“Jet Set” Modern in Chicago: The Rotunda

post by guest author, Nate Lielasus, AIA.

The Rotunda Building at O’Hare International Airport is a jet-age relic from the airport’s earliest days.  It has remained largely intact for almost half a century while most of the original airport has been reconstructed or dramatically remodeled to the point of being unrecognizable.

Chicago has long been a hub for commercial air traffic. In the 1950s Midway airport was the busiest passenger terminal in the country and suffering from over-crowded conditions.  Due to its location embedded in the urban fabric of Chicago’s South Side, there was little opportunity for expansion to relieve the airports every increasing congestion. Orchard Field, a landing site northwest of the city and ten times as large as Midway, offered an opportunity to build a new airport from scratch. In the 1960s construction began on new terminals, infrastructure and support buildings.  The new airport was named O’Hare International Airport after Edward O’Hare, a U.S. Navy flying ace killed in WWII.  To this day, the identification letters, ORD, refer to the previous name.  The architectural firm of C.F. Murphy Associates did much of the early work and successor firms, down through Murphy/Jahn, have continued to have a dominant hand in the growth of the airport.

The dome of the Rotunda with oculus and axial ribs

In the 1960s airports around the country were expanding and building futuristic structures to capture the excitement and novelty of the new jet age. In 1960 Pan Am built the flying saucer shaped Worldport at JFK Terminal 3 (Ives, Turano & Gardner Associated Architects and Walther Prokosch of Tippets-Abbett-McCarthy-Stratton). Demolition is unfortunately underway and expected to be complete in 2015.  Also at JFK the iconic TWA Flight Center, designed by Eero Saarinen, opened in 1962.  In the same year, President John F. Kennedy  dedicated Saarinen’s new main terminal at Dulles International Airport.

Across the country,  Los Angeles International Aiport unveiled the Theme Building (William Pereira and Charles Luckman, 1961), another flying saucer, this one on stilts.  The centerpiece of Chicago’s new O’Hare International Airport was the Rotunda Building, completed in 1963.

In that same year, Americans watched Hollywood icons Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton in “The V.I.P.s,” a movie set entirely in Heathrow Airport’s sleek Terminal Two VIP lounge  (demolished in 2010 after decades of neglect and hard use).  These new airport structures were modern and exotic, exuding confidence and expressing the excitement of a new era.

The interior of the Seven Continents Restaurant in 1963, shortly after the Rotunda Building was constructed. Image copyright, C. F. Murphy Company

The Rotunda Building was centrally located between the first two terminals and served as a hinge between the two sides of the airport.  At the crossroads of the airport, the Rotunda’s restaurants and bars offered a place to gather and peoplewatch. The second floor wraps around an open two-story atrium and was home to the famed Seven Continents Restaurant, a fine dining establishment in the midst of the bustling airport.  At the restaurant diners from around the world could watch the airplanes outside on the tarmac and experience for themselves the Hollywood-style sophistication of the new jet age.

The round form of the Rotunda Building, capped by a shallow dome, contrasted with the Miesian boxes that made up the new terminals and concourses.  The dome consists of a concrete shell hung by steel cables from a steel support structure overhead.  The suspended dome allows a column free interior, providing a clear space for circulation.  The underside of the dome is axially ribbed with a bright central oculus ringed with down lights.

One of the floating staircases in the Rotunda building

Under the dome, the Rotunda’s atrium has two floating sculptural stairs which lead to the balcony.  Each cast-concrete stair consists of two switch backs joined by a shared landing, creating an “X” shape.  The stairs curve with the balcony above and seem to spring from the floor. The long upper flights soar like wings.

O’Hare’s Rotunda Building was notable not only for its design, but also for its designer, Gertrude Kerbis (b. 1926), of  C.F. Murphy Associates.  Kerbis was a trailblazer for woman in architecture, which was still a male dominated field in the 1960s.  During her long career Kerbis, once a student of Mies van der Rohe at the Illinois Institute of Technology, worked with many of the most celebrated architects in Chicago, including Bertrand Goldberg, architect of Marina City (1964) and Prentice Women’s Hospital (1975).

Today, the Rotunda is an oft-overlooked space in the airport, serving as a vestibule to Terminal 3’s Concourse G.  The Seven Continents Restaurant is long gone, replaced by offices for TSA.  Still, over the intervening 49 years, the Rotunda Building has remained surprisingly intact and is a gem within the airport.  Even after years of additions and remodeling throughout the airport, the Rotunda Building has endured and is as fresh and relevant as ever.

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