American Architectural History: A Contemporary Reader

By Keith L. Eggener | Go to book overview

Chapter 24
Planes of existence
Chicago and O’Hare International Airport

Marc Spiegler

Palm Sunday, Chicago. The congregation at the O’Hare Airport interfaith Chapel spans a wide spectrum of race, age, and attire. Their only unifying link: palm fronds held tightly in their hands. In a town built upon the successive backs of the Irish, Poles, and Mexicans, Catholic services are a big draw, especially among those marooned by duty at the airport. A few sleek suits grace the room, but the dominant motif is the uniform—cop, stewardess, fast-food server, pilot. Twenty minutes into Mass, a man wearing the outfit of a United Airlines baggage handler steps forward to read from the Bible.

Despite the serenity of the 35-minute service, O’Hare permeates the experience. Under the flock’s seats, carry-on luggage items are neatly stowed. But in the chapel’s aisles, jammed together like junks in Hong Kong’s harbor, larger suitcases wait patiently for their owners to dash them onto imminently departing flights. When my eyes drift right I see American Airlines’ silvery planes skimming from the runway. To my left, cars cycle through the airport’s concrete arteries, pumping in and out with O’Hare’s lifeblood, the 69 million passengers a year that help make it the busiest airport on Earth. After communion, the priest directs our attention to a fund-raising pamphlet. I swing its flaps outward and fixate on a single phrase: “Serving God’s People on the Move.”

In 1946, Chicago’s political leaders decreed that a second airport, O’Hare (Figure 24.1), would be built on land that then sat just beyond the city’s northwestern extremities. The landing ground had been the Douglas Aircraft company’s Orchard Field, and the site’s sparsely settled surroundings fit the name. But in the half-century since, the area has exploded.

“O’Hare changed from a sleepy little community with tract homes and farms into a mushrooming edge city,” says Lori Stone of the Greater O’Hare Association of Commerce and Industry. “It created what has become the largest contiguous series of industrial parks in North America; without the airport, this would still basically be farmland.” Some companies came for easy access to air shipping. Others were lured by the massive infrastructure of roads and highways erected around the airport. A third wave followed, drawn by the convenience of so many small manufacturers close together. As Stone explains, “They liked the idea of being only a mile or two from their suppliers or clients.”

Nestled between Chicago and the airport lies the village of Rosemont, a singularly striking example of O’Hare’s economic magnetism. For tax purposes, an umbilical cord of road connects O’Hare to the rest of municipal Chicago, a mile-plus strip of freeway only 185 feet wide that runs straight through Rosemont. Though the current hotelbuilding spree has not yet reached completion, the village already boasts a better than

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