THREATENED: Seven Continents Building / Rotunda Building

Address: O’Hare Airport, originally between Terminals 1 and 2
Architect: Gertrude Lempp Kerbis with Naess & Murphy, and
C.F. Murphy Architects
Date: 1963 (drawings 1961)
Style: Jet Age
Neighborhood: O’Hare

OVERVIEW
In 1961, Gertrude Kerbis, with the architectural firm of Naess & Murphy, later known as C.F. Murphy, designed the Seven Continents/O’Hare Airport Rotunda Building as a multi-purpose structure housing several restaurants and airport functions. It served as a magnificent passenger link connecting two major airport terminals. The Rotunda Building is a Jet Age design that was once the centerpiece of Chicago’s O’Hare International Airport and is an excellent example of Midcentury Modern airport architecture.

Gertrude Kerbis was a groundbreaking architect and one of the first women at the forefront of Chicago architecture working in the modern style in the 1960s. She studied with Walter Gropius at Harvard and with Ludwig Mies van der Rohe at IIT-Illinois Institute of Technology in Chicago. Kerbis worked with at Skidmore, Owings & Merrill (SOM) and later at Naess & Murphy/C.F. Murphy. She opened her own architectural firm, Lempp Kerbis Architects, in 1967. Kerbis was one of very few female architects working in a male-dominated profession. She worked on the original O’Hare Terminal structures and the Chicago Civic Center, now known as the Richard J. Daley Center, a designated Chicago Landmark.

Kerbis designed the Seven Continents/Rotunda Building using an elaborate structural system consisting of one mile of heavy bridge cables spanning a 190-foot ceiling and measuring approximately five inches in thickness, considered by some to be a structural feat. This system resembles a sunburst pattern sheathed in concrete visible from the floor of this unique circular, public, two-story space. The Rotunda Building remains largely intact today but has faded from public use due to the closing of the original restaurants, the expansion of O’Hare Airport and the difficulty of accessing the building beyond added security checkpoints.

Preservation Chicago advocates for a greater appreciation, recognition, restoration and Chicago Landmark status for this iconic building. As an extensive $8.5 billion O’Hare modernization effort is about to begin, the Seven Continents/Rotunda Building should be retained and restored.

RECOMMENDATIONS
Preservation Chicago supports a Chicago Landmark designation for the Seven Continents/Rotunda Building and a full restoration of the building. The structure meets and fulfills four of the seven criteria set forth for Proposed Designation of Chicago Landmarks and it also fulfills the “integrity criterion” required for Landmark designation. Landmark status would protect the Rotunda Building from neglect or demolition as O’Hare Airport plans for the future. With the $8.5 million modernization effort and replacement of Terminal 2, it is our hope that the Rotunda Building will be restored and returned to become a lively center of activity. With new uses that both honor and restore the integrity of this remarkable structure and its complex and sophisticated spaces and finishes, it can be enjoyed by the public once again. If the positioning of the Rotunda Building will not allow for it to function as a public thoroughfare, it should be considered as a special lounge area with a fine dining option.

There has been an effort at airports across the country to restore and reuse the Midcentury Modern airport buildings. The TWA Flight Center headhouse by Saarinen at JFK is being redeveloped as a hotel and the Theme Building at LAX by Pereira and Luckman is anticipated to be preserved in the airport’s master planning efforts. The Rotunda Building should be included in this group of Jet Age, Midcentury Modern airport architecture.

Gertrude Kerbis and this incredible structure should be honored in March 2019 for Women’s History Month. Chicago Landmark designation would properly honor the Rotunda Building’s place in women’s 20th century achievements in architecture and aviation, and it would protect it during current and future expansion plans at O’Hare. After years of additions and remodeling throughout O’Hare Airport, the Rotunda Building has endured, and it is as interesting, fresh and relevant as ever.

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