What’s That Building? O’Hare International Airport’s Terminal 2

Terminal 2 in O’Hare International Airport shown in 2018.
Terminal 2 in O'Hare International Airport shown in 2018. Dennis Rodkin for WBEZ
Terminal 2 in O’Hare International Airport shown in 2018.
Terminal 2 in O'Hare International Airport shown in 2018. Dennis Rodkin for WBEZ

What’s That Building? O’Hare International Airport’s Terminal 2

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In 1962, Chicago opened a trio of connected terminal buildings at O’Hare International Airport, which would quickly become the busiest airport in the world.

Only two of the three buildings are still standing 56 years later, but not for much longer. The City Council recently approved an eight-year, $8.5 billion expansion of O’Hare that includes replacing Terminal 2 with a new global terminal that Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s office says will make the city an international travel hub.

Crain’s Chicago Business reporter Dennis Rodkin discusses the changes in O’Hare’s terminals throughout history and what its appearance tells us about Chicago’s role in midcentury America.

Chicago takes its national place

Aerial view of Chicago's O'Hare International Airport shown Jan. 31, 1968 at Chicago, Ill. (AP Photo)

Chicago’s 1960s expansion of O’Hare looked differently than the airport architecture in other cities. New York, Washington, and St. Louis built midcentury airline terminals with swooping ceilings and soaring curves, some of them still beloved landmarks for their ability to evoke flight and modern times. But Chicago had something else in mind: business.

Like its Ludwig Mies van Der Rohe buildings downtown and on the Illinois Institute of Technology campus, Chicago’s airport was a thing of simple, straight lines, efficient to build on the huge scale that Chicago leaders wanted. The city had been the nation’s rail hub for more than a century, and since right after World War II, Mayor Richard J. Daley and others had been focused on capturing the same central role in air travel.

When the terminals and their 5,000-car parking lot opened in 1962, the city transferred all scheduled flights from Midway to O’Hare. By the end of the year, 10 million people had flown through O’Hare. Three years later, it was twice that, and in another three years, the total hit 30 million passengers.

Growth and expansion

President John F. Kennedy stands during a welcoming ceremony at Chicago's O'Hare Airport as Mayor Richard Daley looks on, second from left, with Kennedy's sister Eunice Kennedy Shriver, at left, on April 28, 1961. (AP Photo)

As air travel in the U.S. and through O’Hare continued to boom, the airport kept growing. Terminal 1 was replaced by a building designed by Helmut Jahn in 1987, and Terminal 4 — the international terminal — opened in 1993.

Multilevel roads, an airport hotel, the people mover, a new and larger air traffic control tower, and other additions have been made over the years. But through it all, Terminal 2’s original grid wall stayed largely unchanged. It has been enlarged and redecorated many times over the years, but hiding in plain sight is the boxy grid of the original buildings, classic no-nonsense Chicago modernism.

Although extensively renovated in the late 1980s by American Airlines, Terminal 3 still has much of its grid visible in the main building. If the expansion plan goes through as planned, in a few years that will be all that remains of the original O’Hare terminals.

That was the place that President John F. Kennedy, dedicating the airport beside Mayor Richard J. Daley on March 23, 1963, described as “an extraordinary airport [in] an extraordinary city, and an extraordinary country, and it could be classed as one of the wonders of the modern world.”

Correction: A caption to an AP photo incorrectly stated the photo of an aerial view of Chicago included O’Hare International Airport when it did not. The photo has been replaced.