COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. (KRDO) -- The project to repair decades of water damage on the iconic Air Force Academy chapel was extended by the discovery of additional asbestos a year ago, but officials said Thursday that the project has now moved from the demolition phase to the restoration phase.
On Thursday, workers removed the last of 1,008 pieces of the chapel's aluminum exterior from the upper section of the structure; a protective shell was built around the chapel to allow work to continue in all weather conditions.
Workers began removing 147 dumpsters full of asbestos -- as well as old aluminum panels -- in 2019 , and now they'll start repairing water damage, restoring the chapel and prevent future water leaks.
A small crowd of workers and the Academy community clapped as they watched the last piece removed.
Officials said that the project's final phase should be completed in 2026, and the chapel reopened in 2027; the Class of 2027 arrives this summer and may be the first to see the chapel's reopening.
Donny Tennyson, vice president of the project's contractor -- J.E. Dunn Construction -- said that it carries implications that may people are unaware of.
"We're also able to train the future craftsmen, the future trades, the future leaders in the industry who are going to be doing this work long after this project is done," he said.
Teams in Texas, California, Georgia and Minnesota and Missouri are making primary contributions to the project, Tennyson said, adding that teams in other states are assisting, as well.
The restoration, officials said, was necessary because an interior water barrier initially planned, was scrapped due to cost overruns; the barrier was replaced with 32 miles of asbestos caulking that failed to prevent water damage.
All 22,000 pieces of stained gas will be returned to their original locations, officials said.
When finished, officials said that the chapel will shine more brilliantly and fulfill the intent of the original architect's design.
"He wanted the chapel to be constantly changing during the day, during the seasons, depending on where the sun is at," said Academy architect Duane Boyle. "We knew that was a characteristic we had to match, and it took us four years to figure out how he did that. He also wanted the lighting in the chapel to change as you walk from back to front. The temporary repairs we did for water damage obscured much of the national lighting."
The chapel was built between 1959 and 1962, and officials said that their work has uncovered features that haven't been seen publicly since the chapel opened.
Originally, the project was scheduled for completion by the end of this year; the additional asbestos removal increased the cost from $160 million to $220 million.
But the project's final phase has a deeper meaning than its beauty and popularity.
"We know that several cadet classes haven't, and won't get to, enjoy the chapel," said Col Julian Gaither, the Academy's senior chaplain. "But in times of tragedy, it also becomes a beacon of hope. (Wednesday) night, there was a tragic helicopter crash in Kentucky that killed nine soldiers. We remind the cadets that the chapel is more than just a symbol. They will be deployed to locations across the globe that don't have a house of worship like this one. The cadets' spiritual fitness and readiness are the most important things."