On Founders' Day, Academy reflects on history

Construction on the U.S. Air Force Academy's iconic cadet chapel began Aug. 28, 1959. Construction was completed in 1963 by Robert E. McKee, General Contractor Inc., of Santa Fe, N.M.

Construction on the U.S. Air Force Academy's iconic cadet chapel began Aug. 28, 1959. Construction was completed in 1963 by Robert E. McKee, General Contractor Inc., of Santa Fe, N.M.

U.S. AIR FORCE ACADEMY, Colo. -- The United States Air Force Academy features some of the most spectacular scenery anywhere, the perfect confluence of nature and man. The rugged natural beauty evident on the 18,455-acre Academy reservation remains largely as it was centuries, even millennia, ago. In stark contrast, the majestic buildings of aluminum, steel and glass look remarkably futuristic, especially considering most of them are nearing their 55th birthdays.

Despite this seemingly diametrical opposition, primordial nature and modern architecture mesh beautifully to make the Academy one of America's most stunning physical masterpieces. Indeed, both the natural landscape and the manmade structure share one key attribute: timelessness. That the buildings fit so well in their setting is testament to the foresight and talent of those who designed and constructed the Academy.

The building of a campus from scratch was an enormous undertaking, the biggest national construction undertaking in years. The campus would become an instant national monument, taking its place alongside the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, N.Y., and the U.S. Naval Academy at Annapolis, Md. The Air Force received applications from more than 300 architectural firms and, on July 23, 1954, awarded the contract to the Chicago architectural firm Skidmore, Owings and Merrill.

From the start, SOM engineers, including lead designer Walter Netsch, understood the enormity of the task. As he walked the undeveloped site, Netsch asked, "How can we compete with infinity?" The firm chose the modernist architectural style, characterized by buildings within a rectangular plan, the raising of buildings on pillars, and the extensive use of glass.

West Point, at its Revolutionary War site along the Hudson River, evokes the Army's domain, the ground. Similarly, Annapolis sits at the mouth of the Chesapeake Bay, as the Navy is of the sea. The Air Forces Academy, due to the high altitude and the vibrant blue Colorado skies, as well as the futuristic architecture, would look to the sky.
This style and the proposed design were not without critics, who included America's best known architect, Frank Lloyd Wright (who had worked with a group that lost the competition), but the design prevailed with only modest changes.

The objective was to have the Academy usable by the summer of 1958, so the first senior class could move in for its final year. Lowry Air Force Base in Denver served as the temporary home of the Academy from July 1955 until August 1958. SOM worked diligently and applied innovative construction techniques. For example, the 2-acre dining hall's roof was assembled on the ground, then raised by hydraulic jacks.

SOM succeeded in completing enough of its work to allow the Class of 1959 to attend the permanent site of the Air Force Academy, though early classes had to train and study in what was essentially a construction site. Five classes would graduate before the Cadet Chapel was finally completed and dedicated Sept. 22, 1963, a year after Falcon Stadium opened.

The Air Force Academy of today does not look exactly as envisioned by SOM in the 1950s, but it is pretty close. The academic building, dining hall, and gymnasium have been expanded. A second dormitory (Sijan Hall), an academic building annex, an expanded library, a field house and an additional athletic facility have taken their places amongst the original edifices.

Upgrades continue: another major construction project, the Center for Character and Leadership Development, is now underway just east of Harmon Hall.

The basic intent was for the United States Air Force Academy to be a functional campus that could stand with West Point and Annapolis as national monuments. Criticism refined the original design, and future expansion has altered the landscape somewhat, but the Academy has indeed become a timeless and treasured architectural accomplishment. Appropriately for a school that trains Air Force officers, it sits comfortably at a place where the earth meets the sky, perfectly at home in the natural environment that surrounds but does not envelop it.