Architecture | Development | Media | Visual Arts

Saving a Black Aesthetic

How two nonprofits preserved parts of Johnson Publishing

David Sampson (Courtesy Rebuild Foundation)

Once the home of Ebony and Jet magazines, the historic Johnson Publishing Building on South Michigan Avenue is currently being transformed into rental apartments. Meanwhile, the building’s iconic interior fixtures are being shipped out across the city to keep the Black publishing house’s legacy alive.

Created by Chicago-based publisher John H. Johnson in the mid-twentieth century, Ebony and Jet were two of the most influential publications to celebrate the Black experience in the U.S., and they played a key role in shaping Black culture around the world for decades. The magazines were headquartered in an International Style South Loop high-rise; designed by Black architect John Warren Moutoussamy, it contained eleven floors of elaborately furnished office spaces.

Columbia College Chicago, which planned to use the building as its library before aborting the project due to financial troubles, sold the Johnson Publishing Building to 3L Real Estate for $10 million in November 2017. Around the same time, City Council designated the building a city landmark.

Since landmark status protects only a building’s exterior—and building permits issued in May and last November show that 3L is embarking on a multimillion dollar rehab and complete gutting of the building—Landmarks Illinois and the Rebuild Foundation have stepped up to ensure certain interior fixtures find permanent homes in museums or other learning institutions.  

Just in the nick of time, Landmarks Illinois, which advocates for historic preservation across the state, salvaged Ebony’s test kitchen, where editor Charlotte L. Lyons invented recipes for the magazine’s monthly feature, “A Date with a Dish.” The DuSable Museum of African American History in Washington Park was ready to acquire the kitchen, but could not afford for the deconstruction or find a way to have the deconstruction work donated, according to Lee Bey, who served as the DuSable’s Vice President of Planning, Education, and Museum Experience at the time. “We bought the kitchen for one dollar under the condition that we would move everything out in two weeks,” Bonnie McDonald, president and CEO of Landmarks Illinois, told the Weekly.

Landmarks Illinois documented the kitchen in its original state before embarking on an “exciting and arduous” disassembly process, McDonald said. The unit is currently stored in a climate-controlled space paid for by the nonprofit while an advisory panel helps the organization determine its next home. “We are essentially the bridge to future preservation,” McDonald said. The advisory panel will hold its first meeting at the beginning of August to start discussing potential repositories from which they will solicit proposals. “When we have a location, we’ll transfer its ownership to another organization,” McDonald said.   

McDonald hailed the kitchen as an icon of Black excellence, and said her organization has a vision for reinstalling the kitchen in a museum or school “where its integrity and legacy can be appreciated, either here in Chicago or elsewhere.”

The Johnson headquarters opened in 1972 and its colorful, modernist interiors remained mostly unchanged throughout the decades, as Johnson himself ensured that all the carpeting, furnishings and wall coverings were replaced over time with the same exact materials.

While the building’s interiors have now been gutted, many of the furnishings that once made it unique are on display at the Stony Island Arts Bank in an exhibition curated by Theaster Gates. “A Johnson Publishing Story,” which opened June 28 and closes September 30, features some of the 15,000 books, periodicals, ephemera, paintings, and sculptural works previously donated by JPC to Gates’s Rebuild Foundation, as well as “original furnishings and interior design elements custom-designed for JPC’s downtown Chicago offices by Arthur Elrod,” according to Rebuild’s website.

Outside of Chicago, the Johnson legacy is also making an impact. At an exhibit currently on display at the Kunstmuseum Basel in Switzerland, Gates has curated a Black Madonna archive out of JPC’s photography collection. The archive showcases 13,000 photos of Black women published in Ebony and Jet and explores the “political, aesthetical and metaphorical power” of representations of the Virgin Mary with dark skin.

The Stony Island Arts Bank show, part of the Terra Foundation for American Art’s yearlong Art Design Chicago project, takes a look at the ways the Johnson Publishing Company’s unique aesthetic helped to further Black culture throughout the nation and the world in the mid-20th century. There’s a wooden credenza from John H. Johnson’s office on display, alongside couches reupholstered with alligator leather trim for the exhibition. The second floor of the Arts Bank has been transformed into the “The Johnson,” a lounge where the museum plans to host a variety of public programs from interviews to small concerts.

David Sampson (Courtesy Rebuild Foundation)

David Sampson (Courtesy Rebuild Foundation)

To design and manage the exhibition, Gates tapped artist Devin Mays, who has previously worked in Gates’s studio. According to Mays, a major goal of the exhibition is for viewers to reexamine the spaces they occupy. “It was not just about the luxurious textures, colors and patterns in the headquarters but also [Johnson] wanting to show his team how much he cared about their work and its importance to the African-American community and the world…. What does it mean to work in a space that feels thoughtful?”

“[For Linda Rice Johnson, John’s daughter and the current CEO of Johnson Publishing] to entrust Theaster to be a caretaker and shepherd of her parents’ things means a lot,” Mays said, adding that the exhibition has encouraged visitors to donate some of their own Johnson-era relics. “It’s nice seeing people of color finding value in this experience and finding a reason to preserve the things they thought had not much value outside of their room or a family reunion.”

The very existence of the Johnson Publishing headquarters is significant for Mays as an artist. “I can only imagine the naysayers in 1971 saying you can’t have eleven floors of a building on Michigan Avenue owned and designed by a person of color, but [Johnson] did it…. The fact that it existed means I can give myself permission to believe in the possibility of what art can do, and build on the legacy that JPC has created.”

The Johnson Publishing Company Building remains the only high-rise office building in Chicago’s downtown designed by an African American. Moutoussamy, the building’s architect and a native South Sider, was the first Black person to become a partner in a major Chicago architectural firm. A student of Mies van der Rohe at the Illinois Institute of Technology in Bronzeville, Moutoussamy designed several large-scale buildings in Chicago, including Regents Park in Hyde Park and Truman College in Uptown.

The building’s architecture is a core piece of JPC’s legacy, according to McDonald. It was so important to have a building on Michigan Avenue for and by the Black community,” she said. “We’re excited to have a part in celebrating the legacy of Johnson Publishing and see where it will continue to live.”

Both McDonald and Mays expressed mixed feelings about the transformation of the office spaces into apartments.

“If I look at it as a historian, I would say it’s sad to see the Johnson Publishing Company legacy not in that building,” McDonald said. “But beyond that I am very pleased that the building is seen as having value.”

“The thing that does make me a bit hurt is that the building, 820 South Michigan, is—was—the first and last building of its kind on Michigan Avenue in that particular business district,” said Mays. “Knowing that the land was purchased and the building was built from the ground up by designers of color, artists of color, architects and owners of color, specifically African Americans…it does sadden me to think it [only] lasted for approximately [forty] years.”

Mays also likened the renovation to the closing of Jet’s print edition in 2014, a decision that led his own father to purchase subscriptions to the magazine for each of his family members. “This is my version of my dad’s sense of urgency. How can I be a steward of these memories even if the building isn’t operating as it once did? How can I help preserve the spirit of what was one there?”

Bey, now a freelance architectural photographer, said he is grateful that the building will enjoy a new use along with its landmark status. “Given the rising prices of real estate along that stretch of Michigan Avenue, and that you can build a new tower five times the height [of the] Johnson Publishing Building on that site, this whole thing could’ve had an ugly end.”

Because of the building’s landmark status, the iconic Ebony/Jet sign will remain on the building’s roof. A mix of 150 studio, one- and two-bedroom units will be available for rent between $1,200 and $2,700 per month starting next year.

A Johnson Publishing Story.” Stony Island Arts Bank, 6760 S. Stony Island Ave. Open through September 30.

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Bridget Gamble is a contributor to the Weekly and communications specialist. She last wrote for the Weekly in May about the South Side Home Movie Project.

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