If you had frequented the iconic building when it was home to the Johnson Publishing Co., you may find yourself unprepared for the transformation.
Converted into 150 rental units by owner 3L Real Estate, the building at 820 S. Michigan Ave. held its first public open house Thursday, welcoming its South Loop neighbors and dignitaries to view the Chicago landmark’s newest iteration.
Publishing pioneer John H. Johnson, who built an empire with a $500 loan from his mother, blazed a trail with his Ebony and Jet magazines here.
His headquarters held a revered place in the annals of black history. It was and remains the only Chicago high-rise ever designed by an African American, architect John Warren Moutoussamy, and it was home to the first publications to depict for the world the rich range of the black experience in America with beauty and positivity.
Built in 1971, Johnson and wife, Eunice, whose empire would grow to include Fashion Fair Cosmetics, moved into the building in 1972, and over decades, their headquarters became world-renowned for its funky, lavish and distinctive decor.
“We love being able to preserve the story of a building as much as the building itself, and this building, with the Johnson legacy, is as unique an opportunity as we’ve had to step in and create another chapter,” said 3L CEO Joseph Slezak, leading the tour.
“John Johnson’s story to me is universal. Obviously, he had a huge impact on African American culture and a huge impact on media and publishing. But ultimately, he’s the American Dream,” Slezak said.
“This building needed, and I think deserved, to be preserved so everybody can enjoy it. We did our part to not screw it up.”
The tour revealed the dramatic metamorphosis from corporate to residential — floor after floor of beautiful but boxy living spaces. The apartments are small, offset by lofty, 13-foot ceilings. Half of the units are studios, starting at $1,295 per month. Those are all rented.
The other half are one-bedrooms starting at $1,735; and two-bedrooms starting at $2,375. There’s only one three-bedroom unit, a $3,595 per month penthouse on the 12th floor.
There didn’t used to be a 12th floor. 3L added one to the 11-story, modernist-style building. Opened in April, the building is already two-thirds rented.
On that new 12th floor, the huge “Ebony JPC Jet” sign, heralding the iconic brand for nearly a half century, remains, now overlooking a trendy rooftop terrace with great lakefront views.
But Slezak said he wanted more than just the sign to be a reminder of the history made here.
Subtle touches of Johnson Publishing’s original ‘70s decor are sprinkled throughout. There’s the original wood paneling of the lobby and elevator; the framed Ebony and Jet covers lining a hall in the lobby; salvaged original rugs and curtains, framed, gracing upstairs halls.
“I love that it’s part of the story of the property still,” said Zurich Esposito, executive vice president of the American Institute of Architects Chicago. “And, of course, standing under the fabulous sign that’s still intact on the roof, it does honor the legacy.”
Johnson founded his company in 1942, identifying a lucrative niche in African American readers hungry to see positive images of themselves that other media ignored.
His magazines helped galvanize the civil rights movement through such milestones as Jet’s publishing of the open coffin photo of Emmett Till, the 14-year-old Chicago boy killed by white men in Mississippi for allegedly whistling at a white woman in 1955.
But the company struggled after its founder’s death in 2005.
The 110,000-square-foot building was sold for $8 million to Columbia College Chicago for campus expansion in 2010. The flagship magazines were sold in 2016 to Clear View Group, a black-owned equity firm now publishing under EBONY Media Operations in California. Columbia never moved into the building, selling it to 3L for $10 million in 2017.
In April, what was left of the company filed for bankruptcy. Its renowned archive of more than 4 million prints and negatives chronicling 70 years of black history was auctioned off, bought by a consortium of philanthropic groups pledging to donate them to places like the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture.
Attending the open house Thursday were former Johnson Publishing employees, people interested in renting apartments and the just plain curious. Then there were folks like Jean Nihoul, curator and culinary operations manager at the Museum of Food and Drink in New York, the current repository of the Johnson Publishing building’s famed Ebony Test Kitchen.
After 3L bought the building, it allowed Landmarks Illinois to buy the kitchen for $1 to save it. It was turned over to the New York museum, which is planning an exhibit around it next year, “African/American: Making the Nation’s Table.”
“We instantly knew we had to have the Johnson kitchen because of its profound impact not only for everybody in the U.S. but around the world — for everyone in the African diaspora,” Nihoul said.
“In our exhibit, we’re going to be looking at the impact of African American people and their culinary traditions on the American culinary landscape in the last 400 years — from their arrival in 1619 to present day, looking at all their contributions. The Johnson test kitchen helped spread the recipes of the Diaspora. We’re thrilled to help preserve that legacy.”