Negro Digest offices, State Street
Ebony magazine, 1992
Ebony magazine, 1992
I recently published a short piece for the Washington Post, titled "Preserving Black Press Buildings is Crucial to Urban Communities." As the title suggests, it emphasizes the historic significance of Black press buildings and their role in ongoing debates around race, urban renewal, and neighborhood redevelopment.
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I'm a little late to the party with this one, but the New York Times Style magazine ran a major feature earlier this year on "The 25 Most Significant Works of Postwar Architecture," which included the former Johnson Publishing headquarters at 820 South Michigan Avenue. The list was a collab between journalists Michael Snyder and Kurt Soller, architects Toshiko Mori, Annabelle Selldorf and Vincent van Duysen, designers Tom Dixon and Es Devlin, and regular Style contributors Nikil Saval and Tom Delavan.
While the list is obviously subjective, its an interesting take on the question of what makes a building "significant." The inclusion of the JPC building was clearly influenced by their efforts to be mindful of the field's historical inequalities and intentional effort to include work by women architects and Black architects. After all, much of what is significant about 820 South Michigan Avenue is less about the building's actual design and more the result of its contextual/cultural significance.
Here's what the New York Times had to say about the Johnson Publishing building:
"The first high-rise building in downtown Chicago designed by a Black architect, the Johnson Publishing Company Building...housed the offices for epoch-making magazines like Jet and Ebony, which reflected and shaped the tastes of countless Black Americans.
As the piece rightly notes, the significance of the Johnson Publishing building continues to be shaped by just how few high-rises by Black architects have been constructed in the half century since it was unveiled to the public during the early 1970s - a testament to "just how far the profession still has to go."
The piece is accompanied by a nice shot of 820 South Michigan Avenue taken from the Hedrich-Blessing collection at Chicago History Museum. There are some great shots of the interior and exterior of the Johnson Publishing building which are available to view through the museum's online catalogue - definitely worth checking out.
Exterior view of the Johnson Publishing Company building at 820 South Michigan Ave.
Hedrich-Blessing Collection, Chicago History Museum
On September 16, 2021, Chicago Crusader reporter Erick Johnson ran a story on the former Johnson Publishing headquarters at 820 South Michigan Avenue, noting that, nearly four years after the site had been designated a Chicago Landmark, it still hadn't been blessed with a historical plaque.
"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."
Johnson's complaints appear to have galvanized someone in the city's planning department - just a few days after his initial article was published in the Crusader, a city official finally installed a historic marker on the building's exterior. In a statement released alongside the marker's installation, Department of Planning and Development employee Kevin Barnes reasserted that the building's landmarking had "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.”
You can access Johnson's stories for the Crusader - here and here.
Historical marker installed at JPC building, 2021. Erick Johnson/Chicago Crusader
The COVID-19 pandemic has put a number of Black newspapers under extreme financial strain. For more on the specific challenges facing the Black press you can read this recent op-ed I published in the Washington Post about the role of Black publications as outlets for public health information. There's no real way of sugar-coating it - the pandemic will leave many Black publication out of business or irreperably weakened.
However, amid all the doom and gloom there are some positive stories. One can be found at the Wilmington Journal, one of North Carolina's oldest Black newspapers, which recently took major steps in securing its immediate future by purchasing its long-time Seventh Street home in Wilmington. A GoFundMe titled "Save the Wilmington Journal" was set up in December 2020 by Dorian Cromartie and Deborah Maxwell, citing the need for a boost in financial aid "due to COVID-19 and many other hardships the paper has faced." Cromartie and Maxwell contended that as a vital community anchor, the Journal "is more than worthy to receive support from the people it has so diligently served." A significant number of people clearly agreed - as of the publication of this blog post, the GoFundMe campaign has raised nearly $35,000, with more than 400 individual donors.
In February 2021 the campaign received an additional boost through an eight-hour-long telethon hosted by Freedom Way Ministries, where local hosts and guests entertained viewers and laid out the Journal's rich history and continued importance to local Black communities.
The combined success of the GoFundMe and the telethon has raised more than $95,000; an amount that will allow the Journal to purchase its building at 412 South 7th Street outright, and will also allow for some much needed repairs.
The Journal building on 7th Street in Wilmington, NC. Matt Born/StarNews
Thomas Jervay, the paper's publisher and long-time owner, was understandably heartened by the display of public support. Jervay declared that “I personally view this as a turning of the corner for North Carolina and Black newspaper publishing...the telethon has shown state and national support for the Journal’s continued existence. It has a wonderful history of going to bat for not only the people of Wilmington, but also African Americans around the state and nation. That commitment was mirrored by the many folks who came forward to make this a success.”
The campaign's success is a telling reminder of how important building ownership and/or control is to securing the short and long-term future for Black publications around the country. This is particularly resonant for the Journal, given its own fraught building history. Over the years the newspaper's offices have been subjected to countless attacks, most notably a dynamite attack in 1973 which almost destroyed the property.
Anyone familiar with the Johnson Publishing Company or its most recognizable magazine, Ebony, knows that the past few years have been a total mess. The magazine, along with sister publication Jet, were sold by Johnson Publishing in 2016 as part of a fire-sale that culminated in bankruptcy proceedings. The new owners, a Texas-based private equity firm called the CVS Group, were soon hit with lawsuits by former contributors who contended that they hadn't been paid for work on the magazine, and its print run was placed on hiatus in 2019. In mid-2020, Johnson Publishing defaulted on an estimated $10 million in loans and, after its new CEO Willard Jackson was forced out, the lendor forced the company into an involuntary Chapter 7 bankruptcy.
The magazine went up for sale in bankruptcy court a few weeks ago, and the winner turned out to be former NBA player turned business mogel Ulysses 'Junior' Bridgeman. A talented small forward, Bridgeman spent the majority of his career with the Milwaukee Bucks, and is perhaps best known for his part in a blockbuster trade conducted shortly after he was drafted by the Los Angeles Lakers in 1975, which saw him and three other players traded to the Bucks in return for OG center Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Walt Wesley. After retiring from the NBA, he turned to fast food franchising, amassing over 100 restaurants and an estimated net worth in excess of $400 million by 2016. Bridgeman's winning bid was reported to be $14 million.
Ulysses "Junior" Bridgeman, c/o Journal-isms
It's early days, so Bridgeman's plans for Ebony aren't clear, outside of his self-professed desire to restore the magazine to its fomer glory. Given the state of the magazine market, and of the economy as a whole, that seems pretty unlikely. However, Bridgeman's demonstrable talents as a businessman mean that he has as good a chance as anybody.
Of more immediate interest will be where Bridgeman decides to base the publication's business offices. Following the sale of the iconic Johnson Publishing building at 820 South Michigan Avenue to Columbia College Chicago, the company resided in a high-rise office complex a little further north on Michigan Avenue. A Chicago Tribune story reported that Bridgeman's love of EBONY was bolstered by childhood visits to the building, which he appreciated as a symbol of Black excellence.
Given how closely the magazine's history is linked to Black Chicago, it seems likely that Bridgeman will attempt to maintain at least a nominal connection to the Windy City, particularly if it resumes print publication. The old EBONY building is long gone - now converted into upscale condominiums - but it might be possible to carve out a new space for the magazine. For inspiration on how to restore the relationship between a Black periodical and the built environment, Bridgeman could look to the Chicago Defender, which was widely applauded for returning to its roots on the South Side a little over a decade ago, by way of a former funeral home on King Boulevard.
A few weeks ago the Amsterdam News offices in Harlem began to draw attention for some striking additions to its exterior. It's not the first time that the building has become the canvas for a public art installation - a few years ago this blog documented the work of Alexandre Keto which was added to its exteriors - although the more recent additions are significantly more political. The artwork is part of a larger installation project orchestrated by "People for the American Way", a progressive advocacy organization "founded to fight right-wing extremism and build a democratic society that implements the ideals of freedom, equality, opportunity and justice for all."
Coinciding with the 2020 presidential election, the Amsterdam News agreed to participate in PFAW's "Enough of Trump" campaign. The result: a 30 by 70 foot banner and mural covering almost the whole of its front facade and the building's north facing wall. The installation was created by Carrie Mae Weems, a former MacArthur Fellow and one of the nation's leading Black artists. Artwork by other artists is also featured, including pieces by Shepard Fairey and Angelica Muro.
PFAW president Ben Jealous, quoted on the organization's website, contended that "for an historic Black newspaper to blanket their building in Enough of Trump art...sends a clear message to the nation."
Amsterdam News publisher Elinor Tatum echoed these sentiments, contending that they were "thrilled to partner with People For the American Way and its ENOUGH of Trump campaign at this critical time. Given the stakes in this historic election, it is more urgent than ever to inspire voters to transform their dissatisfaction over the increased polarization of this country, and the racism that this administration is perpetrating, into votes on Election Day."
It's fun to see the Amsterdam News team continue their longer tradition of using the building in this way - a tradition which itself feeds back into the longstanding performative function of Black media buildings stretching back to the nineteenth century. It's also a reminder that despite the publication's somewhat diminished status, it remains an important Harlem landmark.
For more about the project and PFAW visit the organization's website.
Here is a great little news report from American Newsreel on the Black press in America. It was originally published in 1953 as part of One Tenth of a Nation, a series of newsreels created during 1953 and 1954 which aimed to celebrate "the achievements of Black Americans in a variety of fields." A number of other newsreels in the series are available to view through the Library of Congress' Digital Collections.
The quality of the footage isn't great, but it nevertheless provides a rare and illuminating video insight into the comings and goings at a number of the nation's most prominent Black publishing enterprises, including the Baltimore Afro-American, the Los Angeles Sentinel, and Johnson Publishing Company.
It's interesting to see how the narrator of this clip links the respective achievements of many publication to their physical plants and offices. This is perhaps most notable through the descriptions of the Johnson Publishing offices at 1820 South Michigan Avenue, which the company had moved into just a few years earlier.
"Luxurious editorial offices are eloquent testimony to the success of this publishing venture, but the surroundings don't interfere with business..."
Here are some interesting images of the former Afro-American publishing plant at 628 N. Eutaw Street in Baltimore. The are part of a larger series of photographs included in the Historic American Buildings Survey (HABS), currently housed at the Library of Congress.
HABS is a vast archive which 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.
Back to the Afro-American building: there is some conflicting data on exactly when the paper vacated the property, but it seems to have occured 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.
From looking on Google Maps it appears that the main building no longer exists, leaving images such among the last memories of a Black publishing plant that 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, 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 at the Pittsburgh Courier office, Carnegie Museum of Art
Boxer Joe Louis practicing putting at the Pittsburgh Courier, 1946. Carnegie Museum of Art
Photographer Gordon Parks at the Pittsburgh Courier plant, 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.
New lettering for the building, 1960. Chicago Defender Archives
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
"Lovely lady at new Chicago Defender Location, 1960." Chicago Defender Archives.
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.