I've been looking through some of the digitized images available at the Library of Congress as part of the Historic American Buildings Survey.
This vast archive documents notable achievements in architecture, engineering and landscape design in the United States, ranging from the 17th through the 20th centuries. Its been going since the early 1930s - part of a set of cooperative agreements between the National Parks Service, the Library of Congress, and the private sector - and to date has produced more than half-a-million drawings, photographs, and written histories.
Included in this eye-watering collection is a series of photographs of the former Afro-American publishing plant at 628 N. Eutaw Street in Baltimore. There is some conflicting data on exactly when the paper vacated the property, but to the best of my knowledge it was somewhere between 1990 and 1993. The date at which these images were taken is also unclear, although I would guess it was pretty soon after the newspaper left.
A big part of my interest in the relationship between the Black Press and the built environment is what happens to Black media buildings after Black media leaves, and these images contain their own story - of economic decline and the Black press' modern struggles, but also of a proud history and rich legacy stretching back over 125 years.
So far as I can tell from looking on Google Maps it appears that the main building no longer exists, leaving images such as these the last memory of a Black publishing plant which was once once of the largest in the nation.
I've been spending some time poring through the Teenie Harris photograph archives at the Carnegie Museum of Art in Pittsburgh. If you haven't heard of Charles "Teenie" Harris, he was a prolific photographer of Pittsburgh's African American communities between the 1930s and the 1970s.
Charles "Teenie" Harris, holding camera and standing on sidewalk, circa 1938. Carnegie Museum of Art
Harris' vast archives, currently housed at the Carnegie Museum, offer up "one of the most detailed and intimate records of the Black urban experience known today." Following the archive's purchase in 2001, the Museum has scanned more than 60,000 images, and a good chunk of these have been catalogued and are available to look at online.
If you want a short primer, you can listen to the NPR story below, which discusses Harris' work and his photographic legacy.
The majority of Harris' professional career was spent working as a photographer for the Pittsburgh Courier, and the newspaper's offices feature prominently in many of Harris' images. I've included a few choice images below, which provide a fascinating glimpse into the day-to-day running and everyday comings and goings of a mid-century Black newspaper plant. Treat yourself and have a look through the Harris collections yourself via the Carnegie Museum's online catalogue.
Toki Schalk Johnson posing on desk in Pittsburgh Courier office, c.1940-1950. Carnegie Museum of Art
Joe Louis practicing golf putting in Pittsburgh Courier office, January 1946. Carnegie Museum of Art
Photographer Gordon Parks in Pittsburgh Courier printing plant, September 1946. Carnegie Museum of Art
More details about the inside of the redeveloped Ebony/Jet building at 820 South Michigan Avenue have started to come out following its transformation into condominiums last year. The videos below offer brief tours of one and two-bedroom condos which are now available in addition to studio apartments.
The interiors of the building are completely unrecognisable from the heydey as the epicenter of the Johnson Publishing empire following the building's opening during the early 1970s. Its also disappointing to hear that the building's history is completely ignored in these video tours.
The website for the remodelled 820 South Michigan site has gone live, promising new apartment living from Spring 2019.
The site features lots of images of the redeveloped interiors of the old Johnson Publishing Company building, but strikingly little information about the historic significance of the site or its previous tenants. I couldn't find any reference to its previous life on either the landing page for "820 South" or on any of the linked pages - something which frankly seems like a deliberate oversight.
Sadly, the few interior shots available on the letting website suggest that very little of the building's iconic furnishings remain. The website currently features a number of rentals; ranging from a 335 square foot Studio apartment at $1,515 p/m, to a 2-bed, 876 square feet letting at $2,495 p/m.
At the moment its unclear what access is available to the building's top-floor balconies - previously accessible through the JPC food-court/canteen and John H. Johnson's executive suite. My guess would be that these spaces will be attached to penthouse apartments. It does appear that the building's refurbishment has included the development of a rooftop deck. Other amenities include an on-site laundry, bike storage and a fitness center.
At the back of last year the Bee branch of Chicago Public Library, housed in the former headquarters of the Chicago Bee newspaper, was reopened to the public after an extensive renovation.
As reported in outlets such as the Chicago Crusader and Curbed Chicago, the $2.3 million renovation had included an extensive refurbishment of the entire building and repair work on the building's exterior art deco design. Other notable aspects of the redesign included custom new spaces for young children, families and teenagers, and an upgrade of computer equipment.
Its nice to see the Bee building getting some much-needed TLC. After the long fight to secure its future during the 1980s and 1990s, the building was largely neglected by the city's leaders, and this renovation effort helps to address some long-standing structural and service issues. At the library's reopening, 3rd Ward Alderman Pat Dowell acknowledged the building's importance as a 'community anchor', and hoped that the refurbishment would help spark broader business development and redevelopment projects throughout Bronzeville.
As part of the ongoing sell-off of JPC's commercial and private assets, Crain's Business Chicago reported last week that Linda Johnson Rice is looking to offload the iconic Palm Springs house bought by her parents John Johnson and Eunice Johnson during the mid-1970s. The connection to "Black Media Architecture" comes through the building's designer, Arthur Elrod.
Elrod was also the man behind the lavish interiors at the Johnson Publishing headquarters at 820 South Michigan Avenue in Chicago, as well as John and Eunice Johnson's apartment on Lake Shore Drive, both of which had been completed a few years before the purchase of their Palm Springs property. Elrod had invited the Johnson's to spend a weekend with him in Palm Springs following the completion of their Lake Shore Drive home, and the publisher and his partner had quickly fallen in love with the area.
The property they eventually purchased is located in the exclusive neighborhood of South Ridge, famed for playing host to celebrities such as Bob Hope and Steve McQueen. The Johnson house had once belonged to Ralph Stolkin, an oil magnate and furniture manufacturer who had retired to Palm Springs after spending much of his career in Chicago. The 5,300-square-foot house includes an interior courtyard with an open-air swimming pool, panoramic views of the San Jacinto and Santa Rose mountain ranges, and a tennis court.
For the uninitiated, the Obsidian Collection is an ongoing digital history project focused on archiving and digitising black press collections. According to Obsidian's website, its primary goal is to "preseve and share images from African American newspapers for future generations."
The project has partnered up with Google Arts & Culture to produce a series of online 'Stories' which mine content from black newspapers and black photographers. The most recent Story produced focused on the Chicago Defender's relocation from South Indiana to 2400 South Michigan Avenue on Motor Row in 1960.
There are some great images of the newspaper's relocation available through Google Arts & Culture, including the above shot of workmen attaching the newspaper's signage to the exterior of the building. Earlier pamphlets advertising the Defender's location at 3435 South Indiana made a big deal out of the building's signage, point to it as evidence of the newspaper's cultural and political reach over and beyond the South Side. It appears as if such efforts were maintained at the new location.
The photograph below is one of my favourite from the collection, picturing an unnamed woman, apparently an employee at the Defender, posing next to the street sign marking the newspaper's new location at 24th Street and South Michigan. If anyone knows who this lady might be, please get in touch!
For more images go to "The Chicago Defender's New Headquarters", hosted on Google Arts & Culture for the Obsidian Collection
Exciting news out of Chicago last month, with the former Johnson Publishing headquarters at 820 South Michigan Avenue being considered for landmark status. As reported by multiple media outlets, the Chicago Landmarks Commission was in the process of making a decision on whether to grant the building prestigious landmark status - something which would help to secure its immediate and long-term future.
The move was announced by Rahm Emmanuel in a press release from the Mayor's office, which contended that landmarking the building would help to "protect and celebrate [its] iconic, international style design and its decades long affiliation with black business and culture."
This sentiment was reinforced by David Reifman, the city commissioner of the Department of Planning and Development, who described 820 South Michigan as a reflection of Chicago's broader commitment to "the concepts of equality and civil rights."
Although a decision on the ruling isn't expected until later in the year, the move has been applauded by prominent commentators such as Lee Bey, who, as detailed on this website, has repeatedly stressed the building's unique history and iconic status within black America.
However, for preservationists it wasn't all good news. The commission’s preliminary recommendation for landmark status is currently limited to the building's exterior and roof, meaning that its fabled interiors remain at risk of being ripped out. This could change depending on the wording of the commission's final recommendation.
Since the Chicago Defender moved on from its former headquarters at 2400 South Michigan Avenue in the mid-2000s, the building's future has been up in the air. The site was acquired shortly after the Defender's departure by a venture headed by restaurateur and developer Matthew O'Malley.
However, in 2011, Chicago Business reported that O'Malley was facing a $3.3 million foreclosure lawsuit from the First Chicago Bank & Trust, relating to an outstanding loan on the property dating back to its purchase in 2007.
In 2014 the building was acquired again, this time by a venture group led by Chicago developer Alexander Pearsall, who reportedly paid $6 million for a bulk lot that included the newspaper's former headquarters as well as a number of smaller commercial buildings adjacent to the property and a parcel of land to its rear. Pearsall quickly moved to lease the building and commercial structures to the Revel Group, an events management and production company based in the Chicago area.
At the time of the sale, Chicago Business reported on Revel's plans to use the building as the cornerstone of a new development at the south end of Motor Row, and as a showcase for future event spaces in the area. Revel president Britt Whitfield outlined plans to redevelop the site into a mixed use building, with a close focus on restoring its original woodworking, stained glass and architectural details.
"Situated across from Chicago’s premiere convention center, McCormick Place, the new venue will help fuel the resurgence of the neighborhood into a thriving entertainment district. Motor Row’s versatile event space will accommodate up to 2,500 for cocktail parties and 1,000 for seated dinners."
I've included some images of the restoration below, courtesy of the Prairie District Neighborhood Alliance. As you can see, the interiors of the building were in pretty bad repair after years of neglect.
The development was originally slated to open in 2016, however that has now been pushed back to April 2017. Revel certainly appear to have kept their promise of celebrating the building's historic features, with heavy reference to both its role as the Defender's headquarters and its former significant as the home of the Illinois Automobile Club prominent in press releases and promotional material. While new images of the interior have yet to be released, renderings of the space offer an exciting glimpse into its potential as a new hot-spot for Motor Row district.
As recently reported on Chicago Architecture, architecture and planning firm KTGY and Anexis Development have joined forces to develop the former home of Muhammad Speaks at 2548 South Federal Avenue into a mixed-use building. This is one of the first significant projects undertaken by the Chicago-branch of KGTY since the California-based firm expanded into the Midwest with new offices around a year ago.
Initial plans look to develop around 12,0000 square feet of retail space on the building's first two floors, and then repurpose the floors above for use as residential property. The provisional name for the development is 'Federal Street Lofts', although it wouldn't be a surprise to see this change as the project developments.
Most usefully for this project, media coverage of the development also included newly released architectural drawings of the site, providing a more in-depth look at its exterior and interior design. See an external shot of the building and an internal plan of the third floor below, or click on the link above for more plans.
It will be interesting to see how much demand there is for new condominiums and retail space around the Stevenson Expressway corridor. Development on the Loop and the Near South Side has rebounded impressively from the Recession, although as of yet this hasn't filtered down to Douglas and Bronzeville. Situated close to the I-94 and within ten minutes walk of both Chinatown and McCormack Place Metro stations, its possible the project could usher in further development.
A few weeks ago, Columbia College Chicago announced that it had entrusted the sale of 820 South Michigan Avenue to Colliers International. Heading the Colliers team will be a number of senior executives within the company, including Tim Hart, senior vice president, and Tyler Hague, vice president. It sounds as though Colliers are confident of securing a buyer quickly, given the building's diverse potential as a mixed use site, and its attractive location on prime-time South Loop real estate.
YouTube marketing video for 820 South Michigan
The speed of a deal being reached with any prospective buyer is likely to rest with Columbia College, which may be backed into a corner given that it needs funds from the sale of 820 South Michigan to fund construction of its new student centre at a different site. However, the College will be reluctant to dip below market value, particularly given the building's excellent location and redevelopment potential, and the upward swing in the South Loop market over the past few years.
Here's a video from a recent symposium at Columbia University titled "Critical Dialogues on Race and Modern Architecture." Its part of an ongoing project directed by Mabel Wilson, Charles Davis and Irene Cheng, which aims to investigate how race has been integral to shaping architectural discourses from the Enlightenment to the present.
Adrienne Brown, University of Chicago
Mark Crinson, University of Manchester
Dianne Harris, University of Utah
Saidiya Hartman, Columbia University
Mabel Wilson, Columbia University
Irene Cheng, California College of the Arts
Charles Davis, University of North Carolina
A little bit behind the times, but here is a video of Brown's public lecture at last year Biennial, discussing the link between race and architecture in the writing of figures such as Henry James and W.E.B Du Bois. Brown's book The Black Skyscraper is forthcoming with John Hopkins University Press.
Recently on this blog I posted that Columbia College Chicago was still unsure about what to do with the former headquarters of Johnson Publishing Company at 820 South Michigan Avenue. Since the Johnson team exited the site in 2012, the building has remained practically vacant. Although the college initially laid out ambitious plans to turn the building into a new library and student service centre, these efforts have been scuppered by a number of logistical and economic factors.
It now appears that Columbia is tired of trying to find a way to develop the site, and is instead looking to offload 820 South Michigan to finance development in other areas of the city. Earlier this month in Crains Chicago Business, Alby Gallun reported that the college was in the process of hiring a broker to sell off the building. Director of Columbia's news office Cara Birch explained that due to restrictions on the building's interior (perhaps in part due to its significance as a historical site) and the problems posed by its vertical design, a retrofit no longer made sense.
Columbia had previously announced provisional plans to develop a new four-story, 104,000 square foot student centre on the corner of Wabash Avenue and 8th Street, and the sale of 820 South Michigan will now help to finance this project. Despite sitting on the building for a number of years, the college will probably come out ahead if the building reaches market value. When they purchased the site back in 2010, the real estate market was still in recovery mode, and prices on the South Loop have significantly increased over the past three years. Just a few days ago, Dennis Rodkin reported on a South Loop condo which sold for a record $3.2 million. Given the building's proximity to downtown, and its views over Grant Park and Lake Michigan, it is likely that the site will be developed into high end apartments.
A potential sticking point could turn out to be limitations on development of the site. When Columbia bought 820 South Michigan from Johnson Publishing Company, it made a number of concessions to preserve specific offices, including the top-floor executive suite of publisher John H. Johnson. Birch suggested that the college will look for a buyer that will continue to respect the buildings importance as a heritage site, but also noted that the college's agreement will end following the sale. The Columbia Chronicle reported that the building's historical value will not affect sale price, but this will not be confirmed until the site reaches the market.
The building's future may also be complicated by news that Johnson Publishing itself has been sold, with ownership of the company changing hands for the first time in its 70+ year history. In theory, the company would have had little say in the building's preservation anyway, given that the site had already been sold to Columbia. However, it is clear that the company retained close links with Columbia after the sale, and have continued to exert some element of influence over attempts to preserve its historic character.
More news to follow.
Will the old Johnson Publishing headquarters at 820 South Michigan be getting a make-over?
Columbia College, which now owns the building, recently announced plans for a "Big Walls" event as part of the Manifest urban arts festival. Now entering its 16th year, Manifest showcases some of the best new art and design talent coming out of Columbia. Its an eclectic assortment of gallery exhibitions, live performances, fashion shows, literary readings, and other creative endeavours, with three outdoor stages featuring student bands and DJ sets throughout the day to keep the party going. Chi-town favorites including Twin Peaks and Chance the Rapper have previously graced the Manifest stage, and back in the day Manifest played host to artists such as Lupe Fiasco and Common. For full listings and events happening this year, CLICK HERE.
The "Big Wall" event, set to run between the 1st and 13th May, will lead to the creation of 20 brand new street murals on Columbia buildings and other spaces within the Wabash Arts Corridor. Its not yet been confirmed whether 820 South Michigan is one of the buildings scheduled to undergo a street-art facelift, although Columbia has confirmed they are partnering with Chicago Loop Alliance to create an alleyway site next to the building which will showcase alumni work.
We have already seen how mural artists have transformed black media buildings such as the offices of the New York Amsterdam News in Harlem. Will the Johnson building be next on the list? If 820 South Michigan is to be a mural site, it is hard to envision a mural which doesn't explicitly reference the company's rich history. More news as and when we get it.