Special to the NNPA from the Chicago Crusader –
News of the sale of the only Black-owned building in the Loop didn’t come as a surprise to some former Johnson Publishing Company (JPC) employees who shared cherished memories of working at the Michigan Avenue edifice. Recently, officials at JPC released news that the 11 story, 110,000 square foot, 40-year-old building has been sold to Columbia College. In the college’s news release, Chairman Allen Turner, said the building will ultimately house the institution’s library.
Monroe Anderson moved to Chicago in 1972 to work at Ebony as an assistant editor. He recalled the building at 820 S. Michigan as “incredible.” He said it was an innovative, highly regimented but fun place to work. Anderson said the JPC conference room had picture phones, adding it was very rare then. “Cubicles were new things, and we had cubicles.” Anderson was quick to add that no eating was allowed in the cubicles. He said employees took their 15-minute morning and afternoon breaks away from the cubicle and in the company cafeteria -- the same cafeteria where employees got all-you-could-eat soul food lunches for a dollar a day.
“Lunch money” was deducted from the employees’ paychecks. Another innovative amenity was an in-house movie theatre. “We got to screen all the “Blaxplotation” movies as they came out,” Anderson said. And because of the importance of JPC, many of the movie stars visited the headquarters.
The first time Billy Dee Williams stopped by was shortly after he made the movie “Brian’s Song: and a second time after starring in “Lady Sings the Blues”. “Women were following him down the hall then, the same women who had ignored him the first time he was here,” Anderson laughed. Anderson said he still remembers having lunch with Lena Horne.
Cheap food, movie star visits and a view of Grant Park didn’t equate to a relaxed work environment. “Mr. John H. Johnson was very strict about time,” Anderson recalled. “We started at 9 a.m. and Mr. Johnson stood in the entry to see what time you came in and if you got there at 9:01, you were late,’ he said. The former Tribune columnist said a scowl and scolding from Johnson was the punishment for being late.
The Michigan Avenue location epitomized architectural innovation as well, Lee Bey, a former Sun Times architect columnist said. Bey, current director of the downtown business group/think tank Chicago Central Area Committee, said “The grid-like exterior, which was a staple of modernism with the recessed windows makes the building resemble a ladder, which is kind of a perfect metaphor for John Johnson's achievement and the achievements of those his publication wrote about. “The building is interesting in more than a few ways.
The penthouse, built for and occupied by Johnson, had a theater. The building was built with heat absorbing glass, making it energy efficient long before that kind of thing came into vogue. The additional distinction to the JPC headquarters is John Moutoussamy the noted African American architect designed it. Bey, former chief of staff to Mayor Richard M. Daley, described the building as “among Moutoussamy’s most notable works and certainly his most famous.”
Jeff Burns, who headed JPC’s New York City office until 2007, said “The building was especially appealing because every floor was color coordinated and Mr. Johnson loved art… He had a treasure of artwork from major artists.” “There were a lot of sculptures throughout the building. All of his awards were behind a glass showcase so everyone could see them,” Burns said.
Anderson and Burns said they were aware of the historical significance of the JPC headquarters because of the traffic it generated. “Even though I was in New York, whenever someone I knew was going to Chicago, they’d call me and ask who do I need to call at Johnson Publishing so I can get a tour.” Burns said a favorite story about JPC headquarters tourists is of an 80-year-old woman who saved to come to Chicago. “When she got to Chicago, she went to the Johnson Building and told the people I’m here to see the maker” Burns added that once word got to JPC Founder John Johnson, he came to the lobby greeted the woman and then took her to lunch.
Anderson chuckled when he talked about Johnson’s fondness for tours. “He was always having tours and you’d be trying to write a story and people would come by, laughing and talking with you. It was quite a distraction,” he said. One of those tours included a surprise visitor, a former neighbor of Anderson’s and friend of his mother’s who had known him since childhood. “She just couldn’t believe I got a job at Ebony, so she took one of the tours to find out if I really worked there. I think now she has more copies of things I’ve written since than my mother has” Anderson added.
Burns said the building is inseparable from the legacy of its first owner. “A lot of people don’t realize that Mr. Johnson underwrote the civil rights movement. When he put that picture of Emmett Till’s body in his magazine, and that magazine went all over the country, it got people’s attention and got them involved.”
It was that involvement that caused United States presidents to reach out to Johnson. According to Burns, every president from Roosevelt to George H.W. Bush sought Johnson’s counsel, and invited him to the White House. Despite the ties to heads of state, Johnson developed and maintained a strong relationship with historically Black colleges and universities (HBCUs). Burns said he was instrumental in getting Howard University to name its School of Communications after Johnson. Johnson noted that a number of JPC employees were HBCU grads, with Howard sending the most.
Anderson said the significance of JPC to the Black community was impressed on him when he chose to leave Ebony after a 20-month stint. “My mother couldn’t understand why I would leave Ebony to go to work for the Chicago Tribune,” Anderson said.
Conrad Worrill, the national chairman emeritus of the National Black United Fund, said he wished there had been a different outcome for JPC. “It is unfortunate that the sale is not reversed (i.e. Johnson Publishing buying the Columbia College building). It is a real breakdown in holding on to historical properties that became as a result of blood, sweat and tears of an African-American entrepreneur,” he said.