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Chicago’s Sexy Steel History

By Amanda on May 1, 2014


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, “Chicago’s Sexy Steel History,” is just more interesting than “Chicago Steel History.” We delve into a lot of this, though perhaps without calling it sexy, on our Loop Interior Architecture Walking Tour and Architecture Tour for Design Lovers.

New Technologies Means New Styles

In my studies of Chicago architecture, I’ve always been intrigued by how technological advancements of building materials change our buildings, and this includes Chicago steel history. To start, the Great Lakes were rich in iron ore deposits, and with steel being an alloy of iron and carbon the steel industry erupted here with this geographical advantage. 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.

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 the very Art Deco Bank of America Building at 135 S. LaSalle St.

The Reliance Building on State Street is part of Chicago steel history was designed in 1890 by multiple architects of the firm Burnham and Root. It is an example of an early steel-frame skyscraper that is still around. You can easily see the columns of its framed supports surrounding its wide plate glass windows, literally exposing how the material dictates the form of the 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 architects could build taller, such as to 15 stories with the Reliance Building, because of the strength of the steel frame. 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 show the steel structure to the world while also providing a visual harmony.

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.

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. And 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 and their Solar EV Deck, are still making 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 heavy photovoltaic equipment.

— Amanda Scotese, Chicago Detours Executive Director


Chicago Detours offers guided walking and bus tours of architecture, history and culture to public and private groups. We are a passionate team of educators, historians, artists and storytellers, and are proud to be one of very few tour companies in Chicago that is rated five stars on both Google and TripAdvisor.


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