The white clapboard chapel might fit easily into any number of American small towns, but not here. With its wooden girders and pointed steeple, the small building stands out among the chic lofts and storefronts of modern Lowry. It couldn’t look more out of place had it been dropped in Oz. The chapel that bears President Dwight David Eisenhower’s name was part of a satellite White House in the 1950s, a place where the leader of the free world would get away from Washington, D.C., to confer with generals, chat about national security and even play golf.
That story is all the more remarkable considering that the chapel was never meant to last. Along with three other identical chapels, the building would serve soldiers and airmen of all religious backgrounds who had come to the Lowry Air Force Base on the eastern fringes of Denver to train for war.
The chapel was a common ground for Catholics, Jews and Protestants, an adaptable house of reverence for all kinds of worshippers, said Chuck Woodward, member of the Lowry Foundation Board. When it opened in November 1941, two weeks before Japanese planes bombed the American military base at Pearl Harbor, it sat in the middle of a bustling, isolated military outpost. To the east, Aurora was a largely rural community. To the west, Denver still had plenty of room to grow. Along with Fitzsimons Army Hospital and Buckley Field farther east — Lowry sat in an undeveloped no-man’s-land.
More than 70 years later, the chapel now serves as a lone reminder of a different time and a different world.
Since the base was decommissioned in 1994, a nearby former Lowry administration building has morphed into an apartment complex. So has the old steam plant that provided Lowry’s power. A massive hangar that once housed planes and pilots is now under development as a new restaurant district; along with upscale health spas, the old hangar hosts an outdoor restaurant with a beer garden theme. But the chapel still serves its original purpose in many ways. It’s still non-denominational. It still hosts weddings, religious ceremonies and other community events. In a neighborhood that’s still changing, the old chapel has survived in its original form. Basins built into the wall to hold holy water can still be flipped around and hidden for a Protestant or Jewish ceremony. The walls don’t boast any ornate crucifixes and the simple paned windows were far from stained glass. Old tokens of the chapel’s past still live in the small storage closets in the back — there are rubber stamps to mark Jewish holy books and large displays for Catholic ceremonies.
Unlike the other three Lowry chapels, this structure, built in a cookie-cutter style 70 years ago and unceremoniously dubbed Building 27, has survived.
A big part of its tale of survival is because of Eisenhower, said Woodward, who’s played a key role in refitting the decommissioned base in recent years. The Eisenhower Chapel now bears the president’s name, all because of isolated visits in the 1950s.
“In the 1970s, they decided to build a brick chapel on the other side of Yosemite (Street),” he said, referring to the structure near the Community College of Aurora’s Lowry campus. “In doing so, they decided to tear down all of the temporary chapels. … The only reason this one is maintained is that Ike and Mamie Eisenhower had come here a few times.”
Preservation has come at a cost. According to Woodward and Helen Hand, the president of the Colorado Free University and a fellow Lowry Foundation board member, the price of keeping up the building is about $25,000 a year. What’s more, construction crews had to lift the building from its foundation to align it with the streets of modern Lowry.
On one of the plain-looking wooden pews that line the chapel’s interior, a small metal plaque commemorates those presidential visits — one on Sept. 6, 1953, the other on Sept. 22, 1954.
“(Eisenhower) actually held at least one National Security Council meeting at Lowry from 1952 to 1955, those three summers when they literally moved the White House out to Colorado,” Woodward said. “It was a much different world. I can’t quite see Obama being able to move to Chicago for a summer.”
It’s even tougher, however, to see this stretch of land on the border of Aurora serving as a kind of Camp David in the 1950s. Burrito restaurants and condos have taken the place of a military base; private schools and apartment complexes have filled in old barracks and hangars. But the little chapel lives on, exuding history preserved in the wooden walls of Building 27.