The city’s Commission on Chicago Landmarks on Thursday voted to grant preliminary landmark status to the 46-year-old modernist skyscraper was home to the Johnson Publishing Company empire from 1971 to 2012. In addition to celebrating the building, the move also protects the structure from demolition or incompatible alterations while the city seeks permanent landmark status.
“This is the first office building to be built by an African-American in a major metropolitan city,” said Linda Johnson Rice, Ebony Media’s Chairman Emeritus. “For it to be able to stand the test of time with all of its beauty and strength and the important leaders who walke through those doors, and to know it will still be there gives me a sense of fulfillment.”
Chicago mayor Rahm Emanuel, echoed that sentiment in making the announcement about the historic structure. “This designation will cement the building’s status as a landmark that is not just a part of the legacy of the history of Chicago, but the history of our nation,” Emanuel said.
Built by Johnson Publishing Company founder and owner John H. Johnson and designed by pioneering black architect John Moutoussamy, the slender, sophisticated building overlooks Chicago’s historic Grant Park. Visible from the city’s famed Lake Shore Drive, it is the only downtown Chicago skyscraper built for—and designed by—Black people; as much an expression of Black success and pride as the stories chronicled in EBONY and JET magazines.
“It was a beacon—literally a beacon of hope,” said artist Raymond Anthony Thomas, a former Johnson Publishing art director who worked in the building for 23 years. “We knew that building was ours.”
The building was architecturally progressive for its time. Moutoussamy recessed the east facing windows, which gave the building its bold, shadowed profile and shaded its interiors from the sun.
“You look at the structural clarity, how the building is organized, the way he brings the structure out front…there is a clarity and a precision to the architecture,” said ElDante C. Winston, a student pursuing a doctoral degree in architectural history at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology who also helped conduct research for the landmark designation.
Johnson was also involved in the building’s look. He purposely sought a Black architect for the project and pushed for a modern design—but not a glass box high-rise as had been the fashion then. He and wife Eunice Johnson selected celebrated Palm Springs designers Arthur Elrod and William Raiser to create the headquarters spectacular, high-style and exuberant original interiors that were maintained for Johnson Publishing’s entire time in the building.
“These were pristine, 1970s-modern interiors with flair…pizazz,” said Lisa DiChiera, advocacy director for Landmarks Illinois, a preservation group that spoke in favor of the designation. “Tastefully done. Beautiful. Even today.”
The interiors are not part of the designation, however because the art and furnishing that once complete the look have been moved to Johnson Publication’s current headquarters, located six blocks north on Michigan Avenue.
The building was a sensation when it opened, as a thousand people crowded the sidewalk for dedication festivities.
“It’s not a day of personal triumph for one man,” Johnson told the assembled from a podium outside the building’s front door. “It is rather a day of promise for all men and all women who choose hope over indifference.”
The list of attendees that day and in the weeks that followed represented a who’s-who of the times: Rev. Jesse Jackson. Poets Amiri Baraka and Gwendolyn Brooks. Shirley Chisholm. Lena Horne. Ruby Dee. John Lennon and Yoko Ono.
The building’s role as a gathering place for celebrities and notables continued during the entirety of Johnson Publication’s ownership.
“I was there from the late 80s to the early 2000s and I met every rapper you can possibly imagine,” said Thomas who added he met Stevie Wonder there. “Every singer. Smokey Robinson. The great boxers of the time. Every basketball star—Michael Jordan, Shaq. It got so you’d get a call: ‘Nas is downstairs,’ and you’re like ‘Nah, I got work to do.’ You couldn’t meet everybody because literally everybody came there to be interviewed but also to just pay homage.”
Columbia College Chicago purchased the building from Johnson Publications in 2010 with the intent of turning the structure into a library and the John H. & Eunice W. Johnson Center. But the plan never came to fruition and the college began marketing the building for sale last year.
City landmark status also makes it possible for an owner to use historic tax credits to help underwrite the construction costs involved in converting the building for reuse.