Ebony/Jet Building sold and with it, modernism and history preserved

November 17, 2010

 (photo by Lee Bey)

 The 11-story Johnson Publishing Company headquarters has been sold to Columbia College Chicago, according to company and college officials.

Columbia College will use the granite-clad modernist building overlooking South Michigan Avenue as a library, according to the announcement. And Johnson Publishing will lease space in the tower for 18 months while seeking a new home. The company said much of the 110,000sq ft building has been going unused.0

Columbia's purchase is a good thing for anyone concerned about the future of the building and modernist preservation.The arts college (which is also my alma mater) has a sterling record of adaptively reusing South Loop buildings. In a news release, Columbia president Dr. Warrick Carter said the college recognized the history of the building. 

"This building has historic and legendary importance to the city of Chicago and to African Americans around the globe," he said, citing the structure as "the first major downtown Chicago building designed and built by an African-American since Jean Baptiste Point DuSable’s trading post built two centuries earlier." Built in 1972, the Johnson Publishing building would be newest old building in Columbia's portfolio.

Carter raises a good point. If you're of a certain age--as I am--the change in ownership of 820 S. Michigan represents a bit of a milestone. The Ebony/Jet building was a source of pride for many when it opened. A publishing company that chronicled the staggering achievements of 20th century black America had itself made news with a building that was stylish, contemporary and hip for the time. We'll get to how hip a bit later.

Designed by John Moutoussamy (who would become the father-in-law of tennis great Arthur Ashe), the building's opening drew 1,000 people and a stream of notables who visited the ediface for weeks, just to look around. Mayor Richard J. Daley. The Rev. Jesse Jackson. Lena Horne. John Lennon and Yoko Ono. Amiri Baraka, Shirley Chisholm. Dick Gregory. Ruby Dee. Gwendolyn Brooks. Even Henry Fonda.

Moutoussamy gave the building a sober, but well-tailored grid-like exterior that was originally clad in walnut travertine marble. "I feel we have given the building interest without permitting it to be faddish," Moutoussamy told Ebony in a September 1972 photospread on the building. But Moutoussamy turned the interiors over to Palm Beach, CA designers William Raiser/Arthur Elrod---and here's where we get to the hip part. To see the aforementioned 1972 photospread, follow this link. I promise you will not be disappointed.

Friends of mine within Johnson Publishing tell me many of the interiors are well-maintained but unchanged from the time, which would be an amazing find. Here's hoping I can sweet-talk my way inside with my camera...