courtesy of:

Interesting Historical Side Notes

On the same day the Chapel plans were unveiled, the Warsaw Treaty was formally established by the USSR.  The “signature” countries are probably better remembered as the Warsaw Pact countries.

On May 14, 1973, SkyLab was launched atop a modified Saturn V rocket.

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