It’s been nearly four years since city leaders designated the iconic 11-story Johnson Publishing Company building an official Chicago Landmark, months after a developer wanted to demolish it amid a skyscraper boom in the South Loop.
Today, the former headquarters of Ebony and Jet magazines that was the only building designed, built, owned and used by Blacks on upscale Michigan Avenue has no historical marker, despite its landmark designation and prominence on the tony street.
More than 1,367 days have passed since it was designated a landmark, but city officials claim delays and the pandemic have caused the installation of a special historical plaque to drag on. Near the 50th anniversary of the building’s historic opening, it remains a site without a marker bearing its significance to millions of Blacks in Chicago and across the country.
In 2017 during the mayoral term of Rahm Emanuel, Alderman Sophia King (4th Ward) filed an emergency request to have the Johnson Publishing Company building placed on the list of Chicago Landmarks.
Vacant since 2010, one developer seeking to buy it wanted to demolish it and build a skyscraper during a development boom in the South Loop. Back then, plans for skyscrapers were popping up. Plans were in the works for Essex on the Park, a 56-story apartment complex that will eventually go up just yards away from the Johnson Publishing Company building at 820 S. Michigan Ave. Further south, developers were moving forward in building the 76-story luxury glass Nemo apartment tower, the largest skyscraper south of the Willis Tower.
On December 17, 2017, the Commission on Chicago Landmarks (CCL) designated the Johnson Publishing Company building a Chicago Landmark, capping a months-long process with heavy support from Alderman King and Mayor Rahm Emanuel.
The designation protects the iconic building from future demolition but allows changes to the interior to serve a new purpose. It also forced the building’s new owner, 3L Real Estate, to preserve the appearance of the outside structure with its iconic Ebony Jet sign at the top. The garage door leading to John H. Johnson’s private parking space is also still there, years after being the only structure in or near the Loop with a driveway accessible from Michigan Avenue.
Inside, the building now houses modern apartments that include stunning views of Grant Park. On some floors of the building, there are copies of front covers of Ebony magazine in the hallways; the framed original blueprint of the building remains outside an elevator on one floor. A convenience store has opened in a small space on the ground level of the building.
Although it’s an official Chicago Landmark, during a visit in the summer, a Crusader reporter noticed that the building does not have the usual 12×12 bronze plaque that grace over 400 Chicago Landmarks that include historic districts.
The Crusader emailed Alderman King and 3L Real Estate spokesperson Brian Berg and left a message and also a phone message inquiring about the plaque. On August 4, Kevin Bargnes, who works at the Department of Planning and Development (DPD), responded with an email.
Bargnes said the plaque was paid for by the city of Chicago in 2019. Bargnes said due to delays brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic, it was not ready for installation until the fall of 2020. He said, “the installation must take place in warmer months, and DPD’s contractor is in discussions with the property owner to install it later this year.
Since it was designated a landmark in 2017, there have been 20 warm months in Chicago. And although the pandemic created many delays throughout the city, installing a small historic marker is an outside task that is of little more risk than working indoors. In fact, during the pandemic city workers have paved roads, cleaned streets and filled potholes in city neighborhoods. More than two years passed before the pandemic struck the city in March, 2020. What delayed the installation of the plaque during that period?
The Crusader sent these additional questions to Bargnes, who did not respond by Wednesday, September 15, for the print edition.
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 secure a $500 loan to build his 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 King Drive. To purchase the building of a white funeral home at 1820 S. Michigan Ave., John 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. Johnson bought that building in trust for $52,000 so no one could identify the purchaser and spent $200,000 renovating it.
In December 1971, Johnson moved his company to its final location further north at 820 S. Michigan Ave. across from Grant Park. With no Black-owned business in the area, it was a bold, historic achievement. When his building opened, John H. Johnson held a grand opening ceremony that closed part of Michigan Avenue. Then-Mayor Richard J. Daley was among many dignitaries to attend the ceremony. Pulitzer-prize winning author Gwendolyn Brooks wrote and read a special poem for the occasion.
At 820 S. Michigan Ave., Johnson Publishing Company’s success took off as it cemented itself as the media capital of Black America. Subscriptions soared into the millions as Black celebrities and politicians made numerous visits to the house that John H. Johnson built.
When Reverend Jesse Jackson moved to Chicago from North Carolina in 1964, it was John H. Johnson who gave him a job working on the loading dock and selling Ebony and Jet magazines.
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.
Thanks to the generosity of funding provided by The Field Foundation of Illinois, Inc. in producing this article.