What’s That Building? The Former Johnson Publishing Building

Ebony and Jet
The original Ebony and Jet magazine signs atop the building at 820 S. Michigan Ave. Jason Marck / WBEZ
Ebony and Jet
The original Ebony and Jet magazine signs atop the building at 820 S. Michigan Ave. Jason Marck / WBEZ

What’s That Building? The Former Johnson Publishing Building

WBEZ brings you fact-based news and information. Sign up for our newsletters to stay up to date on the stories that matter.

The former Chicago home of Ebony and Jet magazines reopened this year as apartments, yet much of the building’s groovy ’70s interior remains.

John Moutoussamy designed the 11-story building at 820 S. Michigan Ave. for Johnson Publishing, the nation’s most prominent publishers of magazines for African American audiences.

It remains the city’s only downtown high-rise designed by an African American architect.

Here’s a closer look at the building’s history and the latest preservation efforts.

A Chicago milestone, inside and out

The handsome modernist building opened in 1972.

Ebony and Jet signs atop the building helped it stand out among the crowded Chicago skyline. Within its doors, the building became known for the colorful interior designs by Arthur Elrod and William Raiser.

Johnson Publishing kept much of those original interiors intact for more than 35 years. It sold the building in 2010 to Columbia College, which also made few changes. Rosemont-based developers 3L Real Estate bought the building in 2017.

Preservation efforts

The exterior of the building — including that famous sign — can’t change because the city designated it a protected landmark in 2017. But that status doesn’t apply to the interior.

However, 3L CEO Joe Slezak told WBEZ he is fond of buildings that “tell a story” and wanted to keep some of its remnants.

Johnson Publishing Building
Fabric swatches from the original lobby furnishing are featured at various points throughout the building Jason Marck / WBEZ

While 3L removed and sold the wildly colorful Ebony Test Kitchen to make room for apartments, the company stockpiled fragments of the original carpets, upholstery and wallpaper for common areas.

New lobby, old classics

One of those areas is the apartment lobby, which retained a modernist look with floor-to-ceiling windows, wood-paneling and a stone floor from the original interior.

The lobby rug is from remnants of two carpet patterns from the original design — a leopard print and a hexagonal print.

One wall features framed covers of Ebony that feature history-making African Americans like Frederick Douglass, Muhammad Ali, Oprah Winfrey and John Johnson, who launched the company with his wife Eunice Johnson in 1942 with Negro Digest.

And the walls in the waiting area by the ground-floor elevator are wrapped in a striped bronze veneer that would be expensive to reproduce today.

Johnson Publishing Building
One of two main elevators features at the former Johnson Publishing Building still features a stripe pattern. Jason Marck / WBEZ

For residents at the new apartments, there are features not available to the public.

For example, 3L added a 12th floor and rooftop deck that offers photogenic views of Grant or Millennium Park. It also allows residents to get so close to the old Ebony/Jet sign that you can take a selfie with it.

Dennis Rodkin is a real estate reporter for Crain’s Chicago Business and Morning Shift’s “What’s That Building?” contributor.