Sad to hear of the passing of one of Chicago’s unsung architectural heroes. In 2001, flailing around with a research agenda, I sent Gertrude Kerbis a letter asking if she’d have a few minutes to talk about her time at SOM and C.F. Murphy. Kerbis was a U of I and Harvard grad who designed two of the truly great long span spaces of the postwar era–the dining hall at the U.S. Air Force Academy and the (sadly marred) rotunda at O’Hare airport. Both of them took basic structural principles–a space frame and a cable truss–and made architecture out of them. I had been curious about the history of longspan structures in offices that were better known for high rises, and she very graciously made me a cup of coffee in her Old Town townhouse one afternoon and talked about those projects and what it was like to be one of just thirty-nine women architects in the entire state of Illinois.
Not great, as you’d imagine. Much of what she told me she asked me not to write down, but it involved big names and boorish behavior. Her colleagues at SOM, for instance, wouldn’t let her travel to the job site to see the dining hall’s roof lifted up on hydraulic cranes, fearing that their reputation would be compromised if the client saw that their building had been designed by a woman.
She told me these stories in between totally lucid explanations of the projects and a genuine interest in why an architecture professor would be interested in postwar Chicago. It was a great–if somewhat sobering–chat, and I couldn’t have been more grateful for the time or the stories. Or the coffee.
Kerbis was featured in the Chicago Tribune in 1967, in an article so full of backhanded compliments and microaggresions that it could stand as exhibit A in how badly the profession treated some of its best. That she was able to create some truly remarkable buildings despite those headwinds is a tribute indeed to someone who, even in just an afternoon conversation, was a totally impressive, immensely likeable, and somewhat intimidating personality. She deserved more recognition than she had during her career, and I make it a point to show her work–fully credited–in my structures lectures. That interview will, I hope, finally get its day as and when Chicago II comes out.