Air Age Gothic

The U.S. Air Force Academy in Colorado features an unparalleled collection of modernist buildings. But the challenges of preserving them can seem daunting.

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Cadet Chapel, U.S. Air Force Academy

Credit: Douglas Merriam

On a blustery midwinter afternoon, I'm standing inside the Cadet Chapel at the U.S. Air Force Academy, near Colorado Springs, gazing up at the pinnacled ceiling that rises to a height of 100 feet. I am 7,000 feet above sea level, but it isn't the altitude that has me breathless. Rather, it is this soaring, cavernous structure, with its ribbons of stained glass and 17 aluminum-clad spires, which pierce the Colorado sky. In the chapel's choir loft, a technician is tuning the massive pipe organ, and between musical notes, I hear the building creaking from the powerful winds blowing outside. "This is nothing," says Duane Boyle, the Air Force Academy's resident architect and preservationist, who has joined me inside. "When it's really windy, it sounds like Rice Krispies."

Designed by architect Walter Netsch—of the midcentury modern powerhouse firm Skidmore, Owings & Merrill (SOM)—and completed in 1963, the chapel has an expressionist quality often described as "air age Gothic." Netsch took inspiration from several sources, including the Basilica of San Francesco d'Assisi in Italy, Sainte-Chapelle and Notre Dame in Paris, and the Cathedral of Chartres. "I made an enclosure that embodies the concept of light and space," he once said, "endowed with lofty grandeur." In 1996, the American Institute of Architects gave the chapel its prestigious Twenty-five Year Award, which recognizes American buildings of "enduring significance." The same organization recently conducted a public poll of the country's 150 favorite works of architecture, in which the chapel ranked 51 (top honors went to the Empire State Building).

The chapel has one significant problem, however. Netsch originally specified sheet-metal flashing to prevent rainwater from entering the interior, but the Air Force Academy Construction Agency deemed it too costly and opted instead for caulk. Thirty-four miles of caulk, to be exact. Trouble is, the caulk doesn't hold—the strong winds that rock the chapel and shift the aluminum panels cause it to fail—and the building has leaked for most of its 45-year existence.

Boyle's maintenance staff spends anywhere from $200,000 to $400,000 each year to recaulk the chapel. And still the building leaks during rainstorms, causing damage to pews, the organ, and Bibles and distracting worshippers. The chapel has been caulked and recaulked so many times that the anodized aluminum surface has become scratched and pitted. "It's just like painting the Golden Gate Bridge," Boyle says. "You start at one end, and by the time you finish, you have to start all over again."

A few years ago, Boyle hired Skidmore, Owings & Merrill to look into the problem. The firm recommended disassembling the aluminum panels and sealing the interior spaces with a silicone membrane. Doing so would stop the leakage and allow Boyle to remove what he calls the chapel's "shower-door glass," which was placed over portions of the stained glass many years ago, in an attempt to keep water out. Trouble is, the plan would cost more than $30 million, a hard sell even for the academy's most historically significant buildings.

Boyle, who has worked full-time at the academy since 1983 and knows the academy's sprawling 18,000-acre campus intimately, realizes that even if the funds were to magically appear, $30 million spent on the chapel means $30 million less for the maintenance and preservation of the academy's other buildings. And that's the challenge: Most of the core buildings of the Air Force Academy were designed by Netsch and, taken together, form one of the most striking collections of midcentury modern architecture and design in America. Boyle must oversee all of this and address the particular preservation challenges that these classics pre­sent—challenges that many modernist landmarks across the country increasingly face as they age. Boyle's job is rewarding but difficult, with obstacles arising all the time, and he has learned to pick his battles.

At the chapel, for now, caulk will have to suffice.

In 1955, when Netsch unveiled his initial design for the structure, critical reaction was brutal. Some members of Congress, which controlled the construction funds, were outraged by the chapel's unorthodox architecture. Sen. A. Willis Robertson of Virginia said the plan looked like "an assembly of wigwams." A few years later, Rep. George P. Miller of California likened Netsch's revamped design to an accordion and called it "a travesty on religion." Rep. Errett Scrivner of Kansas called it an "aluminum monstrosity" that "will look like a row of polished teepees upon the side of the mountains."

Despite the public attacks, Congress came through with the money for the chapel—just over $3 million—in 1957. From the start, Air Force officials wanted the entire U.S. Air Force Academy to symbolize American optimism. Secretary of the Air Force Harold Talbott said at the time, "We want the Academy to be a living embodiment of the modernity of flying and to represent in its architectural concepts the national character of the Academy...We want our structures to be as efficient and as flexible in their design as the most modern projected aircraft." Congressional misgivings over the academy's architectural style aside—what, no brick? no red Colorado sandstone? no barrel-vaulted nave?—Talbott got what he wanted. On Aug. 29, 1958, 1,145 cadets moved from their temporary quarters at Lowry Air Force Base in Denver to their new campus near Colorado Springs.

To be sure, some detractors consider Netsch's Cadet Area (the central portion of the campus, with its severe geometry and windswept plazas) downright alienating, a kind of Rocky Mountain Brasilia. In 2002, James Howard Kunstler, author of The Geography of Nowhere and a longtime critic of modernist architecture, presented the academy with his Hermann Goering Lifetime Award for Despotic Grandiosity. Nonetheless, the Cadet Area was designated a National Historic Landmark in 2004.

Unlike many modernist works, the Air Force Academy has never been threatened with outright destruction. But even if most of the original buildings in the Cadet Area look more or less the same as they did when completed in 1958, deterioration (primarily due to deferred maintenance) is an issue, and some inevitable additions and design alterations have caused concern. In the 1960s, a new dormitory, Sijan Hall, arose on the south side of the Cadet Area. Architecturally, it mimics SOM's original buildings, but it occupies a site intended to be left open. A massive athletic fieldhouse, complete with aqua columns (since painted over), was also built. In 1981, a truss-roofed extension of the library covered a graceful courtyard.

Landscape architect Dan Kiley's 700-foot-long Air Garden—a series of fountains, pools, and walkways—was filled in with dirt and grass. Pitched roofs were added to modernist-style faculty housing. According to Boyle, lobby furniture by Charles Eames and Ludwig Mies van der Rohe was shipped off to the salvage yard, replaced by generic pieces. Original dormitory desks and beds designed expressly for the academy were replaced by cheap particle-board versions. New buildings began to rise on other parts of the campus, many having little or nothing to do with SOM's sleek, horizontal International Style.

In the early 1980s, there was talk of adding a new building right in the middle of the Cadet Area quadrangle, known as the Terrazzo (derived from terrazza, the Italian word for "terrace"). Such an addition would have gone against SOM's original plans for the site, but no guidelines existed to prevent its construction. So academy officials brought in SOM to develop a master plan for future expansion projects. Duane Boyle, who was working at the time in SOM's Denver office, was part of the team.

It was a homecoming of sorts. Now 51, Boyle grew up in a Colorado Springs neighborhood just outside the academy's south entrance. He attended Air Academy High, a public school located on academy grounds. "We were in the Cadet Area all the time," he says, "mostly to use the sports facilities." The architecture spoke to him, even as a 16-year-old kid. "It was just such a huge, inspiring set of buildings," Boyle says. Before he even graduated from high school, Boyle had made up his mind: He was going to become an architect. Not only did he realize his dream, but he also ended up working for the very firm whose work inspired him in the first place.

Master plans have a tendency to gather dust. Not so at the academy. In 1983, after SOM completed its master plan, Boyle was hired to oversee the implementation of design and planning standards on campus. Based in the civil engineering department, Boyle and his small staff wrote up detailed design guidelines for new construction, and started a restoration program for existing buildings and interiors. For many years, Boyle would call Netsch in Chicago at least once a week to pick his brain about new projects. (Netsch, now 88, is in declining health, so Boyle says he "tries not to bother him." But they remain close friends. Boyle even gave his son the middle name of Walter, after the architect.)

Under Boyle's watch, the academy has spent millions of dollars on major renovations of some of its oldest buildings, such as Vandenberg Hall. Boyle has fought hard to make sure that new buildings—including what he calls "the only International Style Burger King in the world," built in the early 1990s—blend seamlessly with SOM's original designs. Now, he says, when a new building is proposed, the first question people at the academy ask is, "What does Duane think?"

Boyle laughs. "That's progress."

Boyle parks his green Dodge Dakota outside Fairchild, a massive academic building (equivalent to a 55-story high-rise set on its side, with six miles of corridors). We walk past it to the 1981 library addition, built over a courtyard that had been planted with grass and trees—"negative space," in the words of Netsch. Boyle, who keeps his opinions to himself unless prodded, shakes his head in disgust as he looks up at the narrow overhead trusses, which have no design relationship to the rest of the library. The ceiling is covered with sprayed-on fireproofing material, the kind you might see in a cheap motel. "In my opinion, it's a disaster," he says. "A simple glass box would have worked much better." He shrugs, as if to say, "Not much I can do about it now."

Not 50 feet away, however, in one of the original sections of the library, a spectacular, four-story circular staircase appears to float in space. "It's pure art," Boyle gushes. As Boyle tells it, Netsch designed the staircase in response to a complaint by Lt. Gen. Hubert Harmon, the academy's first superintendent, that the Cadet Area had too many right angles. "Can't you give me something round?" he demanded. Harmon also wanted Netsch to use some gold Murano glass tiles someplace—anyplace—instead of the red, yellow, and blue tiles used elsewhere. Netsch complied by using gold tiles on a wall next to the staircase.

We proceed to the Terrazzo, the academy's outdoor plaza. While scores of cadets, in their crisp blue uniforms, cross it to and from classes, fourth-degree cadets, or freshmen, confine themselves to the straight lines formed by white strips of marble. Boyle stops in front of a fountain, one of two that were part of Dan Kiley's Air Garden. When Boyle first began working at the academy, the fountains—and the pools located in the large space in between—had long since been drained. Lt. Gen. Bradley Hosmer, superintendent at the time, wondered if the fountains could be restored. Boyle and his crew brought in a front-end loader and started digging around. The fountains, down to the nozzles and underwater lights, were indeed still there, buried under several feet of dirt. Boyle got them up and running. He'd love to restore the entire Air Garden, but that will take money, not to mention political will from his military superiors, who come and go with great frequency.

For Boyle, a more pressing concern is the concrete that forms most of the Terrazzo itself. "That's 40 acres of exposed aggregate concrete," he says. He points to large chunks that have crumbled away from the constant cycle of freezing and thawing. "Exposed aggregate concrete in Colorado doesn't hold up. It was originally supposed to be granite, but that was too expensive. Every year, we spend hundreds of thousands of dollars replacing it. In some areas, it starts deteriorating in as soon as five years."

Boyle is exploring the possibility of precasting the slabs in a factory rather than pouring them on-site. The idea is that by controlling the conditions under which they are fabricated, the concrete slabs will last longer. "Some people would say, 'Why don't you just replace the concrete with asphalt?' But that's not going to happen," he says, insisting on the integrity of the original design.

On the west end of the campus, on the elevated plaza known as the Honor Court, sits elegant Harmon Hall, the academy's main administration building—a simple, three-story modernist gem made of glass, aluminum, and marble. The building is set on columns and seems to hover above the ground. Only the top two floors are office spaces; the first level is open to the elements but for two elevator lobbies, whimsically clad in red glass tiles. (Who says modernist buildings can't have a little color?) Over the years, various academy officials have proposed enclosing Harmon Hall's open first floor, and though that has never happened, by the 1990s, the building badly needed a renovation.

Starting in 2004, Harmon Hall was completely gutted so that it could be modernized with new mechanical systems, double-paned glass windows, and reconfigured interior spaces. During the two-and-a-half-year renovation, workers discovered that some of the steel support columns—covered by aluminum sleeves—had rusted away at the base. "That was pretty scary," Boyle says. "At some point, that building probably would have failed if we hadn't found that." The columns were reinforced with carbon fiber strips, thin enough that the original aluminum covers could be reused.

"If you look at that building today," Boyle says proudly, "it doesn't look any different from the way it did when it was built in 1958."

Elsewhere on the Honor Court, academy officials are considering adding a new building to house the Center for Character Development, created in 1993 in the wake of a cadet cheating scandal. It would be placed underground, but a new courtyard would be added to the Honor Court. Boyle isn't thrilled with the idea, and he's suggested alternative sites outside the Cadet Area. Ultimately, it's not his call, even with the Cadet Area's National Historic Landmark status. "The academy is an important place," he says, "and it needs to be preserved. It's not a place where you should make rash decisions without thinking them through, but there's nothing to really prevent that from happening. If I can act as a buffer for that, then that's probably the best I can do."

Back in the Dodge Dakota, I ask Boyle to name his favorite building at the academy. His answer surprises me. It isn't the chapel, although he believes it to be an architectural masterpiece, and it isn't Harmon Hall, with its Miesian proportions.

"It's the heating plant," he says.

Located not far from the Cadet Area, the plant, one of the original SOM buildings, is a four-story box with black columns and tinted blue windows. Set amid pine and spruce trees, it has the kind of perfect geometry found in the best modernist architecture. Yet very few people outside the academy have ever seen it.

"At night," Boyle says, "it just glows. You can see the silhouettes of the equipment inside. Pure 'form follows function.' "

When Boyle talks about the heating plant or his friendship with Walter Netsch, all the frustrations of his job—the never-ending maintenance issues, the constant pursuit of funding, the bureaucratic turf battles, the leaky chapel—seem to disappear. Twenty-five years after he began working full-time at the academy, he still seems amazed that his job is to preserve the very buildings that inspired his career path.

"I think," he says, "I have the best job in architecture."

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