JOINT BASE SAN ANTONIO-LACKLAND, Texas – The Air Force Civil Engineer Center is renovating an iconic Air Force symbol – the Cadet Chapel at the U.S. Air Force Academy, Colorado.
The $158 million project aims to fix structural damage to eliminate a longstanding leakage problem after years of ineffective smaller repair efforts.
AFCEC, which delivered design for this construction, is also managing rehabilitation on the 52,000-square-foot building while retaining its original character and defining elements. This includes the 17 steel spires of tetrahedrons, which soar to a height of 150 feet and are visible from several miles away.
“The Cadet Chapel is a symbol of the spiritual strength of Airmen,” said Col. John Norton, director of AFCEC’s Facility Engineering Directorate. “Just as we continue to support Air Force missions world-wide through delivery of timely and resilient facility infrastructure solutions, AFCEC is proud to be working closely with the Air Force Installation Contracting Center and The Academy on this awesome effort to restore the chapel.”
Built in 1963, the chapel serves as an inter-faith house of worship, and a haven where Airmen gain or build on their spiritual resilience and contributes to The Academy’s mission of building the character of cadets and developing future Air Force and Space Force leaders.
While its value to the Air Force is significant, the chapel has a far broader importance. Registered as a National Historic Landmark, it has become a significant part of America’s architectural heritage when it received a Twenty-Five-Year Award from the American Institute of Architects in 1996.
“The Twenty-Five-Year Award is the most significant recognition given to a building and documents its place in our heritage. Until that time no other fully funded federal project had received the prestigious honor,” said Duane Boyle, The Academy’s campus architect.
“The chapel represents the best in architectural ingenuity and its restoration back to its original appearance will ensure that it remains for the nation to enjoy,” Boyle added.
AFCEC’s Facility Engineering Directorate and the 772nd Enterprise Sourcing Squadron teamed with The Academy and the 10th Air Base Wing to repair the exterior structure and restore the extensively damaged interior of the most visited man-made attraction in Colorado.
“AFCEC’s and AFICC’s collaborative mission is to deliver a comprehensive refurbishment of the chapel to protect this iconic building for future generations of cadets,” Norton said.
AFCEC and AFICC, primary subordinate units of the Air Force Installation and Mission Support Center, awarded the contract in July 2019. After the pre-construction phase, the actual renovation began in October 2019. AFCEC is managing the refurbishment, which is scheduled to be complete by the spring of 2024.
“We are taking the chapel down to its steel bones, restoring the stained glass, the Protestant and Catholic pipe organs, and the Protestant pews, and then rebuilding the entire exterior,” said JD Buchholtz, AFCEC project manager.
Currently, the renovation is focused on stripping the building to its steel support skeleton with the contractor building a temporary enclosure over the chapel to protect it from weather as it is disassembled.
The project is complex and unique with the amount of planning monumental.
“What has taken a significant amount of the effort up to this point is the planning and coordination of how to take the design for this repair and turn it into detailed plans, giving the contractor team step-by-step procedures for the work. As we go, we are also validating each step to meet the intents of stopping the leaks and maintaining the historic look,” said Buchholtz.
While the enclosure goes up, the interior renovation is already in progress with the removal of the chapel’s wooden pews, Catholic organ and the main Protestant organ -- a massive instrument of about 4,500 organ pipes – already complete.
The stained glass will be removed, and cleaned and restored by the same family-owned company that did the original work in a California restoration facility before being returned.
It’s an exacting but vital part of the repair process with over 2,200 cassettes of glass -- each cassette with between nine and 12 different panes of glass, Buchholtz said.
“Any existing broken glass will need to be repaired, and if a piece of glass cannot be repaired, it will be replaced with an approved matching piece,” Buchholtz said, before all pieces will be reassembled and put back into the same original.
Although there is a risk of the COVID-19 pandemic affecting the renovation, AFCEC is taking measures to minimize it.
“While it is difficult to foresee, so far, we have been able to keep COVID-19 from causing any direct project delays. Our close partnership and communication with the U.S. Air Force Academy is essential to keep construction moving and has helped greatly to keep this important project on schedule,” Buchholtz said.