Chicago’s Sexy Steel History

Although most of them are gone, we’ve all heard of Chicago’s steel mills and we know the material shapes our modernist buildings. It has become a symbol of strength and endurance, and even inspired poetry, like “Smoke and Steel” by Carl Sandburg. As one of the world hubs for the industry, steel is iconic for Chicago. Chicago steel history is an essential element of our city’s great history and architecture, and that makes it pretty sexy! And of course, reading “sexy” in the title made you click, right?  “Chicago Steel History.” We delve into a lot of this, though perhaps without calling it sexy, on our Chicago walking tours.

Why Here?

To start, the Great Lakes were rich in iron ore deposits. With steel being an alloy of iron and carbon, the steel industry erupted here. Chicago had this great geographical advantage of proximity to the source. The burgeoning industry appeared in Chicago, Joliet and North Chicago in the 1800s. In 1901, New York financial mogul JP Morgan organized the largest corporation on the planet, U.S. Steel. A lot of this steel went towards making farm equipment, railroads, bridges, and most importantly to this blog post – buildings. He may have been in New York, but new that Chicago was an integral piece in the grand plan.

Early Steel-Frame Skyscrapers

The first steel-framed building was William LeBaron Jenney’s Home Insurance Building. Many argue that the building, completed in 1885, was the world’s first skyscraper. The frame was made of steel instead of cast iron. Some people still debate the legitimacy of its “steel frame” since it also had a thick brick and stone exterior. It was torn down and replaced by another steel behemoth, the very Art Deco Bank of America Building at 135 S. LaSalle St.

The Reliance Building on State Street also blazed trails in Chicago’s steel history. Multiple architects of the firm Burnham and Root designed in 1890. At this point, the use of steel for tall buildings was still in its infancy. A visit to the Reliance Building gives you a rare example of an early steel-frame skyscraper that is still around. You can easily see the columns of its steel-framed supports that surround its wide plate glass windows. Start looking at the steel and you’ll begin to see how the material dictated the form of this structure.

An Engineering Revolution

The steel frame revolutionized buildings. This type of construction allowed for more space because of less need for clunky walls and the ability to have larger windows meant greater natural light and ventilation. Back then the lighting technology was not very advanced and bulbs let off a lot of heat during the pre-air-conditioning era. And perhaps most importantly the strength of the steel frame encouraged architects to build taller, such as to 15 stories. Masonry buildings generally cannot stretch higher than 10 stories or so.

But let’s not get ahead of ourselves! Ludwig Mies van der Rohe came to town in the 1930s and brought with him his designs for modernist architecture. He wanted to get rid of fluffy ornamentation and other unnecessary details to essentially spare down buildings to their most basic elements. For example, the vertical steel I-beams of his 860-880 Lake Shore Drive towers run up and down the outside of the building and expose the steel structure to the world. In the past, that steel would have been covered in brick or tiles.

Steel at the Core of Modernism

The Inland Steel Building cannot be ignored in Chicago’s steel history in architecture. This elegant skyscraper used steel like an exoskeleton, with inside space that has no interruptions of walls, columns, or even elevator shafts because the steel columns on the exterior are the support for the structure. Additionally, the light at various times of the day illuminate the brushed stainless steel cladding beautifully. As a tour guide on our Loop Interior Architecture Tour, I love talking about the significance of this building, and how it served as a literal advertisement for the Inland Steel Corporation.

willis tower skyscraper chicago steel
Photo Credit: Amanda Scotese

Fazlur Rahman Khan engineered the tube structural system and helped it take various forms with his giant skyscrapers, such as the Willis Tower and John Hancock building. Without the strength of steel, most of these forms would be impossible. The sky is still practically the limit in steel frame buildings in regards to height, especially with Khan’s designs.

solar ev panel steel history chicago
© Adrian Smith + Gordon Gill Architecture/Photography by Connor Steinkamp

Chicago Steel history is not just history though. If you bike or drive by A. Finkl & Sons Co., on Cortland St. just east of the North Branch of the Chicago River, you can still peek at the process of steel forging. And architects who continue to innovate with the material, such as Adrian Smith + Gordon Gill Architects. Their Solar EV Deck has continued the story of Chicago steel history. This super green, solar-powered structure located on Northerly Island charges electric/hybrid vehicles, shades them, and on top of that can collect rainwater for irrigation. Without steel, the structure could not have best supported the incredibly heavy photovoltaic equipment. And oh yes, strong is sexy.

— Amanda Scotese, Chicago Detours Executive Director


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Private Tour Coordinator and Tour Guide

There is no shortage of things to discover in Chicago—I love being an urban explorer and uncovering its hidden places. I have an MA in Public History from Loyola University Chicago, and I have worked as a museum educator and kindergarten teacher. My desire to learn new things fuels my passion for educating others, which I get to experience every day as a Chicago tour guide. I live in the northern neighborhood of Rogers Park.

“Our guide Ellen was exceptional and gifted with a great personal touch.”


Tour Guide

Whether you are a first-time visitor or a lifelong resident, the vibrant history and modern majesty of Chicago never ceases to amaze. I’m a graduate of Columbia College with an M.A. in Interdisciplinary Art. I’ve worked for many years as an educator at City Colleges of Chicago. As tour guide at Chicago Detours, I integrate my enthusiasm for culture and architecture with my passion as an educator. West Town/Noble Square area is home for me.

“Jen was a perfect storyteller and kept us spellbound for hours.”


Tour Guide

With our Chicago neighborhoods, vibrant cultural institutions and nearly two centuries of larger-than-life stories, there’s never a dull moment here! I’m a fifth generation Chicagoan and a graduate of Washington University in St. Louis. In addition to guiding tours, I’m a creative writer and amateur genealogist. I also enjoy the city’s dynamic theater scene. You can also read overlooked stories from 19th-century newspapers on my “Second Glance History” blog. I live in River North.


Tour Guide

Chicago is unique as it always evolves into the future while holding on to the past. I’m fascinated by how people latch on to old architecture but happily pave over others. My background is in theater and performance and I’ve been a tour guide here for more than 10 years. Currently I’m finishing my Master’s in Public History at Loyola University because I love to teach the history of this scrappy city. I’m in the Edgewater neighborhood.


Operations Coordinator and Tour Guide

Chicago’s history is so fascinating, you could spend a lifetime uncovering its secrets…I’m willing to give it a try! I have an M.A. in US History from the University of Nevada-Las Vegas and then pursued doctoral studies in Urban History at the University of Illinois at Chicago. I love to learn new aspects of Chicago’s rich history and then share my knowledge as a tour guide with Chicago Detours. I live in Ravenswood.

“Marie was a bubbling fountain of information and contagious enthusiasm.”


Operations Coordinator and Tour Guide

As a fourth generation Chicagoan, I have been living and loving Chicago by bike, on foot, public transit or automobile. I am a graduate of UIC where through the College of Urban Planning and Public Affairs, began my eagerness to understand the nature, history and impacts of urban planning and development. It is incredibly rewarding to give back to this wonderful city by helping out in the office of Chicago Detours. I live in the incredibly diverse neighborhood of Albany Park.
“Sonny was extremely knowledgeable about all things Chi-town.”
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Content Manager and Tour Guide

Chicago has so many neighborhoods, buildings, and by-ways that it’s hard to go long without seeing something new, or something familiar from a new angle. I studied Cinema History for my M.A. from the University of Chicago. I’ve worked as a culture writer for various publications and as an educator of the humanities at the City Colleges of Chicago. I’m thrilled to share my love of this city’s busy past and unique architectural spaces with Chicago Detours. I live in the Chicago neighborhood of Lincoln Park.

“Alex was fascinating to listen to. He clearly knows his history and it shows.”
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Amanda Scotese

Executive Director and Tour Guide

I’m an interpreter of personal stories from the past and the city’s landscape. I love to imagine what originally happened inside old unmarked buildings, and what forces have shaped their design. I studied Chicago history, architectural history, and anything Chicago-related through my M.A. in the Humanities at the University of Chicago. My love for stories was enriched by my B.A. in Literature from the University of Michigan. I’ve written travel articles for publications like Rick Steves’ Italy best-selling travel guides, the San Francisco Bay Guardian, and The Chicago Food Encyclopedia. I live in the Chicago neighborhood of West Avondale.
“You can TELL Amanda is hyper-passionate about doing the research and getting the story that nobody’s heard before.”
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