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.
Airports Futurist Structures
In the 1960s airports around the country were expanding and building futuristic structures to capture the excitement and novelty of the new jet age. The centerpiece of Chicago’s new O’Hare International Airport was the Rotunda Building, completed in 1963. It 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 people watch. 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.
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. 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.
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.