It’s a Colorado Springs thing. A Colorado Springs glance. A reminder that we’re home.
On each return from Denver on Interstate 25, I take a quick look at the Air Force Academy’s Cadet Chapel, the gleaming masterpiece that defines our region. Each look is a reminder of the audacity and brilliance behind the building.
When the chapel was completed in 1962, it looked as if it had been delivered from the future by time machine. It looks futuristic today, 57 years later, and it will look futuristic in 2219. Like other signature structures — St. Paul’s in London, the Chrysler Building in Manhattan, The Space Needle in Seattle — the chapel remains forever fresh.
But the building’s gorgeous nature is just one part of its complex personality.
In 1963, Al Fullerton was graduating from the academy and planning to marry his sweetheart, Kathleen Doherty, at the chapel.
“A masterpiece, certainly,” he says.
The chapel, he says, was “still leaking,” which forced the couple to exchange vows at Colorado College’s Shove Chapel, which boasted a traditionally sound roof.
The “still leaking” part never went away, which means standing in the middle of the chapel’s upper sanctuary — one of the best experiences in the Springs — is going away.
I spent Tuesday afternoon touring the chapel. During my 16 years as a Springs resident, I’ve spent dozens of afternoons marveling at the exterior and interior and the spirit of the place. Every time I round the corner on the walking path and see the chapel in full, I’m again amazed by the fearlessness of its design and its sheer size. It’s always bigger and better in reality than in memory.
An hour after I walked out the front door, the chapel closed for a long time. The optimist believes it will reopen, shiny and repaired and nonleaky, in three years. The realist considers how long it’s taken (slightly less than forever) to renovate Denver International Airport and expects to again walk through the chapel in, say, five years.
Over the next several years, both optimist and realist will look at the chapel while it’s encased in a 20-story (or so) box that will resemble the world’s largest dog crate/kennel. Inside, workers will be able to repair the chapel 24 hours a day. Projected price tag: $158 million.
Walter Netsch served as lead architect for the chapel. His cars sported a personalized license plate that read “WN 21,” as in Walter Netsch 21st century. He was 42 when the chapel was completed, and he would live a full and active professional life before dying at 88, in 2008, but he never again soared to the artistic heights he reached on the edge of the Springs.
“His buildings create wonderment, in the best and worst sense of the word,” Chicago architect Stanley Tigerman said of his friend. Netsch’s ambitious but stern collection of buildings at the University of Illinois at Chicago campus was never a hit, and much of his work was torn down in the 1990s.
The chapel is his undisputed masterpiece, a stunning act of defiance. Somehow he reached straight into tomorrow in his creation to create an aluminum rhapsody.
Netsch offered a plan to prevent the leaking water that chased Fullerton’s wedding and confounded academy officials for decades. He wanted to install a series of internal flashings that would send rain out of the building, but military officials, seeking to save money, chose 32 miles of caulking instead. Oh, well. The results of their misguided thriftiness could be seen Tuesday on damaged pews.
When the chapel opened, a legion of critics accused Netsch of creating a place of worship that more closely resembled a massive bomber, but over the decades, the admirers silenced the critics. The building offers a mighty spiritual aura and functions superbly for somber funerals and celebratory weddings. It oozes with beauty and with soul.
And damn, I’m going to miss it.