Chicago’s Innovation with Corten Steel

Let’s focus on a seemingly mundane material for a moment – corten steel. A guy named Mark Kurlansky has gotten really into telling history through a mundane commodity, food, or event. He wrote Cod: A Biography of the Fish That Changed the World in 1997 and Salt: A World History in 2002. So why not this specific kind of steel?

Here, our story begins with metallurgical magic at U.S. Steel, just a hop southeast of Chicago in Gary, Indiana—birthplace of Michael Jackson. It’s also the birthplace of corten steel. An alloy that emerged from the furnaces as a new blend of steel strengthened as it weathered with age. They called it “corten steel,” or also “weathering steel.” It’s name came from a shortening of “corrosive tensile.” “Tensile” refers to tension with the ultimate meaning of the word that as it corrodes, it increases its tension .

With 2% copper content, it has a warm, reddish hue. Corten steel became a material of choice across disciplines and boundaries. It was admired for its textural qualities in the plastic arts, durability and affordability in construction, and its industrialist aesthetic in the architectural discussion of the developing “International Style” of the post-war building boom era.

Chicago has a unique role in bringing this otherwise humdrum industrial material to more diverse projects beyond the cars, 18-wheelers, and freight trains that pass us. Like many practical materials, artists love to get their hands on new media for their creations. Our city has an impressive collection of public art, and several are made of corten steel.

John Deere’s global headquarters in Moline, IL was the first public structure to utilize “corten” as a building material.  Two years later, the epochal Daley Center and Plaza debuted in 1964 and 1967, respectively.  The championed modernist building utilizes a skin of the material, and the plaza hosts Picasso’s unnamed sculpture, which was fabricated with that same steel.  The thousands of people who joined us on public tours, when we offered them from 2010-2020, learned about the meaning (or lack thereof) for this iconic Chicago sculpture.

Many Chicagoans may recall sliding down the sculpture as a kid (or as an adult – why not?) And the reason why this sculpture is so great to slide down is because indeed, slides used to be made of this material on playgrounds around the country.

In 1969, Chicago welcomed the corten hue of the facade for the Time-Life Building, designed by architect Harry Weese.

In 1990 the Chicago Park District added Richard Serra’s first contribution to Chicago, Reading Cones. You can find it in Grant Park, at the intersection of Monroe Street and Columbus Drive. Also constructed of corten, this sculpture is one of many that Serra made with the material. In fact, it has become a hallmark of his monumental sculptural works. While Reading Cones collapsed at Leo Castelli Gallery in New York two years prior to its permanent 1990 relocation to Chicago, it has maintained a generally civil relationship with Chicagoans, including a vandalization that was kindly executed in chalk! His sculptures have often been polarizing, particularly because he would enjoy putting them directly in the paths of people’s foot traffic.

– Chicago Detours Staff


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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.

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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.


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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.


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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.

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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.
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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.

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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.
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