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After Crusader story, city installs marker at Johnson Publishing Company building

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Less than a week after a Crusader story cited the city’s years-long delay in installing a prestigious landmark plaque to the façade of the Johnson Publishing Company building at 820 S. Michigan Ave., the city on Monday, September 20, installed the historical marker, ending a four-year wait after the building was designated a Chicago landmark in 2017.

It took just 30 minutes for one man to install the square marker to the exterior of the iconic building. A Crusader journalist observed as the workman placed the marker. Without fanfare or ceremony, it’s located next to a pillar and sits on a wall about seven feet above the ground.

The installation came days after the Chicago Crusader published a story that questioned why the city had failed to install a marker on the Johnson Publishing Company building four years after it was designated a Chicago landmark on December 13, 2017.

Kevin Bargnes, from the city’s Department of Planning and Development, said the marker was ready for installation in August, 2020, but did not provide an answer to account for the more than two years that passed after the historic designation.

Bargnes also said the marker must be installed in warm months, but four summer seasons passed without a historic marker being installed at the building. Responding to the Crusader’s follow-up questions, Bargnes emailed the Crusader to say the marker installation would be scheduled on Monday, September 20.

In that email, Bargnes said after a property is designated a Chicago landmark, it takes six to 12 months to order the plaque. He said before the order is placed, the property owner helps determine a location for it. Bargnes said after the order is placed, it can take anywhere from three to 12 months for the fabricator to complete the plaque. The actual installation takes a few hours. Ordinarily, the plaques cost about $900 to fabricate and about $300 to install. The city is notified after the installation is complete.

In a statement, Bargnes said, “regardless, for more than three years, the landmark designation has helped to protect and honor the legacy of John Johnson, Ebony and Jet magazines, and John Warren Moutoussamy, and their unique contributions to Black history and culture here in Chicago and across the nation.”

In August, The New York Times named the Johnson Publishing Company building on its list of 25 most significant works of postwar architecture.

It took two years to build the Johnson Publishing Company building before it was completed in 1971. Years after using his mother’s furniture to media empire, John H. Johnson hired famed Black architect John Moutoussamy to design the 11-story building, which at the time cost $8 million to build.

Before that, Johnson Publishing Company operated out of three locations on the South Side, including the historic Supreme Life Insurance Building on 35th and South King Drive.

To purchase the building of a white funeral home at 1820 S. Michigan Ave., John H. Johnson had a white friend deal with the owner while he posed as a Black custodian who dressed in work clothes to inspect the building. John H. Johnson bought that building in trust for $52,000 so no one could identify the purchaser, and Johnson spent $200,000 renovating it.

John H. Johnson died in 2005. His wife, Eunice, who started the Fashion Fair cosmetics line, died in 2010.

Later that year, the building was sold to Columbia College for $8 million. 3L Real Estate bought it for $10 million in 2017. In 2019, Johnson Publishing Company was dissolved after it filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy. Today, Ebony and Jet are owned by former NBA star Ulysses “Junior” Bridgeman.

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