The U.S. federal government established the Air Force as an independent branch of the military in 1947, and authorized the creation of the U.S. Air Force Academy in 1954. The USAFA was meant to be the main undergraduate university for the Air Force. At the time that the USAFA was planned and constructed, the United States had already entered into the Cold War with the Soviet Union, and the Air Force was seen as the most important arm of the military for this conflict. As a result, the Air Force grew quickly, and many new Air Force officers were needed. The USAFA provided education to young men who would ideally become these new officers.
The U.S. Air Force Academy is located along the Rampart Range of Colorado, a scenic natural area made up of forested hills and valleys along the base of the Rocky Mountains. The Cadet Area occupies the highest ridge of the USAFA campus, and has a soaring view toward the open plains to the east of Rampart Range. Mitchell Hall, the USAFA dining hall, is part of the original master plan for the Cadet Area of the Air Force Academy, and is located off the main campus plaza, the Terazzo, along with other significant cadet buildings such as dormitories and academic buildings.
SOM was commissioned to build a dining hall that could seat all of the cadets (3,000 at that time) at once and feed them quickly, since the cadets' daily schedule is very regimented. The SOM design team, led by Gertrude Lempp Kerbis, wanted to make the dining hall’s interior column-free, and developed an advanced roof of steel trusses supported by sixteen perimeter columns to make this possible. SOM had initially wanted to have glass curtain walls on all four sides of the building to allow for maximum views of the surrounding site, and to have the food-preparation area on the floor below the dining area with small elevators to bring food up, but this would not allow the food to be served fast enough, and so they ended up designing the building so the main kitchen area was on the same floor as the dining area.
Architectural construction of Mitchell Hall
Mitchell Hall is a two-level building that is a square in plan. It has a flat roof with a twenty-one-foot cantilevered overhang on all four sides. Cadets enter Mitchell Hall in formation through two fifty-six-foot-wide entrances that face the Terrazzo. Mitchell Hall only appears to be one story high from the Terrazzo, which is immediately north of the building, but its site slopes dramatically downward so that the dining hall’s southern facade is the equivalent of almost three stories below the Terrazzo entrances. The top floor contains the main dining area and kitchen serving space, as well as a mezzanine level along its northern side for higher-ranking Academy staff and guests above the kitchen service area. The bottom floor, eighteen feet below the dining level, has loading docks on the building's east facade and contains freezers, food storage, and employee workspaces. In addition, the bottom floor houses a more formal dining room for special events.
Similar to the other SOM-designed buildings in the Cadet Area, Mitchell Hall's exterior material palette consists of steel structural elements, aluminum detailing and window frames, and gray-tinted plate-glass walls on all sides except for the northern facade, which is finished with exposed-aggregate precast-concrete panels. While the structure for the upper level is steel, the lower level's structure is reinforced concrete. SOM wanted to provide as many views to the outside as possible for the dining hall, although the glass at the USAFA is mostly tinted because of the bright Colorado sun. The interior of the main dining hall space is one open room with a twenty-four-foot-high, coffered-camp ceiling with fourteen-foot-square panels. The dining area's floor is polished brown terrazzo divided by a grid of aluminum strips that continues from the Terazzo floor outside of Mitchell Hall into the building. The stairway leading to the mezzanine level of the main dining area has white marble treads and a black steel railing, and the floor of the mezannine level is white polished terrazzo.
Mitchell Hall was designed to fit the functional requirement of feeding thousands of Cadets at once while also reflecting the forward-thinking spirit that the Air Force, the military's newest branch, wanted to project to the world. The USAFA's architectural characteristics—clean forms, often raised from the ground, clad in steel, glass, and aluminum—shared similarities with the Air Force's airplanes, and set the USAFA apart from the architecture of West Point and the U.S. Naval Academy.