U.S. AIR FORCE ACADEMY, Colo. --
The U.S. Air Force Academy’s Cadet Chapel restoration project reached a landmark milestone when contractors removed the final aluminum panel March 30.
The event marked the 1,008th piece of the chapel’s iconic, expressionist-modern exterior that contractors ceremoniously removed transitioning the project from the demolition phase of asbestos abatement and site-preparation into the reconstruction phase.
“We are certainly grateful for this milestone,” said Carlos Cruz-Gonzalez, Academy director of logistics, engineering and force protection. “This is certainly in my career, 42-years doing this in the Air Force, [been] the most complex project that I’ve ever experienced or been exposed to.”
The Academy awarded a $158 million contract in 2019 for chapel repairs. However, in 2020, engineers discovered the extent of asbestos which extended the project’s timeline to 2027 and cost to $220 million.
“The Air Force has been very supportive,” said Cruz-Gonzalez. “They understand the criticality of, not only the value of the facility and what it means to the Academy and the Air Force, but certainly the importance of us meeting our responsibilities under the National Historic Preservation Act.”
Duane Boyle, Academy architect, detailed previous historic efforts that failed to block moisture from entering the chapel’s interior. Efforts included asbestos caulk, other sealants, aluminum and glass attachments that altered or restricted the appearance of chapel design features.
“Scraping the sealants off the building damaged the aluminum finish and as time went on and new resealant projects came in, the sealants were no longer adhering to the aluminum very well,” said Boyle. “The longevity of those projects was very short, so that’s what really drove us to actually think about how can we fix this problem once and for all?”
Boyle joined designers to brainstorm a solution--eventually returning to the idea of the facility’s original architect that was left out as an effort to cut costs. The team expects to install the originally-planned aluminum water barrier beneath the new aluminum exterior upon completion of testing.
“Although we still have a long way to go before reopening to the public, we’re committed to getting this right, from solving the water intrusion issue, to ensuring that the building is brought back to its original design intent for the Academy, the region, and the nation to enjoy,” added Boyle.
More than 700 contractors have worked on the project to date, abating more than 5,880 cubic yards of asbestos material which covered approximately 1.1 million square-feet, an immense undertaking according to Donny Tennyson, Vice President of J.E. Dunn Construction, Cadet Chapel restoration lead contractor.
“This is absolutely a national effort,” said Tennyson. “As we stand here in this enclosure, it’s important to know that at this moment there are individuals in nearly all corners of the country that are working on various aspects of this project.”
Tennyson referenced sub-contracted teams in Colorado Springs, Texas, Georgia, Minnesota and Missouri as key contributors to the restoration of the two organs, stained glass, pews and testing of the new water barrier design.
“We don’t want to lose sight of how fantastic and wide-spread of an effort this is overall,” said Tennyson.
Academy senior Chaplain Col. Julian Gaither emphasized his team’s focus on fostering cadet spiritual wellness throughout the chapel’s lengthy renovation.
“As the building is closed for our cadet faith communities, the U.S. Air Force Academy Chapel Team continues to provide uninterrupted agile spiritual care and support to meet the needs of the Cadet Wing,” said Gaither. “We constantly remind them that their spiritual fitness, their spiritual readiness is really the most important thing.”
Gaither and his staff have been conducting a full spectrum of services, classes and events throughout the cadet area since Cadet Chapel site preparation began. On completion, multiple cadet classes will have arrived and departed the Academy having never attended services inside the Cadet Chapel. However, cadets and their spiritual readiness remain a top priority according to Gaither.
The multi-faith place of worship was completed in 1962 and served generations of cadets until the current renovation project in 2019. The chapel’s architecture features 17 spires reaching 150 feet into the sky. The U.S. National Park Service designated the Academy’s cadet area to include the chapel as a National Historic Landmark in 2004.
“We miss welcoming the thousands of visitors through our doors each year, making the Cadet Chapel more than just a historic building but “America’s Chapel” housing the faiths of our nation,” said Gaither. “On behalf of our Chaplain Corps, we are very thankful for the diligence of those working to restore and re-open our Cadet Chapel, an important symbol of religious freedom.”
Academy officials expect the chapel’s extensive restoration to last through 2027.