Tearing Down the House That Ebony Built

The iconic Johnson Publishing Company building is about to become an official Chicago landmark, but that is not enough to keep a new owner from gutting out the unique house that John H. Johnson built

Johnson Publishing Company Chicago Headquarter, Photographed by Vandell Cobb

By Erick Johnson, Chicago Crusader

The bright test kitchen on the fourth floor where actress Diahann Carroll helped herself to a tasty batch of fried chicken was a big hit back in the day. So were the funky wall designs and the plush orange chairs that Muhammad Ali relaxed in before he ventured into John H. Johnson’s sprawling office suite overlooking Grant Park and Lake Michigan. Then there was Johnson’s special barbershop and the underground garage that was the only one of its kind on Michigan Avenue back then.

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For 39 years, this was the digs of the Johnson Publishing Company—a symbol of Black achievement and a well-oiled machine that churned out Ebony and Jet magazines to millions of Black readers across America. Located on one of Chicago’s most prestigious streets, for decades it was the only Black-owned building in an area where many ambitious people of color could only dream of living or working.

From the early 70s and into the 90s, for the 2,000 employees at 820 S. Michigan Avenue, every workday at Johnson Publishing Company was almost like a party. For lunch, one could get a stacked plate of soul food for just one dollar in the stylish avante garde cafeteria or chat in well-furnished open spaces or glass-enclosed conference rooms and offices. To many, it was the place to be 9-to-5, but to John Harold Johnson-the man who with a $500 loan built a multimillion-dollar media empire—the Johnson Publishing building was his 11-story castle where he mixed business with pleasure 24/7.

THE TEST KITCHEN inside the former headquarters of Johnson Publishing Company will be among many features that will be gutted to make condominums after the structure becomes a Chicago landmark.

That was then. Today, Ebony and Jet are owned by another company, and the Johnson Publishing Company is a shell of it itself.

The iconic Michigan Avenue building is a vacant relic.  The groundbreaking headquarters that the company sold six years ago will soon be a shell of itself, too. An emerging owner that hardly anyone knows about, 3LRE, wants to strip the building’s interiors and turn the house that John H. Johnson built into a mixed-use condominium development.

Armed with big plans and loads of capital there’s nothing that stands in the way other than an impending Chicago landmark designation that keeps 3LRE from demolishing the historic building altogether. On Nov. 20, the City of Chicago’s Committee on Zoning, Landmarks and Buildings Standards will likely make the final approval to designate the Johnson Publishing Company as an official landmark, capping a lengthy 10-month process that began with 4th Ward Ald. Sophia King nominating the property to protect it from hungry developers aiming to pack the South Loop with new skyscrapers.

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To historic preservationists and city leaders, the landmark designation of the Johnson Publishing Company building will at least save a piece of history that gives tourists a partial glimpse of the company’s storied past. It will also keep the owner from altering the façade of the building to maintain its historic integrity.

The new owner could receive tax credits that could help pay for construction costs spent on converting the building to a new purpose. Most importantly, owners of most historic properties can do whatever they want to the interior when they give a landmark a new purpose. Recently, the old Chicago Defender building on State Street and its interior was altered to fit the needs of its new tenant, Revel Space, an events management firm.

Built in 1972, the Ebony building was designed by John Moutoussamy, a renowned Black architect. The building’s interiors were styled with hip, colorful, swirls and abstract designs that reflected Afrocentric modernism that fit the profile of Ebony and Jet magazines. The building’s test kitchen was larger than those in homes, with its stacked built-in ovens, island, dishwashers and cabinets.

Johnson’s daughter, Linda Johnson Rice, sold the building for just $8 million to nearby Columbia College, which wanted to turn the structure into a library. When those plans failed, Columbia College put the building on the market in June 2016, just days after Ebony and Jet were sold to Clearview Group, a Black-owned private equity group in Texas.

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A spokesperson for Columbia College said they sold the building, but declined to provide the sale price or details of the transaction. Real estate records show that the sale of the Johnson Publishing Company building is still pending and the real estate firm that handled the transaction, Collier International also remains tight-lipped about the deal and the future of a building that has long sat on prime Michigan Avenue real estate.

The new owner of the Johnson Publishing Company building is most likely to be 3LRE, a Rosemont-based real estate team that manages property acquisitions, financing and rehabilitation of mixed-use properties primarily in the greater Midwest region. According to its website, 3LRE is founded on the first three rules of real estate: “Location, Location, Location.”

At a landmarks hearing in September, 3LRE told preservationists that it wants to add another floor to the building, plus a roof deck, while converting the office space into 150 condominiums. That would require gutting out the entire building, including its features and the private offices of John H. Johnson and his wife, Eunice. 3LRE also wants to convert the ground floor to retail space and add windows to allow air from Lake Michigan to circulate inside the condominiums.

A sales agent told the Chicago Crusader that they were already pre-selling the condominiums and offered to provide a tour of the building before the reporter said the inquiry was for a story. At that point, the agent told the report that he was unable to provide any information about the condominiums or the new owner.

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The archives on the second floor of the building

In the case of the Johnson Publishing Company, the new owner could also remove theEbony/Jet sign that sits on top of the building because according to city preservationists, it’s not considered a feature of historic significance. One news report stated the sign may stay on the structure. The Permit Review Committee approved the 3LRE’s request to add a one-story rooftop addition behind the sign.

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