By Richard Prince, Robert C. Maynard Institute for Journalism Education
CHICAGO - Johnson Publishing Co. has sold its historic building on Chicago's Michigan Avenue to Columbia College Chicago, the company has announced.
It has not yet selected a new home and is to remain in the building for 18 months.
"The sale of 820 S. Michigan is part of the continuing evolution of the company that my father and mother started in the early 1942s," Linda Johnson Rice, Johnson Publishing Co. chairman, said in a statement.
"Just as when JPC moved to this location in 1972, my father would be the first to say it makes good business sense to relocate to space that serves the current needs of the company."
The purchase price was not disclosed, but spokesmanRodrigo A. Sierra, senior vice president and chief marketing officer, said, "It does strengthen our balance sheet. We want to be focused on our businesses and not on upkeep of a building."
JPC said that it uses only about 40 percent of the building.
The announcement said, "The 11-story, 110,000 square-foot historic building, which has been home to EBONY and JET magazines as well as Fashion Fair Cosmetics for almost 40 years, was completed in 1972 as the first major downtown Chicago building designed by an African-American since Jean Baptiste Point DuSable’s trading post, built two centuries earlier."
The building is historic not only because it was designed by an African American, John W. Moutoussamy, but also because it was owned by one — the first skyscraper owned by an African American in the Loop.
In his memoir, "Succeeding Against the Odds," written with Lerone Bennett Jr., company founderJohn H. Johnson described how he enlisted a white lawyer to buy the land for him when the owner would not sell to a black person.
Writing in the Washington Post in 1980, Carla Hall described the building as it looked then:
"On the wall of the advertising department are framed posters of slick, crisp ads that ran 10 years ago promoting the Ebony readership as a bountiful consumer market to be tapped by companies. The caption on one showing black professionals reads: 'If these men and women have rhythm, they've put it to work on marketing cycles or computer electronics or fabric patterns... Ebony is where 49 million people do their shopping.'
"The $8 million building contains a $300,000 art collection, the work of many black artists all over the country. It is practically a monument — sometimes an ostentatious one — to black success."
After Johnson — father of Linda Johnson Rice — died in 2005 at age 87, a new honorary street sign reading John H. Johnson Avenue was posted on the corner near the Michigan Avenue entrance.
After 18 months, Columbia College Chicago plans to use the site for a library.
Allen Turner, chairman of the school's Board of Trustees, said in a statement, "The purchase of the Johnson Building offered us a rare opportunity for much needed expansion, especially given that the space is central to our South Loop campus. Just as important, we will have a part in preserving the legacy of the Johnson Building and its legendary significance to all Chicagoans."
Lynn Norment, an editor who worked at Ebony from 1977 to 2009 and is now with Carol H. Williams Advertising, also located downtown, said of the building, "It represents wonderful memories, the legacy of Mr. Johnson. It represents a black institution in our community. I spent half my life there, and I was there for more than half of Ebony's life, and I realize now I was there for the heyday. It's kind of sad."