Colorado Springs Military Newspaper Group

Air Force Academy Spirit

First CE officer recalls Academy growing pains

Col. Art Witters

Col. Art Witters

By Ann Patton

Academy Spirit staff


Colonel Art Witters kept his promise to Gen. Hubert Harmon that the Academy would have its own field house.

He made that promise only a few days before General Harmon, whom Colonel Witters fondly called “Boss,” passed away in 1957.

It took 11 years to become a reality when, in 1968, the Cadet Field House was dedicated.

“I made good on my promise,” the first Academy civil engineer said during his visit to the Academy Monday, his 90th birthday, to share his recollections of his part in the conception, design and construction of the Academy.

He thanked his 10th Civil Engineer Squadron hosts for the opportunity to revisit the Academy.

“I wanted to have the greatest academy in the world. You have made it happen,” he said.

The first director of installations (Air Force Civil Engineer) for the Academy began his military career in 1941, first serving as an Army artilleryman and Air Force fighter pilot in Europe during World War II. After the war he taught at the U.S. Military Academy and then served as Academy civil engineer from 1954 to 1958 and chief architect for the Academy from 1961 to 1965. He later served as an architectural advisor to the secretary of the Air Force between 1965 and 1970.

Along the way, he married Beverly, his wife of 67 years, and the couple had four children.

Colonel Witters’ long dedication to the Academy began in 1948 with his master’s degree thesis on what an Air Force Academy should look like. With little or no academic research material available, Colonel Witters set out to create his own, beginning with his stint at West Point.

“I learned the academies from the ground up,” he said.

The former civil engineer spoke in great detail of the names, dates and projects as well as the conflicts and differences of opinion in the creation of the Academy, first at Lowry Air Force Base and then its permanent home.

Projects became larger and more expensive as they progressed, especially after cadet numbers for all academies were standardized at 4,417 each. Colonel Witters saw the need for a meeting place for an entire cadet class as well as an outlet for after-hours.

“I wanted a social center for the cadets,” he said.

Before construction began on what would become Vandenberg Hall, he spoke of the two-room lived-in mock-up of a dorm room as a test for architecture and furnishings for future dorm rooms and the varying opinions of those involved in the approval process.

Colonel Witters also recalled differing opinions on the design for Mitchell Hall, which at one point included 12 columns in the main dining room, and the eventual resolution of those differences.

While chief Academy architect, he was consulted when, during construction, the chapel leaked between 50 and 100 gallons of water seeping between the 35,000 glass tetrahedrons, or “dalls,” every time it rained. He oversaw the installation of box gutters, downspouts and glazed glass wire on the dalls to fend off the leakage.

The chapel was dedicated on his birthday in 1963.

During his tenure at the Academy, the architect testified 22 times on Academy issues during hearings in Washington, D.C.

Colonel Witters, with obvious sadness, spoke of his “most heartbreaking spring” in 1959 when he was not on the invitation list for the first Academy graduation.

In more pleasant times, he told of greeting General Omar Bradley, who, to the architect’s amazement, addressed him by his first name.

The general had his own reasoning.

“If you don’t remember who served you, you don’t deserve to be served,” he said.

Colonel Witters adopted that saying, as well as one of General James Briggs, the Academy’s second superintendent.

“If you have good people, you’ll get the job done,” the general was known to say.

Colonel Witters is the co-author, with retired Col. J. Bryce Hollingsworth, of the book Off We Go!, the story of the creation of the Academy. It is available at the Association of  Graduates.

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