Negro Digest offices, State Street
Ebony magazine, 1992
Ebony magazine, 1992
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 was erected to house the offices of the media magnate John H. Johnson. Conceived by the pioneering Chicago architect John W. Moutoussamy, with interiors by Arthur Elrod and William Raiser, the tower housed the offices for epoch-making magazines like Jet and Ebony, which reflected and shaped the tastes of countless Black Americans. Rising 11 stories over South Michigan Avenue, the building has a powerful sense of proportion and rhythm, with panels of concrete that seem to float between bands of recessed windows. Inside, Elrod and Raiser filled the space with the declarative colors and opulent textures of their time...From the outside in, the Johnson Publishing Company Building was unabashedly luxurious, rigorous in its optimism - a declaration of Black progress throughout the 20th century."
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