The Chicagoist will be launching later but in the meantime please enjoy our archives.

Ask Chicagoist: What Happened to the Murals?

By Thales Exoo in Miscellaneous on Sep 11, 2006 1:30PM

Do you know about the large "painted billboard" building on the Kennedy Expressway? It used to always have a lot of cool ads. They scraped all of the paint off of it. It has been that way for a while. Let me know if you know anything?

2006_09_askmural.jpgSounds to us like you're talking about The Mural Building, a warehouse space at 1735 N. Ashland that has been greeting a captive, albeit grumpy, audience for years -- Chicago motorists stuck on the Kennedy. Three of the exterior walls of the building, totalling approximately 8,600 square feet, are used for murals. The murals themselves are created by tracing the artwork onto "more than 8,000 square feet of craft paper" using "15 pounds of charcoal dust."

The building, which is currently leased by LaSalle Bank, has been having its fa├žade restored since mid-May, due to the need for some routine maintenance on the building's brickwork. The mural will show back up this month in time for the yearly depictions of the Chicago Marathon (part of last year's marathon mural is shown in this article's photo).

LaSalle Bank showcases the work of Chicago artists in the murals, choosing different illustrators each time to decorate the building's walls. Often the bank works in conjunction with Gallery 37's art apprenticeship program in order to promote the work of young artists and encourage Chicago's youth in the arts. Each mural (there tends to be four every year) has a different theme, such as "diversity," "peace," "summer in chicago," or "tulips." You can look at a gallery of the past murals on the LaSalle Bank Mural webpage.

As long-time Chicago residents have been itching to tell us since they started reading this, the Mural Building space has not always been owned by LaSalle, nor has it always been used for "art for art's sake." Bigsby & Kruthers, a homegrown Chicago upscale (and now defunct) men's clothing company used to lease that warehouse space, and came up with the idea of using the extremely visible exterior walls as a giant billboard for their suits.

The Bigsby & Kruthers billboards were once considered a solid Chicago tradition. The murals became famous for their depictions of celebrities (generally athletes) modeling the clothing. One of the most famous examples was the 1996 painting of Dennis Rodman, which literally stopped traffic on the Kennedy, adding 40 minutes to the already lengthy travel time (take that, Dan Ryan construction!). They even changed the color of Rodman's hair on the mural every few days, cashing in on Rodman's then-popular, colorful, badboy persona (or at the very least his penchant for changing the color of his hair). Apparently the traffic got so bad by the billboard, Bigsby & Kruthers had to paint over it only three weeks after it went up.

Other popular (although not so dramatic) spokesmen for the line included Michael Jordan (although that relationship ended with some legal entanglements), Sammy Sosa, Frank Thomas, Jim Harbaugh, and Ryne Sandberg.

Unfortunately for Bigsby & Kruthers, cool and popular billboards weren't enough to keep them in business. When the company went bankrupt and closed down in 2000 (apparently your casual workplace is to blame), LaSalle Bank won the bidding war and leased the popular building, paying $3 million for the rights to use the external walls as billboards/murals.

Image via senor_codo.

Long for a good paint job? Need some advice? Email ask(at)chicagoist(dot)com.