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Chicago is home to many iconic buildings that feature a construction style as distinctive as the city itself and the inspiration for commercial building painting ideas in Chicago and around the country. A tour of the city’s center reveals many architectural similarities among the towering skyscrapers, history-making examples of Chicago architecture, and a litany of design-firsts to behold.

This article will take a closer look at Chicago’s signature architectural style from the outside in, its origination and historical significance, and explore tips for aligning commercial spaces with the Windy City’s preferred aesthetic. Chicago is home to many firsts; however, the city’s inspirational architectural and design ‘firsts’ have truly stood the test of time.

Chicago School in Architecture

The Chicago School is not a name of a school but rather the term used to describe the development of skyscraper architecture in the late 1800s, which began in Chicago. Chicago School methods emerged in the late 19th century, born from experimentation in construction and design to establish a style for tall building construction.  This architectural movement is also commonly called “Chicago construction” and “commercial style,” and it’s the basis for modern skyscraper design. 

Building taller buildings became possible during the Industrial Revolution as new materials like steel, iron, wound cables, and the elevator came to market. This historical period of industrial growth also created the need for more commercial architecture to accommodate “new” commercial enterprises, like commercial storage, office, and retail spaces.

The Chicago School style in architecture was established in the 1880s by a group of architects in Chicago who pioneered “tall building” construction using industrial revolution-inspired materials like steel. The innovators of this function-based design and construction dubbed it Chicago School to differentiate their techniques from previous architecture. Distinguishing features of the Chicago School include steel-frame buildings with masonry cladding (typically terra cotta), which accommodated large plate-glass windows while limiting exterior ornamentation. The overall effect looked and felt more “modern” than previous construction styles.

From the 1940s through the 1970s, a Second Chicago School with an even more modernist aesthetic emerged and pioneered new building technologies and structural systems, such as the tube-frame structure popular in many of Chicago’s iconic skyscrapers, like the Willis Tower (formerly Sears Tower).

Chicago’s Most Iconic Buildings

Chicago is home to many iconic buildings whose magnificence is underscored by their historical significance. These buildings are rich in history and include elements of the Chicago School style. 

First up is the Rookery Building, a historic office building located at 209 South LaSalle Street in the Chicago Loop.  The Rookery Building was built in 1888 by the architectural firm Burnham and Root, and it is considered one of their masterpieces. It combines Chicago School elements popularized at the time, like steel framing, plate glass, and elevators, with more traditional styles, including a masonry facade and ornamental touches around the roofline.

The Auditorium Building is located at the northwest corner of South Michigan Avenue and Congress Street (now Ida B. Wells Drive) and is a historic landmark of the WIndy City. It was designed in 1889 by famed Chicago School architects Louis Sullivan and Dankmar Adler and is considered one of their most famous designs. At the time of completion, it was the tallest building in the city and the largest building in the United States. 

One of its most innovative and Chicago School-inspired features included its raft foundation, which included a floating mat of crisscrossed railroad ties, topped with a double layer of steel rails embedded in concrete. Designed by Adler in conjunction with engineer Paul Mueller, this innovative foundation distributed the weight of the massive outer walls over a large area of soft blue clay to support the structure.

The Monadnock Building is a 16-story skyscraper located in the south Loop area of Chicago and began construction in 1891. The north half of the building was designed by Burnham & Root and represented the tallest “load-bearing” brick building ever constructed at the time. It employed the first portal system of wind bracing in America, and Its decorative staircases represent the first structural use of aluminum in building construction.

The Marquette Building is a Chicago Landmark located on South Dearborn Street. Completed in 1895, the steel-framed building features an open light-well behind its massive façade to provide light and ventilation to the interior spaces. The three-part design of the Marquette Building also included what had become known in Chicago School architecture as ‘Chicago windows’ – three-part windows combining a fixed glass center with operating windows on either side.

Industrial Style in Interior Design

One of the catalysts for creating the Chicago School architectural style in the late 19th century was the Chicago Fire of 1871, which destroyed many buildings and prompted the need for fire-safe construction as the city rebuilt. In response, architects of the era competed to build bigger and better skyscrapers and buildings that embraced a more industrial feel. Over a century later, the now-iconic commercial style of Chicago’s historical buildings inspired the popular industrial style design favored by Chicago interiors.

Industrial style, or industrial chic, is at the heart of Chicago’s signature urban aesthetic. The design style celebrates architectural elements featured in the countless warehouses and skyscrapers that dot the city’s landscape, like exposed brick, steel accents, large windows, concrete floors, and exposed pipes. 

The Chicago style painting preferred for the interiors of industrial-style spaces is decidedly neutral, embracing grays, variations of whites, and rustic colors to create an open, airy feel. When considering commercial office paint colors, industrial style designers typically offset interior spaces with furniture and decor with raw finishes, antique hardware, leather accents, and industrial silhouettes.

Industrial Chic Design Example

Exterior Painting Ideas

Looking for commercial building paint ideas that emulate the rich history of Chicago’s pioneering architectural revival following the Industrial Revolution? Inspiration is easily found in many of the city’s historic steel-framed buildings that feature glazed terra cotta exteriors, which was the ceramic masonry popularized by the Chicago School architectural movement. This popular industrial aesthetic style favored by the Windy City is a timeless choice and easy to replicate with exterior colors in clay-inspired neutral colors like greys and rust-like browns.

Interior Painting Ideas

The prominent industrial style interiors so popular in Chicago rely on architectural accents to define the space, like exposed brick, pipes, rafters, and other raw finishes. Therefore the interior paint acts as more of a backdrop than a feature. So when contemplating commercial office paint color ideas that embrace Chicago’s favored industrial style interiors, the best choices are neutrals, like white, grey, or terra cotta-inspired tans, rusts, and browns.

Chicago’s iconic architecture and design have inspired decades of commercial building painting ideas inside and out. If you are ready to refresh your commercial space with a fresh coat of paint and industrial decorative features inspired by the Windy City’s industrial-style spaces, look no further than PPD Painting.

Not only are we experts in commercial interior and exterior painting, but we also have extensive experience with commercial decorating services – hence the name Precision Painting and Decorating. By offering painting and decorating, we deliver full-service expertise in Chicago-style painting and decorating for your office, warehouse, or home projects – leaving no detail left unplanned.

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