Posted by: Brad Nixon | November 13, 2012

Colorado: The Chapel

For several years, my dad and I have taken an autumn trip to some part of the American west. Beginning with Alaska, we’ve also gone to Glacier-Waterton National Park in Montana and Alberta (okay, that’s the Canadian west), Washington state last year and, this year, Colorado. We organize the trips — typically about a week — around National Parks and whatever we expect to be worth seeing. The emphasis is on mountains, glaciers, spectacular scenery, as much of the local wildlife as we can find but we keep the itinerary somewhat flexible, because one never knows when you’ll encounter something that needs more time, or be disappointed by a particular place and be ready to move on sooner than planned. I’ve reported some of our experiences in these blogs, which you can find by clicking on “Travel” over in the Categories column to the right.

Now, class, if you’ll turn to the Colorado page in your atlases, you’ll see that the state describes a rectangle. The Rocky Mountains follow a line running generally north-south across the entire state, about six-tenths of the way across from the western border. To the left of that line is a vast area of towering mountains, alpine meadows, gold and silver mining towns, wild country, and ancient native settlements. To the right of that line is an extensive arid high plain of sagebrush, grassland and open range. Geographers call the area to the west of this dividing line the “Interesting Part.” To the right is the portion of the state that we term, “the reason Interstate highways were created.” Cleverly, the state arranged to position its largest city, Denver, right at the dividing line, with enough flat land to the east to build a large airport, so that visitors can conveniently fly into the state, land in the boring part, and head immediately to the Interesting Part. And so we did. Our trip took us in a generally counterclockwise route, north into Rocky Mountain National Park, west nearly to the border with Utah to see the Colorado National Monument, due south to the Black Canyon of the Gunnison, through the old mining towns of Ouray and Silverton to Durango on the southern border with New Mexico. Then we went west to see Mesa Verde National Park and backtracked east through Durango, Pagosa Springs and Del Norte to Great Sand Dunes National Park. Then we headed north to Salida and the valley of the Arkansas where we headed west to Canon City, then north again through Cripple Creek to Woodland Park, then down to Colorado Springs, from which we made our way north on I-25 along the front range of the Rockies to fly out of Denver. 1600 miles. Easy.

Along the way, we saw some of the most spectacular scenery one could ever desire. We saw elk, bighorn sheep, raging torrents in remote chasms, high plains deserts and 14,000 foot mountains. We visited old mining towns struggling to retain a foothold in the 21st Century, and ancient native cities abandoned a thousand years ago. I’ll cover as much of this country as I can in some upcoming blogs, as long as I think I have something to say or to show you that you might not have garnered from your high school geography book.

With all those wonders to describe, though, I’m going to start at the end of our trip, near Colorado Springs, and not with some of the natural beauty one finds there (I may get to it later), but with the most notable modern, man-made structure we encountered on our trip. Then, we’ll head into wilder country.

After the end of WWII, what had been the U.S. Army Air Corps was transformed into a full-fledged portion of the U.S. armed services, the U.S. Air Force. Subsequently, it was determined that there should be a training academy for officers of the Air Force, as there was for the Army and Navy at West Point and Annapolis, respectively. The architectural firm of Skidmore, Owings and Merrill got the contract to design an extensive campus on an 18,500 acre site at the foot of the Rocky Mountains, north of Colorado Springs. The campus is an icon of international modern style, and spreads out in an open plan (click on photos for larger images).

Situated above the major academic and social buildings is the iconic (and, when it debuted in 1962, controversial) Cadet Chapel, designed by architect Walter Nesch.

The structure gained great notoriety, which I recall from my early childhood. Dad and I took this opportunity to see it. Under a nearly cloudless western sky, its 17 spires soaring upward, it impresses by symbolizing flight with the delta-wing shapes of the spires, and, at the same time, evokes a thousand years of western ecclesiastical architecture in the way those spires are supported outside the interior space, like the flying buttresses of gothic cathedrals.

The entrance is at once imposing but also draws the visitor toward it, upward, to the elevated main sanctuary.

Thanks to that structural approach, pioneered by gothic architects, the interior of the main space is a single, open area.

As you can see, the sanctuary shares an important attribute with the greatest gothic structures: the way it controls the flow of light as an integral part of the design. That doesn’t happen by accident; it’s a hallmark of careful planning by the architect. There are some colored translucent panels, but there are also a large number of transparent panels. On the left side of the nave, these permit views out to the mountainside, which makes a wonderful blend of inside/outside.

Below, a detail of Dad photographing the “flying buttress” superstructure, in which one can see the level of the main sanctuary, above, and, below, the lower level that holds a series of smaller chapels for different religious denominations.

What’s most interesting to me about this visit is the most difficult thing to describe and account for. I had been to the Chapel before, a dozen years ago, when I was producing an event in Colorado Springs, and made a quick dash to see it with a colleague. Although I enjoyed seeing it, I wasn’t so impressed as I was this time. It was more of a check-off of another notable piece of architecture. Perhaps because it was an overcast, chilly day or because we were in a hurry, I didn’t derive the same degree of pleasure from that visit. Maybe it was just the pleasure of sharing the experience with a more empathetic travel partner, who’s willing to be impressed by new experiences. Dad either was or had just finished being an architecture student when the Chapel opened, and I was in the 5th grade. It was a pleasure to see it with him, now that it has survived its initial problematic reception and become a symbol of many things, including the ability of mankind to suggest things that are greater than steel and stone.

© Brad Nixon 2013, 2017



  1. Impressive – having visited many gothic cathedrals over the past few years, I love the modern take on it. The exterior is fantastic. However, the interior leaves me cold – which might just be the single camera angle (I know how difficult it is to get an impression of the inside of a building). It feels small and oppressive, as though the roof is caving in (the ‘bend’ no doubt having something to do with this).


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