Negro Digest offices, State Street
Ebony magazine, 1992
Ebony magazine, 1992
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.
The Amsterdam News Building at 2340 Frederick Douglass in New York has been adorned with some funky new murals as part of the #NotaCrime campaign - a multinational public arts project which draws attention to human rights abuses in Iran. The focus of the campaign are the restrictions placed one free speech by the Iranian government - particularly in terms of education and journalism. Hundreds of reporters, bloggers and 'citizen journalists' are met with routine harassment, surveillance and censorship, and many end up in prison. Since the start of the Green Movement, which arose in protest to the election of Mahmoud Ahmadinejah in 2009, Iran has become notorious for its harsh treatment of the press and its limitations on freedom of information. Part of this project is the powerful JOURNALISM IS NOT A CRIME site, which lists biographies of all journalists known to have been jailed in Iran since 1905.
Harlem has become site for the next phase of the #NotACrime campaign, through the development of an extensive street art project which stretches across the city. The projected is currently being curated by Street Art Anarchy, a New York based start up project which collaborates with prominent street artists.
As part of the project, two new murals were painted on the north and south facing sides of the Amsterdam News building. The first was created by Brazilian muralist Alexandre Keto, who uses heavily stylized, Afrofuturist mural to highlight contemporary social issues and race and class inequality. Here's a mural Keto created in Queens as part of the project, demonstrating his recognisable visual style
Keto's work is born out of the Hip Hop movement which continues to be centred around Sao Paulo's large Afro-Brazilian community, and he has become increasingly influenced by African art and its impact on Brazilian culture. Despite still being in his twenties he has racked up an impressive body of work - over 1,000 murals in North and South America, Europe and Africa. For more information on Keto's work and activism head to his website, or check out this interesting feature by NBC News from August last year.
The second Amsterdam News mural was also created by a South American artist - Marina Zumi. An Argentinian drawn to Brazil by its vibrant street art scene, Zumi work generally focused on nature and animal imagery, with the deer a recurrent feature in many of her murals. Her piece is titled "No Truth, No Light", in support of freedom of education for the Baha'is in Iran. For more of Zumi's work check out her instagram
Its been several years now since Johnson Publishing Company's iconic headquarters at 820 South Michigan Avenue was sold to Columbia College Chicago, but it appears that the College is still unsure of what to do with the building.
For a while it was rumored that the Johnson building would provide a home for Columbia's new student center. However, the College has recently announced that its new student center - scheduled for completion in 2018 - will now be developed on another site - High renovation costs for the Johnson building proved prohibitive.
It is unclear what this announcement means for the College's future usage of 820 South Michigan Avenue. Back when the building was acquired the Maynard Institute reported that Columbia intended to use the site as its new library, although these plans were quickly scuppered by the realisation that such application would be structurally impossible.
Current plans appear to point towards the establishment of the John H. and Eunice W. Johnson Center, which will house elements of the institution's fashion, journalism and marketing programs. The specifics of the Center and its usage remain fuzzy, with apparently the only thing agreed on is keeping the iconic EBONY/JET sign atop the building's roof.
Click here to read more
Image taken from Barbara Karant personal website
Two recent articles in Slate and the New York Times have shed light on a new photo project by Columbia College adjunct Barbara Karant, which involves the Johnson Publishing Company's old headquarters at 820 South Michigan Avenue. After the building was sold to Columbia College in 2010, Karant sought - and received - permission to photograph it. Over the past few years she has been developing an impressive photo archive of the building's vintage interior.
The access Karant has been able to get is remarkable - presumably helped by her relationship with Columbia, and also her strong reputation as an architectural and design photographer. On her personal website, she describes the project as an effort to capture the company's unique heritage before 820 South Michigan is (or at least is scheduled to be) transformed into a new library and archive centre.
"This project documents the core essence of the Johnson Publishing Company's historic building in its semi-skeletal state before the final remnants of John Moutoussamy's architectural design, Arthur Elrod's interiors and the last vestiges of the original JPC communal workspace vanish."
Image courtesy of Barbara Karant personal website
Maurice Berger has praised the project for encapsulating the "visual dynamism of early 1970s architectural and interior design", with its boldly patterned carpets and African-inspired textiles, lacquered lounges and dramatic hallways. Perhaps more importantly, the publication recognised the significance of Karant's work as a document which addresses the relationship between black cultural politics and modernism - a relationship which was frequently erased from mainstream descriptions of modernist aesthetics and design.
Aside from being incredibly jealous of Karant's access to the building, her work is a fascinating snap-shot into the building's history and decline. Karant's images document the heavily stylised interior which made 820 South Michigan such a popular stop-off for black tourists to Chicago during its heyday. However, many of the photographs also clearly document how the building has fallen into disrepair, with mould on the carpets and walls, collapsing fittings and peeling wallpaper. As Columbia continues to struggle over how to develop the site, it appears that 820 South Michigan is currently trapped in fading 1970s timewarp.
I recently emailed Barbara about her future plans for the project and she informed me that she hopes to develop her work into a book project - hopefully in collaboration with an architectural historian. I'm excited to see this project develop, and look forward to being able to see more of the building's famed interiors.