Chicago Renovation Pays Homage to Building’s Mod Design History
Chicago, United States 10 September 2019
The South Loop apartment building that was once headquarters to the Ebony/Jet publishing empire is in the final stages of renovation. The groovy look of the lobby, elevator cabs, rooftop deck and other common areas is a tribute to the early-1970s designs that pioneering African-American publishers John and Eunice Johnson commissioned for their headquarters in Chicago.
The lobby has the same round-cornered wood paneling and stone floors that were there when the building at 820 South Michigan Avenue opened in 1972 as the new downtown home of Johnson Publishing. Swatches of mirrored wallpaper and leopard-print fabric are some of the repurposed finishes that pay tribute to the tower’s history.
It’s easy enough to clean up and revitalize hard materials like wood and stone, but the developer’s design team went much further. They created an area rug for the lobby that combines sections of two 1970s carpet patterns that were part of the Johnsons’ original design: one printed with hexagons and the other, an animal print.
Those elements and several others—the bold stripes inside elevator cabs, the gallery wall of framed Ebony covers—are all part of “the great story that this building tells,” said Joe Slezak, CEO of 3L Real Estate, the Illinois-based firm that converted the building to 150 apartments.
At the center of the gallery of covers is one featuring John Johnson, who in 1942 established the publishing firm with his wife, Eunice.
The apartments opened in April, but the “tribute” work in the common areas is not yet finished. On one upper-floor hallway wall, a series of hexagonal niches, their shape picked up from that original office carpeting, is waiting to be filled with salvaged swatches.
Already finished and sure to be frequently Instagrammed is a rooftop deck whose mod furnishings have a historic backdrop: the Ebony/Jet sign that spans the top of the building. The developer added a 12th-story rooftop deck to the 11-story tower as a private space, accessible only by tenants and their guests.
“The Johnsons wanted an African-American sense of design in their building, and to have that preserved by a new owner for a new generation of users is fantastic.”
The work that’s been completed so far is “a pleasant surprise,” said Lee Bey, a longtime Chicago architecture writer whose book Southern Exposure: The Overlooked Architecture of Chicago’s South Side will be published in October. “The Johnsons wanted an African-American sense of design in their building, and to have that preserved by a new owner for a new generation of users is fantastic.”
It’s a muted tribute, without the far-out geometric patterns, peacock feathers and other prints that photographer Barbara Karant captured when the building was vacant in 2015. But 3L’s interior designer, Elizabeth Watters, has pulled together a palette of remnants that evoke the era without reliving it. She’s retained the striped bronze walls of the main floor’s elevator lobby, and on the walls of the elevator cabs are original decorative panels, some in a vibrant set of purple and brown stripes.
“If you’re a certain age and you remember going into houses in black enclaves of Chicago like Pill Hill and Chatham and West Chesterfield in the ‘70s,” Bey said, “this is the kind of wall treatment you saw in those houses.”
Paul Ruffin, who rents an apartment in the building, said the main draws were its South Loop location and the rooftop deck’s view over Grant Park, but that the Johnson-related finishes add “a good layer of nostalgia if somebody knows what they’re about.”
When the Johnsons set out to build a corporate headquarters three decades into their success as publishers for the black community, they tapped Chicago architect John Moutoussamy and interior designers Arthur Elrod and William Raiser, who were based in Palm Springs. Moutoussamy’s 11-story concrete and glass exterior, the first and still the only downtown Chicago tower designed by an African-American architect, became an official city landmark in 2017 just before 3L bought it; the exterior, including the Ebony/Jet sign on top, cannot be changed.
Landmark protection does not extend to the interior, which means that any tribute 3L pays inside is entirely voluntary. “In your average rehab, everything gets stripped off and thrown away,” Slezak said, “but we wanted to protect the legacy of the Johnson Publishing Company.”
At the same time, “it’s not a museum,” Slezak added. There were practicalities to consider. 3L sold the riotously colorful Ebony Test Kitchen for $1 to Landmarks Illinois, which documented, dismantled and removed the kitchen and has arranged for it to be used in an exhibit about African Americans’ impact on the nation’s cuisine. The 10th-floor space now contains apartments.
The interiors were in a sort of suspended animation for several years. Columbia College Chicago bought the Ebony/Jet building and a nearby parking lot for $8 million in 2010, according to 3L spokesman Brian Berg. Columbia never remodeled or moved in, and in November 2017 sold the building, but not the parking lot, to 3L for about $10 million, according to press reports (county land records do not show a dollar figure for either transaction).
Now called 820 South, the building has mostly studio and one-bedroom apartments, with monthly rents starting at $1,575 (studios) and $1,789 (one-bedrooms). Two-bedrooms start at $2,375, and the building’s lone three-bedroom apartment is $3,595. Some two-thirds of the apartments are already rented, said Michael Kavka, 3L’s chief marketing officer.
For more on this story go to Crain’s Chicago Business.