Soul survivor: A look at the intact and avant garde interiors of the Ebony/Jet Building

January 14, 2013

When it opened in 1972, the Ebony/Jet Building was a buttoned-down and conservative addition to south Michigan Avenue; an elegant, modernist rectangle overlooking Grant Park with the same dignity found in the magazines published in the building.
 
But that was the exterior. Behind pioneering black architect John Moutoussamy's four walls were offices designed with an exuberant, high-style and fearless mix of a color, texture, art, contemporary furnishings and pattern. Created by interior designers William Raiser/Arthur Elrod, the offices embodied an afrocentric modernism that was well-turned, avant garde and quite hip--a perfect match for publisher John H. Johnson's groundbreaking magazines.
 
Johnson died in 2005 at age 87. Raiser and Elrod were killed by a drunk driver in 1974. Johnson Publishing sold its building to Columbia College Chicago and last year moved to new digs six blocks north. But those stunning, original interiors remain in the empty old building--virtually unchanged since the tower's 1972 opening.
 
Corporations often change their interiors dramatically, especially over the course of 40 years. But at the former Ebony/Jet building, Johnson saw to it that things were maintained, replaced, re-milled or remade with exactly what was there when the building was completed. Carpet. Furnishings. Wall coverings. The colors of the '70s are still there--and boldly so: rusts, reds, harvest golds, deep browns.
 
As a result, a trip to the now-empty Ebony/Jet offices is a look back in time. And a fascinating one, to boot, because the offices were atypically swank for their time, as the swirling Peter Max-looking design of the Ebony test kitchen  in the photo above shows.
 
Here's an Ebony photograph taken of the kitchen when it was new. The photo was taken from an angle reversed from the one above:
The picture below is a small dining area next to the kitchen. A glass door bearing the old Johnson Publishing logo--nifty bit of typographical modernism in its own right--separates the area from a larger space.The interiors show Raiser and Elrod at the top of their game and is one of the few--if not the only--surviving corporate interior by the A-list Palm Springs, CA designers. While designing the Ebony interiors, Elrod, who was the boss of the firm, lived in a John Lautner-designed house seen in the James Bond movie Diamonds Are Forever , and counted actors Steve McQueen and William Holden as neighbors.
 
During my tour, I was asked not to photograph John H. Johnson's private offices, due to an agreement between the college and the Johnson family that requires special advance permission to document that space. But if you follow this link to Ebony's 1972 spread on the building and scroll down four pages, you'll see the spaces--and they look the same now, down to the furnishings. The space also includes a private exercise room and Johnson's personal barbershop.
 
Meanwhile, here is the office of Johnson's wife, Eunice Johnson, who founded and directed Ebony's Fashion Fair couture shows and cosmetics line. Eunice Johnson, who named Ebony magazine, died in 2010:
Eunice Johnson's office featured a built-in television console. A door swings open to reveal the TV:
This floor features the former studio space of WJPC radio behind the glass walls on the right. Johnson owned the AM station from 1973 to 1994:
The Fashion Fair enterprise had its own floor. Right outside the elevators a small glass-walled beauty salon still exists, complete with these classically-designed sinks:
I like this glass conference room:
You can see the edge of the conference room to the right in the 1972 Ebony photo below. Note the carpet is the same:
The first floor lobby also features original furniture. The Richard Hunt wall sculpture Expansive Construction to the left was designed for the space and will remain, Dr. Warrick Carter, Columbia College's president said.
In one of the more notable modernist architectural saves in the country right now, Columbia will restore and convert the Ebony/Jet Building into the John H. & Eunice W. Johnson Center, the first seven floors of which will be a library. The college described the planned new facility as a "nimble, technologically-capable, interactive center comprising visual art, digital books, photography, and other compilations." Columbia's Center for Black Music Research will be housed there also.
 
A major fundraising effort for the project will begin soon, Carter said. The college picked a pair of nationally-recognized architecture firms: the local office  Gensler and the black-owned The Freelon Group out of North Carolina.
 
Columbia hasn't determined how many of the vintage interiors will remain, but has been respectful of the spaces. The college formally documented and photographed the interiors, said the college's Vice President of Campus Environment Alicia Berg. And under a project separate from the library conversion, the college plans to restore Johnson's spectacular 7,500 sq. ft., 11th floor private office which includes reception areas, a private dining room and a mod pied-a-terre.

The historic Ebony/Jet rooftop sign will be kept and the college is considering city landmark status for the building.