The National Security Act of 1947 established an independent and co-equal United States Air Force. Competition soon began with 582 proposals from 45 states to locate the new Air Force Academy. Colorado Springs, already home to the Air Defense Command and with a magnificent setting for the new academy had a competitive advantage. The city put forth an all-out effort and was awarded the academy over Alton, IL, and Lake Geneva, WI, neither of which had the community support nor unabashed pro-military stance as Colorado Springs. When President Eisenhower announced the winner, Governor Dan Thornton said this was “the greatest day in the history of Colorado.”
Architects Skidmore, Owings, and Merrill were selected to build an institution intended to be, literally, a national monument. This would be one of the largest single educational projects ever designed in this country and, at the time, one of the largest ever government-funded projects. The design was perhaps the purest example of modernist architecture, reflecting science, a new world order, timelessness, human progress, and emphasis on functionality. The intent was to project a bright new future for humanity based on human intellect, rational thought, and technological progress. The Department of Defense sought a symbol reflecting the role the Air Force would play during the Cold War era.
The centerpiece of the entire Cadet Area was the chapel, a structure with 17 spires made up of three vertically-interlocking tetrahedrons, each 75 feet long, rising to a height of 150 feet above the granite pediment. When plans were unveiled, many politicians were highly critical of the rigid, impersonal design. Over time, however, the site has become recognized as a masterpiece of modernism. The Cadet Area was designated as a National Historic Landmark in 2004.
The Academy is one of the most important tourist sites for Colorado Springs and is used in promotional materials for the city. At its 50th anniversary in 2004, a study found that the Academy payroll, indirect jobs and service spending total more than $561 million, with more spending by tourists and visitors to athletic events. It employs nearly 10,000 military and civilians, with another 3,500 jobs off base dependent upon spending from its workers. Most importantly, it is a symbol of freedom integral to the city’s identity and reputation.
Generously Submitted by Dr. John Harner, Professor of Geography & Environmental Studies, University of Colorado, Colorado Springs