The news of Columbia College’s purchase of the Ebony/Jet Building made national headlines last week. And it tickled the blogosphere in a way that seldom happens when a Chicago property is sold.
Then again, the building isn’t just any Chicago property. The 11-story tower at 820 S. Michigan is a solid piece of American history.
When I wrote about the sale last week, I mentioned that building’s importance was apparent while it was being built and was expressed through architecture and exuberant interior design. That was further confirmed last night when I found a book I forgot I had: Ebony/Jet publisher John H. Johnson’s 1992 autobiography, Succeeding Against the Odds: The Autobiography of a Great American Businessman, co-authored by Lerone H. Bennett. In the book, Johnson himself discussed the building and its design..
“The horizontals, the glass, the marble, the fabrics, the warm colors,” Johnson quotes the words he spoke at the building’s opening. “All these elements integrated into one grand design express the essential meaning of our firm…openness: openness to truth, openness to light, openness to all the currents swirling in all the black communities of this land.”
In the book, Johnson talks about how he had to use a white lawyer to act as a straw purchaser to buy the parcel at 820 S. Michigan in 1959 because the seller’s agents refused to sell to the publisher because he was black. Johnson had to do the same thing in 1949 to buy his previous headquarters at 18th and Michigan. Bankers balked over awarding construction financing for 820 because the Johnson’s architect, the accomplished John Moutoussamy, was black and hadn’t yet designed an office building. But Johnson stood up for his architect and told the financiers the reason Moutoussamy had never designed an office building was because of racism. “And if a black man does not let him build his office building, [Moutoussamy] will never get the experience,” Johnson said.
I don’t want to give away too much. I want you to get the book. But Johnson’s moxie, arm twisting and outright smarts to get the building financed is a remarkable story. Johnson talks about finding and working with William Raiser/Arthur Elrod, the interior designers responsible for the beautiful African American Mod decor—that’s the only way I can describe it—that remains in the building today. It was Raiser/Elrod’s first office interior. Johnson died in 2005 at age 87.
We lament when buildings this important meet the bulldozer—but thanks to Columbia, this one won’t. And the save is doubly special when you consider the amount of Chicago buildings key to the local and national black experience that have been lost. Buildings like the Joe Jordan Building that once stood at 36th and State. Jordan was a black musician—he would work with the likes of Fats Waller and W.C. Handy—who built the structure in 1917 with the proceeds from a lucrative lawsuit he won against a white Dixieland band who’d ripped off one of his tunes. By the 1980s, the building was abandoned and the target of brick thieves. The thieves stole so many bricks, the building ended up partially collapsing and had to be demolished. All that history. Gone.
Or the Illinois Central Railroad terminal near Roosevelt and Michigan that was an inland Ellis Island for hundreds of thousands of black people escaping the oppression of the Jim Crow South. The station closed in March 1972 and was demolished. All that history, once again, gone. But sometimes the life can deal a good hand. The Ebony/Jet Building, just three blocks north, officially opened just two months later. And history wins a round.