Chicago's First Lady of Modernism

A Chat With Architect Gertrude Kerbis

Gertrude Lempp Kerbis has spent more than 50 years as an architect in her native Chicago. Trained at the University of Illinois, Harvard University, and the Illinois Institute of Technology, Kerbis studied with Gropius and Mies van der Rohe and worked for a number of firms—including Skidmore, Owings & Merrill and Naess and Murphy—before starting her own practice in 1967. In early March, Preservation Executive Editor Arnold Berke spoke with Kerbis about her career, her buildings, and women in architecture.

I enjoyed the recent AIA video in which you describe your early visit to Taliesin.

I was attending the University of Wisconsin, and in my dorm was an issue of Life magazine with an article on Frank Lloyd Wright. It was just fascinating. Someone said, well, he's just down the road a piece. So I hitchhiked there, and entered away from the main entrance. That's how I avoided seeing all the Do Not Enter signs, because they had gone to Taliesin West. So I walked down the terraces, peered inside, and was so enchanted. I crawled inside, and spent the night. That's when I decided to be an architect, because it was too wonderful to pass up.

After Harvard, you came back to Chicago.

I started working, because I had to earn money all the time for tuition. My office overlooked the Chicago River, and you could see 860 and 880 [Lake Shore Drive, designed by Mies van der Rohe] being constructed, which was very exciting. When I compared my experience at Harvard with what was happening in Chicago, I thought this city would offer a more interesting kind of experience. These buildings were his first breakthrough, pivotal in what you remember about him.

What was Mies like?

Oh, he was horrible! And Gropius wasn't so wonderful either. They really didn't think of women or their place in the world. Mies would not go out of his way for anyone. After I started at IIT, he set up a little team to investigate a really interesting problem, how to design a long-span structure for Chicago's convention center. He selected four students to get their graduate degree based on that study. I told him I wanted to do my own work. He said, you mean you want me to work with you on your project, and you will not work with me on mine? I said yes, and he never spoke to me again. I stuck it out in a corner, working on my own project. He never came over, never acknowledged me. Whenever he had a consultant working on the convention center, though, I listened to what was going on. So I was part of the group, but didn't actually do that project.

His long-span study interested me. However, I took exception—although I didn't mention it—that it was not an elegant solution to how the roof structure met the outside wall. Later, at SOM, I used that integrated truss system. I took that idea from Mies. However, I completely transformed how it was resolved. I was hired to work on the Air Force Academy [in Colorado Springs, Colo.] dining hall for the cadets. My ideas on it, such as building the roof on the ground and elevating it, used the computer. We weren't even aware, when Mies was doing his study for the convention center, how it would never have gotten built without a computer. About 15 years later, he used the same technique for a museum in Berlin. Mies was reluctant to say anything came from SOM, because he always thought he'd be first. Actually, Mies' people went to SOM.

I was really taken by your design of the Seven Continents Restaurant building [at O'Hare Airport].

I stayed on at SOM for two years after the academy project, but a team was being assembled at another firm, Naess and Murphy, now Murphy/Jahn. They won  the commission to design the whole airport. I went over there, and we worked on the airport master plan. But that's all changed now. It's still there, and you can walk through it. … It was an extremely wonderful time, because that's when jets were coming in. People were lined up all along the highways, watching them take off. They'd dress up to go to the airport restaurants. At the Seven Continents, they imported a chef from Switzerland. His food was terrific, and people would go out there just to eat the food. When [President] Kennedy dedicated the airport, they opened the restaurant.

In the video, you're standing in the Seven Continents, saying, "most buildings by people my age are being torn down, so let's hope this stays up a little longer." Can they save it and use it for something?

I hope so. About 20 years ago, I.M. Pei designed a control tower, but rather than wrecking my building, they put it smack-dab between it and the access road. They avoided tearing it down.

Medium-sized image unavailable for this photo.
Draper and Kramer demolished the Lake Meadows
Tennis Club, most recently a restaurant,because
it was "unrepairable," the company said.

Credit: Grahm Balkany

How do you feel about saving threatened [modern structures]?

Like all things, some are better than others. It'd be terrible if these masterpieces were torn down. There's a big revival going on across the whole modern spectrum.

It's ironic, since many modern buildings replaced the buildings that preservationists first tried to save.

Exactly! It's hard, unless you talk about specific buildings. I think the Michael Reese building [Friend Convalescent Home, razed October 2009] was not very distinguished. They tore down one of my SOM buildings nearby, too, a small clubhouse [in Lake Meadows]. A Paul Rudolph high school came down last year in Sarasota. I think all his stuff should be preserved, really. But some of it, in Florida very early on, was kind of fragile.

You established your own firm in 1967.

All of my architectural experiences have been challenging. But that was the whole point of everything, to make those challenges. My husband taught in the school system, and was a tennis pro. So we made our first project, wrapping it around his expertise, the first indoor commercial tennis club in Chicago. We started in the city, and I made proposals to buy land, but ended up in Highland Park.

Did you do the Clark Street condos, part of an urban renewal project, for your own firm?

Yes. I had been doing proposals with developers to bid on land, so I became expert on how to put a project together. But I was successful on my own on these "greenhouses" [with enclosed atrium buffers].

In 1973 you founded Chicago Women in Architecture. Why?

By that time, I had gotten much more confident in my ability, and realized I had had all this experience with firms, even before SOM. I knew some were more generous with women—even from a social point of view, some men were more gentlemanly. So I felt we should get together and talk with whomever was around. I thought it should be casual, so I sent out a postcard to the women I knew of, asking them to come to my office. They came, and a few years later formulated it into a conventional club. They're still going strong, hundreds of women. They're terrific. We lobbied for having a certain percentage of women in [state and federal projects]. They're established! Carol Ross Barney, one of CWA's founders, designed the new federal building in Oklahoma City.

What challenges did you have as a woman?

Here I was doing significant work at SOM but was treated very poorly. After my first interview with [another] large firm, they took me to a different room than drafting and said, "This is where the interior people are; we don't want you in the drafting room." It went up and down at that time.

What are you working on now?

I'm just doing remodeling—a little house in Florida and a couple of things up here. One is my own project, 25 years old, that I had to strip and remodel. My area of expertise had to do with structural innovations, so I really would prefer to do that.

You have a house in the Indiana dunes?

Yes, I bought it about 12 years ago, a builder's house. I totally gutted it. It's down the street from one of the World's Fair houses [Homes of Tomorrow from the 1933 Chicago World's Fair]. Those are very exciting. I really wanted to buy one of them, just to preserve it, but it was an unattractive deal. Various people did take them up on it, though. They virtually had to rebuild them from scratch. Some were financed by various manufacturers, like wall-makers and so on, to display revolutionary products. It was an important time.  

Watch a 2008 video interview with Gertrude Kerbis

Correction: In an earlier version of this story, we misspelled Carol Ross Barney's name. We regret the error.

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Comments

Submitted by babsblackmail at: April 6, 2010
In reading the article on Gertrude Kerbis she mentioned being interested in the World's Fair houses. I own and have lived in a General Houses home for the past 47 years.My home is in Palm Springs, Ca. It was designed by Howard Fisher, an architect and professor at Harvard. If Ms. Kerbis is ever in my area I would invite her to visit.

Submitted by lessismuchmore at: March 28, 2010
Thanks for sharing the story of this remarkable woman with us. You've helped fill out the story of mid-century modernism. And I loved remembering the time when airports were airports!

Submitted by Modern Arch Historian at: March 26, 2010
In the paragraph on Chicago Women in Architecture (CWA) the name should Carol Ross Barney - not Russ.

Submitted by Arch Student at: March 25, 2010
This article is a good introduction to Gertrude Lempp Kerbis. She is very straightforward. Make certain to watch the two part video interview, which is very interesting: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LHwmB6ph2DQ&feature=fvw