By Erick Johnson
The avant garde-designed test kitchen on the tenth floor is gone. Now, on all 11 floors are many, many kitchens, complete with brand-name, stainless steel refrigerators and ovens. And the front yard is still Grant Park.
Johnson Publishing Company may be gone, but its former headquarters in the South Loop lives on.
Vacant for nearly a decade, the historic landmark is humming again with a new purpose after a soft opening earlier this year. Reincarnated as a luxury apartment building, the house that John H. Johnson built to produce Ebony and Jet magazines is now called 820 South Michigan Avenue. It’s the address of a building that made history when Johnson was the first and only Black man to build his empire on Michigan Avenue.
Today, leasing agents have been working around the clock giving tours of units that have 10-foot high ceilings and breathtaking panoramic views of Grant Park and Lake Michigan. With an excellent location and a booming affluent neighborhood, the 820 South Michigan building is the newest residential unit to open in the neighborhood. It’s a Chicago landmark that has kept its historic façade, but is far smaller than the surrounding hulking skyscrapers that are popping up in a booming, but competitive rental market in the South Loop.
Officials at 820 South Michigan are showcasing their best on a splashy website that includes video tours and photographs of the units, some of which are pre-furnished. Applicants can also get a personal tour of the units by submitting a form online.The Crusader asked for a special tour of some of the units, but Brian Berg, spokesperson for the apartment’s developers 3L Real Estate, said top officials were out of town and unavailable to provide one by press time Wednesday. Berg did not give information on how many apartments are in the building, but a Crusader article in 2017 said the structure would have 150.
However, applicants who are too busy for a personal tour of an apartment unit may find a video tour of the unit just as effective.
Three separate videos tour a studio, one-bedroom and two-bedroom apart- ments. All the video tours showcase the units, which have modern features, including stainless steel General Electric refrigerators, dishwashers, built-in microwaves and flat-top stoves. The units on the east side on Michigan Avenue have sweeping views of Grant Park and Lake Michigan. The kitchens also have quartz countertops, and all units also have modern plank flooring, according to the website.
The monthly rent for a studio apartment at 820 South Michigan ranges from $1,499 to $1,575 depending on the size. For a one-bedroom apartment that is 494 square feet, residents pay $1,735, according to the website. The monthly rent for a two-bedroom, two-bathroom apartment ranges from $2,395 to $2,495, for units as small as 692 square feet to as big as 795.
3L Real Estate bought the building for $10 million in 2017 from neighbor Columbia College. The college bought the building in 2010 from Johnson Publishing Company for $8 million, hoping to transform the building into a library, but that never happened and the building sat vacant all that time.
Shortly before 3L Real Estate purchased the building from Columbia College, the building became a Chicago landmark, which prohibits the owner from altering the building’s face and removing the iconic Ebony/Jet sign at the top. 820 South Michigan Avenue does not mention the building’s original name and historic past on its video tour or anywhere on its website.
The building was completed in 1971 after John H. Johnson established Ebony and Jet as premiere magazines highlighting Black life and culture in America. When it opened in 1971, Johnson closed Michigan Avenue to hold a ribbon-cutting ceremony where Mayor Richard M. Daley spoke, and Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Gwendolyn Brooks read a special poem.
The building was the only Black-owned building in downtown Michigan Avenue.
John Moutoussamy, a renowned Black architect, designed the building which, to this day, has a private garage that Johnson H. Johnson used during his reign.
Before building at 820 S. Michigan, Johnson operated Ebony and Jet out of several offices in Bronzeville, including the Supreme Life Insurance Company, where he worked as a clerk. Johnson borrowed $500 against his mother’s furniture to start his media empire. For decades, the magazines sat on millions of coffee tables in Black households across the country.
To get the Johnson Publishing Company headquarters built, Johnson had a white friend visit the white owner to convince him to sell the building.
Today, Johnson has a namesake honorary street sign on a portion of Michigan Avenue outside his building. Johnson died in 2005, leaving daughter, Linda Johnson Rice, as chairman of the company. Six years after selling the headquarters for $8 million, in June 2016, Johnson Rice sold Ebony and Jet to Clear View Group, a private equity firm in Texas.
In April, Johnson Publishing Company filed Chapter 11 bankruptcy with plans to sell its last remaining product, Fashion Fair Cosmetics, and its $40 million photo archives collection to pay off its enormous debts.