In the 1950s, when the architects at Skidmore, Owings & Merrill were commissioned to design a new academic campus for the U.S. Air Force’s officer cadets, they took the service’s motto, “Aim High,” to heart. As the centerpiece, the firm created the stunning Cadet Chapel—a futuristic glass, aluminum, and steel structure that soars 150 feet into the air in front of its spectacular mountain backdrop. Initially controversial, this distinctive building has since won numerous awards and is now considered an icon of the modernist architectural style.
Following the end of World War II, when the Air Force became its own military branch, Congress authorized the construction of an officer academy. In stark contrast to the stately, tree-lined eastern military campuses like West Point and Annapolis, Air Force leaders wanted their signature facility to be distinctive—and modern.
Led by the late architect Walter Netsch, SOM planned a Cadet Area that included dorms, a dining hall, and academic buildings centered on a large square, known as the Terrazzo. But by far the most recognizable building is the chapel—an all-faiths house of worship whose angular structure and soaring ceilings evoke sensations of grandeur, airiness, and of course, flying.
Completed in 1963, the structure consists of 17 tall spires that rest on a series of 100 aluminum tetrahedrons (triangular pyramids) separated from one another by colorful strips of stained glass. While the angular aluminum exterior conjures up thoughts of airplanes and spacecraft, the dazzling interior, bejeweled with colorful beams of light piercing the decorative stained glass, creates an inspirational atmosphere that is an ideal setting for the four chapels and an all-faiths room that accommodate cadets and visitors of all religions.
Originally derided by local congressmen, who deemed the style too contemporary, as well as the famous architect Frank Lloyd Wright, who worked for a competing firm and, supposedly dismissed the structure as a “glassified box on stilts,” the chapel has since become one of the best-known examples of modernistic architecture, a minimalist style characterized by asymmetry and a lack of ornamentation.
In 1996, the chapel became Colorado’s only structure to receive the prestigious American Institute of Architects’ Twenty-Five Year Award, bestowed annually on a building that exemplifies a “design of enduring significance.” In 2004, the Cadet Area was designated a National Historical Landmark. Today, this visionary campus is one of our state’s most popular attractions, drawing one million tourists—nearly double the number who enter Mesa Verde National Park—each year.
Visit: Starting next summer, the Cadet Chapel will be closed for four years for renovations, so put a visit on this year’s bucket list! It is open Monday through Saturday, 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. and Sunday, 1–5 p.m. Academy visitors must enter through the North Gate, accessible from Exit 156B off of I-25, and are required to show government-issued identification. Backpacks and large bags are not allowed inside the building.