Women Who Built Illinois

June 3, 2020

(This article originally appeared in the May 2020 edition of The Arch newsletter)

This year marks the 100th anniversary of the passage of the 19th Amendment, protecting women’s constitutional right to vote. Many organizations are celebrating this “Year of the Woman,” including the National Trust for Historic Preservation with its “Where Women Made History” Crowdsourcing Program. Similarly, Landmarks Illinois is launching “Women Who Built Illinois,” a database of places in the state designed, engineered and built by women. The database will be housed on our website at www.Landmarks.org later in the year.

Landmarks Illinois included O’Hare Airport’s Rotunda Building on its 2017 Most Endangered Historic Places in Illinois. The 1962, two-story, round building features an open atrium and connects the first two terminals at Chicago’s busiest airport. The Rotunda is unique not only for its design, but also for its designer, architect Gertrude Kerbis (b. 1926) of C.F. Murphy Associates. Kerbis had a long career in the male-dominated architecture field. Her daughter told Landmarks Illinois in 2016 that Kerbis “became an architect at a time when most women in the field were either receptionists, secretaries or relegated to the interior departments despite their qualifications.”

Kerbis was once a student of Mies van der Rohe at the Illinois Institute of Technology and worked with many high profile architecture firms in Chicago, including C.F. Murphy Associates and Skidmore Owings & Merrill, before opening her own firm Lempp Kerbis in 1967. Kerbis’ designs were considered innovative, including the Rotunda’s cable and concrete roof truss system, allowing for a very large, clear span, and interior features such as a winding tandem stair and circular overlook balcony.

(A historic rendering of the Rotunda. Courtesy JAHN)

Back in 2017, Landmarks Illinois was advocating for the important, yet unprotected Rotunda Building to be retained as part of O’Hare’s ongoing expansion plans. At the time, Landmarks Illinois Director of Advocacy Lisa DiChiera realized that Chicago has yet to designate and protect a woman-designed building as a landmark. This sparked the idea for “Women Who Built Illinois.”

The project will compile data on women architects, engineers, developers, designers and builders in Illinois between 1879 and 1979 and their built projects throughout the state. Places will be assessed for landmark eligibility based on condition and location. Erica Ruggiero, a member of Landmarks Illinois’ young professionals committee, the Skyline Council, and a principal at the women-owned architecture firm McGuire Igleski & Associates, has helped DiChiera compile to date more than 65 women, but Landmarks Illinois wants to learn about others. We encourage you to reach out to us about women in your community who designed and built places.



Today, names like Jeanne Gang and Carol Ross Barney are well known for shaping Chicago’s skyline and cityscape. Unlike Kerbis’ time, female architecture students are now graduating at the same rate as men. Landmarks Illinois wants to recognize the women who laid the path for both today’s female graduates and professionals who continue to impact Illinois’ built environment. Stay tuned in the months ahead as we launch this exciting new initiative.

Contact Lisa DiChiera regarding this project by emailing her at ldichiera@landmarks.org.

(TOP PHOTO:Gertrude Lempp Kerbis. Credit: Chris Deford)

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