Like fine violin makers, great architects have a genius for designing things that get better with time.
So it is with the famous Cadet Chapel at the United States Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs. Although Frank Lloyd Wright is often credited with the design of the chapel, the true mind behind the masterpiece was Walter A. Netsch Jr. of Chicago.
Over the past half century, the chapel has gone from being a controversial example of angular and chiseled avant garde architecture to one of the most beloved buildings in the nation.
The design almost physically lifts the soul.
"It is the most visited man-made structure in the state of Colorado," says Jimmie Fox, a staff member of the Academy visitor's center. "Each year between 800,000 and one million people visit the chapel. It's always on television."
With 17 spires thrusting upward to a height of 150 feet, the chapel embodies not only a desire to touch heaven, but a pilot's desire to soar amid the clouds. Every aspect of the structure is — to borrow a line from the well-known Pilot's Prayer — a wish to "slip the surly bands of earth" and "touch the face of God."
The fact the chapel is an interfaith house of worship only adds to its appeal. The public, too, is welcome to attend services.
"When we're in church we can see all the visitors outside, standing at the wall looking in at us," says James Stoffel, a sophomore cadet from Florida. "Some guys joke that it makes them feel like seals at the zoo. But there's really no real conflict."
After all, says Stoffel, the cadets love the chapel even more than the tourists do.
"In the evening, when the sun sinks in the west, the stained glass shines all kinds of colors on the free-hanging cross," he says. "It's beautiful."
Stoffel worships in the Protestant Chapel, the "upper room" where strips of stained glass graduate from dark to light as they push toward the vaulted ceiling and the heavens beyond. The design is meant to signify moving from darkness into God's bright light.
Below the Protestant Chapel are the Catholic Chapel, Buddhist Chapel and Jewish Chapel. There is also a Falcon Circle for those who follow earth-centered worship and an all-faiths room where cadets from other traditions assemble.
The Catholic Chapel is known for its rich, deep colors and its altar — a gift from Francis Cardinal Spellman, who dedicated the chapel in 1963. Although some Catholics have grumbled about being "in the basement," the dark, solemn surroundings invite reverence and mysticism.
The Jewish Chapel is built as a circle within a square — symbolizing the global mission of the U.S. Air Force and the "all encompassing" realm of God. Israeli Defense Forces donated Jerusalem stone for the structure and a "Holocaust Torah" is also on display.
Buddhists gather in the Dharma Hall, made from Port Orford Cedar, a fragrant wood from Japan often used in temple building.
When asked to name a favorite feature, Stoffel singles out the pipe organ, a work of art designed by Walter Holtkamp that features 4,334 pipes.
"We never had an organ in church," he says.
Needless to say, cadets past and present keep a place in their hearts for the chapel.
At the beginning, many members of Congress balked at the design. One said it looked like a "row of tepees." Other people felt the place drew attention to itself, not to God. But, as they say, cream will eventually rise.
And the academy chapel has risen.
In a posted comment in the Wall Street Journal, one former cadet writes:
"I watched the chapel as it was built, graduating before it was completed. I have returned for memorial services there. While there was a joke about whether we should pray in it, or for it, I think it is an excellent design for the site."
And now, with 2013 being the 50th anniversary of the chapel's dedication, this year may be a good time to visit.
Next year, those cadet who sometimes feel like "seals in the zoo" just might start feeling overwhelmed.
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