Built primarily between 1955 and 1959, the US Air Force Academy cadet area near Colorado Springs is the heart of the Air Force Academy campus and home of the school’s 4,000 undergraduates. Occupying a prominent hilltop location, the cadet area hosts most regular college functions, including dorms, classroom buildings, the dining hall, and the chapel; the rest of the grounds consists of officer housing, airfields, and open land. Designed by the firm Skidmore, Owings & Merrill, the cadet area is widely regarded as one of the finest examples of modernist architecture in the country and is the most visited man-made tourist attraction in Colorado. In 2004 the cadet area was named a National Historic Landmark.
Origins of the Air Force Academy
In 1908 the US Army ordered its first aircraft, and in 1918 came the first call for a separate aeronautical academy along the lines of the US Military Academy at West Point and the US Naval Academy at Annapolis. But only after World War II, which demonstrated the increasing importance of air power in modern warfare, did serious plans for an Air Force and an Air Force Academy get off the ground.
The National Security Act of 1947 reorganized the military and created a separate Air Force, which began operations that September. Two years later, the Secretary of Defense convened a board headed by University of Colorado president Robert Stearns and Columbia University president Dwight D. Eisenhower to study the service academies. The service academy board strongly recommended the establishment of an Air Force Academy. Several years of legislative wrangling ensued, along with additional delays caused by the Korean War. Eisenhower helped spur the process along after he became president of the United States in 1953. Finally, in April 1954, he signed the Air Force Academy Act into law.
Air Force Academy Site
After the academy was authorized, the next step was to choose a location. By June 1954, the site selection commission had narrowed the choice to three locations: Alton, Illinois (near St. Louis); Lake Geneva, Wisconsin; and Colorado Springs. Placing a strong emphasis on the the criterion of natural beauty, the commission announced on June 24, 1954, that the Air Force Academy would be built in Colorado Springs.
The chosen site, a parcel of 12,500 acres adjacent to the Rampart Range north of Colorado Springs, was lightly settled in the early 1950s. A series of ridges and valleys sloping from the plains to the mountains, it was home primarily to several large cattle ranches, including Cathedral Rock Ranch, owned by Lawrence Lehman of the famous New York investment family. About fifty residences lay along Monument Creek, and the old communities of Edgerton and Husted sat near the southern and northern boundaries, respectively. Many existing structures were demolished to make way for the academy, but some survived; the oldest building on the academy grounds is the one-room Burgess (or Pioneer) Cabin built in 1869 by William Burgess on what is now the southern part of the campus.
Cadet Area Design
The Air Force Academy joined Stanford University, the University of Chicago, and Duke University as the only American higher education campuses to be built all at once. When the project started, it was the largest single educational construction program—about 4 million square feet of floor space—ever undertaken in the United States. Design and construction would last several years. In the meantime, the academy operated out of its temporary home at Lowry Air Force Base in Denver, enrolling its first students in 1955.
The permanent academy campus promised to be one of the most significant US government architectural projects in the decades after World War II. Already in its planning stages it was seen as a national monument. More than 300 architectural firms applied for the commission, which was awarded in July 1954 to Skidmore, Owings & Merrill (SOM), a firm that had recently gained renown for Lever House (1952), a soaring glass skyscraper in New York City.
Architects Walter Netsch Jr. and Gordon Bunshaft headed the SOM team in charge of the academy’s design. Their master plan for the site used the topography of ridges and valleys to separate the academy’s different functions, leaving much of the land in its natural state. After overcoming opposition from some academy officers, they won approval for their plan to construct the academy’s cadet area high on what was then known as Lehman Mesa, a perch from which it would be visible for miles around.
Plan Reception and Redesigned Chapel
In May 1955, the SOM team unveiled its design for the cadet area at the Colorado Springs Fine Arts Center. The design resembled the Acropolis, with monumental modernist buildings made of marble, concrete, aluminum, and glass arranged around two large plazas. The higher plaza, called the Court of Honor, to be used for administrative and social functions, was where the academy and the public would interact. The lower plaza, known as the Terrazzo, would be the center of cadet life, with the dormitory, the classroom building, and the dining hall arranged around its edges. Farther down from these hilltop plazas lay parade grounds, physical education buildings, and playing fields. High above, the chapel sat on a podium above the Court of Honor. The modernist design of the complex was meant to contrast with the natural landscape and reflect the modernity of flight.
With the exception of Frank Lloyd Wright, who was probably miffed at not having received the commission himself, most architects supported the SOM design. Congress and the public had different ideas, sparking a heated debate over the propriety of modern architecture for a national monument. Some derided the buildings as resembling a supermarket or a drugstore.
Particularly withering criticism was reserved for the chapel, which had been designed by Netsch. He soon took off for Europe to find inspiration for a new design. While there, he was strongly influenced by the two-floor design of Sainte-Chappelle in Paris and the Basilica of Saint Francis of Assisi in Assisi, Italy. In 1957 he presented a new design characterized by soaring 150-foot triangular spires that looked something like a Gothic cathedral about to take flight. Inside, Netsch used a two-story plan that placed the larger Protestant chapel (seating 900) above separate Catholic (500 seats) and Jewish (100 seats) worship spaces. Netsch also changed the chapel’s location and orientation, moving it down to the Court of Honor and aligning it parallel to the mountains. The new design and position of the chapel received a warm response but continued to spark some criticism for its modernist look.
The revised site design, including the new chapel, received final approval in August 1957. At that point, construction began. The monumental undertaking involved twenty construction firms and more than 5,000 workers who excavated 19 million cubic yards of dirt, poured 800,000 cubic yards of concrete, and installed 250,000 square feet of tile. Site preparation alone cost $2.3 million and required more than 10,000 linear feet of retaining walls.
The Air Force wanted all students in the Cadet Wing (the academy’s term for the student body) to be housed in one building and to dine together at one time. As a result, the Terrazzo was surrounded by three massive structures: to the north, the dormitory, Vandenberg Hall; to the east, the academic building, Fairchild Hall; and to the south, the dining hall, Mitchell Hall. Up on the Court of Honor, thirteen feet above the Terrazzo, were Arnold Hall, a social space and performing arts center, and Harmon Hall, the administration building.
In addition to the primary buildings on the plazas, the cadet area also included a planetarium and an aerospace laboratory at its edges; the Air Force Academy was home to the first Department of Astronautical Engineering in the United States. The aerospace laboratory was originally intended to be part of Fairchild Hall, but the noise of wind tunnels and jet propulsion laboratories required a separate structure.
In August 1958, the Cadet Wing moved from the temporary academy location at Lowry Air Force Base to the new campus. Several of the buildings were not yet completed, but enough was finished for the academy’s first class to spend its senior year at the school’s permanent campus before graduating in 1959.
The chapel was finished later than the rest of the cadet area. Construction began in 1959 and was completed in 1963, at which point most criticism of the design faded away. As the most visible and easily recognizable building on the campus, the chapel quickly became a symbol of the Air Force Academy, as well as an iconic work of modern architecture.
There have been several additions to the cadet area since the completion of its first phase. In 1964 a new law allowed the Cadet Wing to increase from 2,529 cadets to 4,417, prompting a major expansion. The government did not choose SOM as the architect for the expansion, instead picking the firms Leo A. Daly and Henningson, Durham, & Richardson. Daly extended Fairchild Hall south to add more classroom space. Both firms worked to expand Mitchell Hall to accommodate all the cadets for dining and designed a new dormitory, Sijan Hall, on the south side of the Terrazzo next to the dining hall. These additions were completed by 1968. Further campus expansion has been more piecemeal—such as a library addition in 1981 and a new classroom building in 1997—and has been largely in keeping with the original cadet area design.
The chapel has changed primarily in its accommodation of different forms of religious worship. After mandatory chapel attendance at the service academies was declared unconstitutional in 1973, the chapel became home to voluntary services in a wide variety of faiths and denominations. In addition to the original Protestant, Catholic, and Jewish chapels, the building now includes a Buddhist chapel and an All-Faiths Room for use by any religious group. The outdoor Falcon Circle near the chapel provides a place for followers of Earth-Centered Spirituality (including Wiccans, Pagans, and Druids) to worship.
In 1986 the academy opened the $4.5 million Barry Goldwater Visitors Center to accommodate the hundreds of thousands of tourists who come to see the chapel and the rest of the cadet area each year.