This website has been on hiatus for a while now, so I thought I would post an update explaining why, as well as to use this opportunity to outline some exciting stuff/changes which will be happening over the next couple of months.
From the outset, I have worked on this project alongside other commitments: firstly, the completion of my doctorate at the University of Manchester, and then a heavy teaching load and other research commitments. Its been a passion project for quite a long time, and I've often been frustrated that I haven't been able to develop this project (and this website) as I would have liked. However, I'm excited to say that when I return to the UK later this year I will begin a Leverhulme Early Career Fellowship, which will allow me to focus the majority of my attention on BMA!
The main outcome of this project will be an academic monograph which will focus on black media in Chicago. In addition, the research time afforded by this Fellowship will allow me to pursue a number of new avenues related to BMA, most notably a series of podcasts and audio tours which will flesh out the content found on this website and add another layer of content.
At the moment, I'm focused on my position as a Fulbright Scholar and Visiting Professor in the US, so this website will remain pretty quiet for the next couple of months. Look out for a flurry of new content and resources from Summer 2018!
The first offices of Black Enterprise magazine were housed at 295 Madison Avenue, otherwise known as the Lefcourt Colonial Building, between 1970 and 1984. The building had a storied history as part of the Lefcourt realty empire, and remains a distinctive feature on the New York landscape.
295 Madison Avenue, New York
Image courtesy of Wired New York
The Lefcourt Colonial is an attractive 45 story, 538 foot tall office building. It is located between Madison Avenue and Park Avenue and 40th and 41st Street. Blending traditional art deco and gothic elements, the buildings most distinctive feature is its tower, which is visible from most of the midtown area. The tower features obelisks and striking blue terracotta medallions which were produced by the Guastavino Company. As reported by Newyorkitecture, while much the building's street level retail and lobby space have been modernized, much of the original building's facade remains intact, replete with terracotta, false balustrades and layered brickwork. Architectural critic Christopher Gray has described the building as "wonderfully peculiar" - a relic among the increasingly corporate architectural facades of Midtown.
"So slender that it calls to mind a box of spaghetti, this 45-story tower is topped by six chunky gilded obelisks...The rest of the shaft is of tan brick, unremarkable until the fifth floor, when all neo-Baroque hell breaks loose. Framed by colossal Ionic pilasters, this lower section is treated as a group of show windows. Compared with the plain-Jane character of the upper facade, the highly figured broken pediments over the third-floor windows are as voluptuous as Lana Turner...The old low-ceilinged lobby, now closed but visible from Madison Avenue, is a rich mixture of black marble and intricate bronze metalwork."
Top of 295 Madison Avenue
Image courtesy of Newyorkitecture
The building was completed in 1930 and was jointly designed by the Charles F. Moyer Company and Bark & Djorup. It took its name from architect Abraham Lefcourt, a prominent force in 1920s New York Real Estate. Although Lefcourt is a largely forgotten figure in modern architectural circles, during the Real Estate boom of the 1920s he was one of New York's most prolific developers. Lefcourt was born Abraham Elias Lefkowitz to Russian-Jewish parents in Birmingham, England on March 27, 1876. When he was around 6 years old his family immigrated again - this time to America, where they settled on the Lower East Side of New York. Lefcourt made his fortune in garment manufacturing, and used the capital generated within this industry to move into real estate in 1910.
Abraham E. Lefcourt, circa 1927
Image courtesy of Avery Architectural and Fine Arts Library
Over the following twenty years he invested heavily in real estate, in particular through buildings stretching between the Lower East Side and Broadway. By 1930 Arthur Tarshis of the New York Times reported that since 1910 Lefcourt had overseen the construction of 31 commercial buildings all across New York. Alongside the Lefcourt Colonial building at 295 Madison Avenue, perhaps the most significant structure he commissioned was the Lefcourt-State building on 37th Street designed by Ely Jacques Kahn. With 450,000 square feet of rentable space, the Lefcourt-State was a huge building designed to house jobbers in the dress trade, and was fully leased months before its completion.
Another prominent structure developed by Lefcourt's company was the Brill Building at 1619 Broadway, formally known as the Alan Lefcourt building in memory of Lefcourt's son who died in infancy. The Brill would go on to become famous for housing the offices of many important music publishers. By the early 1960s the building contained in excess of 160 music businesses, and the phrase 'the Brill Building Sound' had been adopted as shorthand for a broad stream of popular American music which dominated the charts during the post-World War II years. Lefcourt's tendency to name his buildings after himself, and to carve his name prominently on their facades, led to claims that he was "touched by a Napoleonic complex." It did not seem to bother the real estate mogul, who assembled all of his buildings into one imposing urban skyline described as "Lefcourt City" in a 1930 promotional book.
Leftcourt City Promotional Booklet, 1930
Image courtesy of the Mitchell Wolfson, Jr. Collection.
By the end of the 1920s Lefcourt had established himself as a major player within the New York real estate market. In 1930 the New York Times declared that "no other individual or building organization has constructed in its own behalf as many buildings as are in the Lefcourt Group", and the Jewish Forum lauded him as one of the most important "Jewish pioneers in the construction of New York City." Unfortunately, while Lefcourt's detractors had little impact, the Great Depression ravaged his holdings. Following foreclosure action by plaintiffs in 1931, the Lefcourt was sold at auction for $3,500,000, less than two years after its completion. One year later at the age of 55, Lefcourt himself died after suffering a massive heart attack at the Savoy Hotel. While media outlets had reported that Lefcourt boasted an estimated fortune of $100 million in 1928, at the time of his death the realtor was reported to have just $2500 in the bank.
It's unclear how much of this history was known to African American entrepreneur Earl Graves, Sr., as he embarked on a new magazine enterprise nearly forty years later. Born in Brooklyn in 1935 and raised in Bedford-Stuyvesant during the 1940s and 1950s, Graves may well have passed the Lefcourt building on sojourns to Manhattan as a youth. He would go on to earn a bachelors degree in Economics from Morgan State University in 1958, where he began to establish a name for himself as a budding entrepreneur. Graves' big break arrived in 1968, when he secured a position on the advisory board of the Small Business Administration, where he developed an newsletter aimed at black business owners designed to promote the need for black consumer power and business development. This newsletter would be the blueprint for Black Enterprise, which launched its first full issue in August 1970.
Earl Graves, Sr.
Image courtesy of Black Enterprise
Unlike more general interest black periodicals such as Ebony magazine, Black Enterprise was a more niche publication aimed specifically at "the black man and woman who want to get ahead." Riding the wave of Richard Nixon's "Black Capitalism" initiatives, Graves was able to establish an impressive editorial team and a Board of Advisors which included Georgian Representative Julian Bond, Massachusetts Senator Edward Brooke, and New York Representative Shirley Chisholm. In its first issue, a statement from the magazine's advisory board situated economic development as the next step towards full equality.
"Black Enterprise will be tailored to the informational needs of the black man and woman wanting to make the best possible use of their talents and skills in the wide world of business...As a nation, as a people, we have begun in recent years to make modest beginnings toward making black people meaningful participants in our economic system. We fell that our people and our times require that we do more - much more - than settle for these modest beginnings."
First issue of Black Enterprise, August 1970
From very early on in the process, Graves had settled on New York as the home for his new publication, and set about trying to find a suitable headquarters. Madison Avenue quickly became the location of choice, due in part to its long connection with the advertising industry and its connection with major magazine companies such as Conde Nast. 295 Madison Avenue was just a few minutes walk from the opulent Conde Nast headquarters at 350 Madison Avenue. In the lead-up to the launch of its first issue, New York Times columnist Philip Dougherty reported on the buzz of activity around the Black Enterprise offices at 295 Madison Avenue. However, despite its location on Madison Avenue, the magazine initially struggled to attract substantial advertising interest from large corporations. Public support from prominent figures such as Richard Nixon helped Graves to cultivate increased corporate backing, and by the mid-1970s the magazine had established itself alongside Ebony and Essence as one of the most widely-read black magazines in the country.
Letter from Richard Nixon which was published in Black Enterprise in June 1973.
Note the Madison Avenue address listed at the bottom of the letter.
295 Madison Avenue would continue to house the Black Enterprise offices until the early 1980s. On January 2, 1981, a massive fire destroyed an entire floor the magazine's offices, claiming no victims but causing an estimated $1.5 million in damages. The severity of the damage was partially due to the company's offices being closed for the New Year, meaning that no-one was able to raise the alarm. On a positive note, this meant that there were no casualties. The fire was subsequently attributed to a 28 year old arsonist who had been working as a news messenger - a job which had provided him with access to multiple sites along Madison Avenue. Following the arson, Earl Graves decided against restoring the offices, choosing instead to temporarily rent other space at 295 Madison while searching for a more suitable permanent location to allow "greater flexibility for expansion and growth." In the winter of 1983/1984 Black Enterprise relocated one and a half miles South to 130 Fifth Avenue.
Over the previous decade 295 Madison Avenue has changed hands numerous times. In 2007 Westbrook and Monian paid $180 million for the tower, and in 2013 it changed hands again, with the Eretz Group acquiring the building for around $212 million
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 outlets including Chicago Tonight and the Chicago Tribune, 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 ofPlanning and Development, who described 820 South Michigan as a reflection of Chicago's broader commitment to "the concepts of equality and civil rights."
Lee Bey outside of 820 South Michigan. Image courtesy of Chicago Tonight
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 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.
2400 South Michigan, circa 2013.
Image courtesy of Wikimedia
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 ploans 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. In addition, it includes a 7,000 sq. ft. courtyard and 12-20 spaces for break out rooms and private dining. Construction is underway to restore the illustrious building to its former glory, and doors will open to the public in 2016."
See 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.
Interior Courtyard, circa 2015.
Image courtesy of Prairie District Neighborhood Alliance
Interior Stairwell, circa 2015.
Image courtesy of Prairie District Neighborhood Alliance
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 hotspot for Motor Row district.
Renderings of 2400 South Michigan's new exterior and interior.
Images courtesy of The Revel Group
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.
2548 South Federal Avenue, East Elevation-East.
Image courtesy of Chicago Architecture
2548 South Federal Avenue, Third Floor.
Image courtesy of Chicago Architecture
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.
Fifth home of Johnson Publishing Company between 1971 and 2012. Designed by African American architect John Moutoussamy, 820 South Michigan was the first black-owned building on the South Loop. Its heavily stylised interior featured an extensive African and African American art and sculpture collection, a major research library and a Soul Food canteen. The building was sold to Columbia College Chicago in 2010, and has recently come back onto the market.
820 South Michigan, circa 1972.
Image courtesy of Ebony magazine
A project years in the making, 820 South Michigan became the crown jewel in the Johnson Publishing empire following its official opening during the early 1970s. The building was an impressive upgrade from the company's previous headquarters one mile further South at 1820 South Michigan Avenue, and was held up as evidence of Johnson's entrance into the upper echelons of American publishing.
Johnson had begun to plan for a potential move away from 1820 South Michigan at the end of the 1950s. In his memoirs, the publisher contended that he was happy with the site, which had significantly expanded over the decade following its purchase in 1949. However, Johnson received a letter from the mayor's office advising him of a new expressway which would cut through Eighteenth Street, and offering to pay relocation costs and market rate for the company's offices. Johnson had long harboured an ambition to develop a corporate headquarters from the ground up - creating a building in his own image, that would symbolise his own vision of black modernity. Johnson tasked his partner Eunice with finding a new site for the company, and she uncovered a vacant lot ten blocks north at 820 South Michigan Avenue. The site was a prime location - close to the Loop, with fantastic views across Grant Park and Lake Michigan. Unfortunately, encountered familiar difficulties.
"To our surprise and disgust, we ran into the same problems we had run into in the old location. As soon as the agents discovered that I was Black, they started backtracking. Ten years had passed, from 1949 to 1959, and yet nothing really had changed. The real estate industry hadn't changed, and, as it turned out, John Johnson hadn't changed. I went to the same White lawyer who bought 1820 South Michigan in trust, and he bought 820 South Michigan in trust, paying $250,000 in cash."
With the lot secured, Johnson began to develop plans for his new building. However, without warning, the expressway which had threatened 1820 South Michigan was rerouted through Twenty-Fourth Street. It would eventually be realised as Interstate 55, otherwise known as the Stevenson Expressway in the Chicago metropolitan area, opening in October 1964. The decision to reroute the expressway put both sites in jeopardy, as Johnson had intended to finance the construction of his new headquarters with the sale of the old site.
For nearly ten years, Johnson looked to generate capital for the project by using proposed leases for the new building to secure interim financing. As a result, his original plans for the building were a 30-story mixed-purpose structure, in order to secure enough potential lease capital to cover the cost of construction. He even entered into joint venture discussions with Jewish business interests about a potential collaboration - a black publishing house and Jewish school. After years of frustration, Johnson decided to go it alone. He generated seed money for the building's construction by closing regional offices in Paris and Los Angeles, as well as making other cutbacks on an administrative and editorial level. Faced by continued opposition from lenders, Johnson decided to break ground on the site and gamble on being able to arrange a mortgage before his money ran out. Construction began in February 1970, and by the end of the year Johnson's finances were perilously low. At the last minute, the publisher was able to secure a mortgage commitment with the Metropolitan Insurance Company, leading to financing from the First National Bank and long-awaited financial stability for the project.
Image courtesy of Jet magazine
Costing between 7 and 8 million dollars to build, 820 South Michigan was designed by John W. Moutoussamy, a well respected figure who had earned his degree from Illinois Institute of Technology in 1948. By his death in 1995, Moutoussamy had established a reputation as one of the nation's most influential black architects, and had left his imprint on a number of Chicago landmarks, including a new centre for the Chicago Urban League, the Richard J. Daley College, and the Theodore K. Lawless Housing Development. In social circles, Moutoussamy also gained public recognition as father-in-law to African American tennis superstar Arthur Ashe.
The building's design can perhaps best be placed within the school of Brutalist architecture which flourished internationally during the decades following World War II. Most commonly associated with governmental or institutional building's, brutalist architecture has often been seen as a reaction to the 'frivolity' of urban designers and architects during the 1930s and 1940s, or as a retreat from the more ornate architectural style of early century Art Deco or Expressionism. Its severe and functional aesthetic has also been interpreted as an attempt to project 'moral seriousness', and it is perhaps unsurprising that the style came to dominate many American University campuses during the 1960s and 1970s. From a similar perspective, Johnson envisioned the building's design as an reflection of Johnson Publishing's gravitas - "a magnificent structure which reflects the strength and vitality of the company...conveyed by the graceful horizontals, the walnut travertine marble and the continuous sweep of glass." As was the case at 1820 South Michigan, the EBONY sign on the building's roof became a prominent design aspect of the new site, with the illuminated signage beaming the names of Johnson's most iconic periodicals out across Grant Park and the South Loop business district.
820 South Michigan Against Backdrop of South Loop.
Image courtesy of Colliers
Former editor of Ebony Eric Easter suggested that the building was an important part of rehabilitating the negative media image of Chicago's black population which had been cultivated during the devastating race riots of 1968. Reflecting on the building's significance following its sale to Columbia College Chicago, Easter contended that 820 South Michigan was "its own loud protest - a visual pronouncement that black America had arrived in all its striving, outrageous, hip and fashionable glory." At the building's formal unveiling in April 1972, Johnson was no less dramatic.In front of dignitaries such as actress Ruby Dee and poet Gwendolyn Brooks, Johnson declared that:
"This new building reflects our faith in the strength and vitality of that long line of Black men and women who have contributed so much to this country and this community...it is a poem in glass and marble which symbolizes our unshakeable faith that the struggles of our forefathers were not in vain and that we shall indeed ovecome."
Mayor Daley, Reverend Kenneth Smith and Senior Editor Lerone Bennett were also among the figures to participate in the building's opening ceremony, with each figure offering some words of support or celebration. Both Daley and Bennett linked the construction of the new site to the founding of Chicago by Jean Baptiste Pointe Du Sable, noting that the building was the 'first black-owned building to be constructed on the South Loop in nearly 200 years.' Johnson also linked the building's construction to the expansion of Chicago's own black population - a site which could function as "a vehicle for building and projecting the image of Black people in America - an image that has been distorted by media oriented primarily to non-Blacks."
Johnson speaking at 820 South Michigan's opening ceremony.
Image courtesy of Jet magazine
As a civic centre, a political hub, a cultural space and an economic powerhouse, 820 South Michigan was to become the new nexus for black community activism and collaboration within Chicago's central zone. This sentiment was most obviously expressed through the celebration of the building's permanent collection of Black American and African artwork and installations, reported to be the largest corporate collection of such work in America. For months after the building's opening, full-time tour guides were employed to conduct tours of the building for visitors, and a pamphlet was produced offering more information about individual artworks scattered across the building's 11 floors. Poet Gwendolyn Brooks was even commissioned to write a special piece for the occasion, titled "An Arrival"
A tribute to Ourselves. And to the will
the precise will
the full will
that manages Arrivals through the fire;
that manages revisions of the wave.
Beyond the genuine crucifixions, and the sleep
the steep flint, the high howl of the hurricane,
the wide ice, across our self-recovery and re-dress
we look to one another. And we love.
Fourth home of Johnson Publishing Company between 1949 and 1971. Served to establish the company as a major player in black corporate America, and also marked the first time Johnson Publishing had moved significantly away from its original home at 3501 South Parkway on the South Side of Chicago. Over time, the company would expand its operations into neighboring buildings, as well as maintaining distribution and publishing sites at other locations in Chicago
Staff in front of 1820 South Michigan, circa 1965.
Image courtesy of Ebony magazine
During the early years of Negro Digest and Ebony, Johnson's offices had moved from the Supreme Life building to a number of smalls shop-front locations on the South Side. However, with the continued expansion of his publishing enterprise, Johnson sought a move to a more prestigious location. This decision was also influenced by difficulties in renegotiating his corporate lease at 5125 South Calumet. After making a number of improvements to the building, Johnson believed he was entitled to a lower lease rate - a sentiment which wasn't shared by the owners.
Perhaps more significantly, Johnson saw a move away from the South Side and towards the Loop as an important way of legitimating his fledgling publishing enterprise. By the end of the 1940s Negro Digest and Ebony had established themselves as the largest black publications in the country. Yet their impact continued to be neglected by the mainstream press. In his autobiography, Johnson recounted his connection between a proximity to Chicago's central business district, and the 'big time' nature of his publishing company:
"What I really wanted was to move downtown. I was tired of working on back streets. South/South State Street was a back street. Calumet Avenue was a back street. I wanted to work on a front street. I wanted to go first class."
1820 South Michigan, circa 1950.
Image courtesy of Ebony magazine
Unfortunately, Johnson's ambitions clashed with the continuing restrictions imposed on black residential and professional building leases and ownership within Chicago. As the city's black population had rapidly expanded during the years following World War I, organisations such as the FHA and the Home Owners Loan Corporation had moved to redline large sections of low-income and minority neighborhoods within Chicago. Johnson searched all over the South Loop for a suitable two or three story building to house his magazines, and eventually settled on a location at 1820 South Michigan Avenue. The building had previously homed the Hursen Funeral Home, but had come up for sale with an asking price of $52,000:
"I asked if I could come by and see it. He said, "Of course, what's the name of your company?" I said, "Negro Digest Publishing Company." Silence. A long silence. Then Hursen said he had a previous commitment and couldn't show the building to me then or later. There was a problem, in fact, and the building was no longer for sale."
Johnson realised it was useless to try and negotiate with Hursen directly. Instead, he decided to use a white lawyer named Louis Wilson as an intermediate. Presenting himself as a representative for a publishing house in the East, Wilson contacted Hursen to discuss the potential sale of 1820 South Michigan. Posing as a janitor for fictional eastern buyers, Johnson toured the building with Hursen, and subsequently bought the building in trust so the purchaser would remain unknown.
Extract from Ebony's October 1949 coverage of the building's opening.
Image courtesy of Ebony magazine
Following its purchase, Johnson spent around $200,000 renovating the property. Upon the completion of work by interior designer Viola Marshall, the publisher declared that the site had been transformed into "one of the most elegant office buildings in Black America." Ebony celebrated the opening of the new site in an expansive October 1949 editorial which provided readers with a detailed tour.
Johnson was particularly proud of the neon-lighted Ebony sign on the building's roof which served to project the magazine's name across the Chicago skyline for more than a mile in either direction. Similarly, the magazine was quick to play up the building's role as a public showpiece, where esteemed members of the black community could congregate or visit with editors and publisher.
One of largest offices at 1820 South Michigan.
Image courtesy of Ebony magazine
Johnson's executive offices were celebrated as a space befitting one of the nation's most influential black publishers. Resplendent with heavy oak furniture and antique satin drapes, Johnson's offices attempted to project an image of stability and sophistication. Ebony spared little detail in describing Johnson's offices to readers, including his 'leather-covered furniture' and paintings 'brought back from Haiti after a recent visit at invitation of government.'
The new building also featured a corporate library which the company declared to be 'one of the best reference files on the subject of the Negro' anywhere in the country. Librarian Doris Smith, who would go on to front the Company's Book Division following its formation in the early 1960s, oversaw an expansive collection of reference books and periodicals, as well as a large clippings collection. Over time, 1820 South Michigan would come to include public exhibits on African American history, most notably the Johnson Publishing 'Hall Of Fame' - an historical gallery which featured notable figures voted into the Hall of Fame by readers in a yearly poll.
Johnson's executive offices, 1820 South Michigan.
Image courtesy of Ebony magazine
Over the years following its initial purchase, Johnson bought up many of the surrounding buildings and lots to cater for his company's continued expansion. Eventually, the company would upgrade more substantially, to a custom built headquarters one mile further north at 820 South Michigan Avenue.
Served as the third main offices of Johnson Publishing Company between 1945 and 1949. Would be the company's last building located in the heart of the South Side, before Johnson Publishing began its move towards the South Loop with the purchase of 1820 South Michigan Avenue in 1949. The building appears to have been razed in the 1960s to make way from the construction of Parkview Towers, an 18-story apartment block on the corner of South Calumet Avenue and East 51st Street.
5125 South Calumet former site, circa 2014.
Image courtesy of Google Maps
The arrival of Ebony in 1945 was also joined by a change of address for Johnson Publishing Company - from 5619 South State Street to 5125 South Calumet Avenue. A two story red brick building which backed onto the courtyard of the South Parkway Community Center (later the Chicago Baptist Institute), 5125 South Calumet was in close proximity to the 'heart of the South Side's Black Belt. Whilst the hub for Chicago's 'Black Metropolis' during the 1920s and 1930s had been focused around South State Street, 35th Street and South Parkway, by the 1940s the action had shifted southwards towards 47th Street.
Johnson Publishing Company would stay in these offices for several years until the company made the most dramatic geographic relocation in its history - more than four miles north to an expansive new headquarters at 1820 South Michigan Avenue. 5125 South Calumet would later be demolished to make way for the construction of Parkview Tower apartments in the late 1960s. The corner of South Calumet and East 51st Street now houses the Bronzeville Community Garden
Bronzeville Community Gardens, circa 2014.
Image courtesy of Google Maps
Served as the second home of Johnson Publishing Company between 1943 and 1945. Publisher John H. Johnson made the decision to move out of the Supreme Life building at 3501 South Parkway after Negro Digest became a publishing success.
5619 South State Street, circa 1943. Image courtesy of Ebony magazine
Although his use of an office in the Supreme Life Building had proved convenient during the formation of Negro Digest, Johnson soon desired a space of his own. In the autumn of 1943 Johnson vacated the offices in the Supreme Life Building to 5619 South State Street. This small, store-front office was purchased for $4,000, and became the public face of Johnson's growing publishing enterprise.
However, editor Ben Burns suggested that while the magazine's physical address may have changed, its editorial headquarters remained for all intents and purposes his home address at 3725 South Lake Park Avenue. If true, this statement was indicative of the complex position Burns held within Negro Digest, and subsequently Ebony following its publication in 1945. Just as the dominant role of a white editor at a digest for a black audience became increasingly problematic, so too was this tension represented in the contrast between Negro Digest's official home on South State Street, and Burns' personal residence:
"Esther and I had decided to move closer to the black community, even though Lake Park Avenue then was lily-white, blanketed by a restrictive covenant that mandated Cottage Grove Avenue, just two blocks away, as the arbitrary frontier between black and white neighborhoods."
5619 South State Street soon became to cramped for the rapidly expanding company, and Johnson would purchase offices at 5125 South Calumet Avenue, before making the highly publicised move to 1820 South Michigan Avenue at the end of the 1940s. The building had survived but remains vacant - one of the few sites on the State Street side of the block between East 56th Street and East 57th Street.
5619 South State Street, circa 2015. Image courtesy of Google Maps
Offices of the Supreme Life Insurance Company and first home of Johnson Publishing between 1942 and 1943. Designated a Chicago Landmark in 1998, and currently houses Bronzeville Visitor Information Center
Supreme Life Building, circa 2010.
Image courtesy of Jyasti Srivastary
Supreme Liberty Life Insurance (otherwise known as Supreme Life) was founded by Frank Gillespie in 1919, becoming the first northern black-owned and operated insurance company. Two years later, the Company moved into a two-story commercial building on the corner of 35th Street and South Parkway, which had been built by Roosevelt State Bank. Supreme Life would initially occupy the second floor, but in 1924 the Company was able to buy out the entire building, and five years later merged with two other black insurance firms to create the Supreme Life Insurance Company of America.
Like nearby sites such as the Overton Hygienic Building and the Chicago Bee Building one block over on South State Street, or Unity Hall one block north at 3140 South Indiana Avenue, the Supreme Life building became an important part of the vibrant black cultural and economic nexus of the Black Metropolis which developed around 35th and State during the first three decades of the twentieth century. By the time John H. Johnson began working for Supreme Life during the late 1930s, the area had fallen into decline as black business interests moved further South. However, Supreme Life remained a major economic powerhouse within the South Side's black business community.
Main Lobby of Supreme Life Building, circa 1950.
Image courtesy of Illinois Digital Archives
The environment provided by Supreme Life, and the resources available through the Supreme Life Building, played a vital role in the development of Johnson's publishing enterprise. Johnson argued that Supreme's success helped to catalyse the development of a prosperous black middle class which would create the basis for Johnson's own readership. He contended that "Supreme, like other black businesses, was more than a business...it was a statement, a petition, a demonstration, and an argument." It was at Supreme that Johnson developed his appetite for business, which he acquired firsthand from mentor Harry Pace - "coming to work and watching Pace and his associates play with millions gave me a physical, almost a sexual, thrill."
In addition to helping Johnson build his business acumen, Pace also helped to cultivate his experience as a journalist by making his assistant editor of The Guardian, Supreme's monthly company newspaper. In 1939 Johnson was promoted to editor of the newspaper, and he used this position to develop networks and expertise. Johnson's experience gathering news stories and information for The Guardian laid the foundations for the development of his first magazine Negro Digest.
In order to generate interest in his new publication, Johnson used the Supreme Life Speedaumat - an addressing machine which kept the contact details of twenty thousand Supreme Life clients who paid their insurance premiums by subscription - to ask for prepaid subscriptions to his magazine. Johnson also persuaded Earl Dickerson to allow him access to a law library in a private section on the second floor of the Supreme Life building, which Johnson used as his first office and mailing address.
Earl Dickerson in his office at the Supreme Life Building, circa 1961.
Image courtesy of Jet magazine
In his autobiography, Johnson described the division of his labour between the offices of Supreme Life, and his true passion as the fledgling editor of Negro Digest.
"From June to November, I worked downstairs in the insurance company in the day and climbed the stairs at night to work on the magazine. One day in the summer of 1942 a man came and painted letters on the frosty glass door - Negro Digest Publishing Company - and every letter was music to my soul."
During the months leading up to the magazine's initial release, Johnson was aided in this small office by his wife Eunice Johnson, artists and cartoonist Jay Jackson, and a white freelancer named Ben Burns, who became the most influential editor in the Company's early history. Around a year after Negro Digest's original publication, Johnson was able to realise a second ambition - a move to his very own offices at 5619 South State street.
Fifth and current home of the Chicago Defender since 2009. Former home of the Metropolitan Funeral System Association. Celebrated as a return to the South Side following the Defender's brief stay on the South Loop at 200 South Michigan during the mid-2000s
4445 South King Drive, circa 2012. Photo courtesy of Future Past Chicago blog
Following its short stint uptown at 200 South Michigan Avenue, the Defender's return to the South Side in 2009 marked a move 'back to the future' - in more ways than one. The corner of 45th Street and South Parkway (now Martin Luther King Drive) has long held a rich black business and cultural history.
4445 South King Drive was formerly the home of black owned funeral company Metropolitan Funeral System Association, a subsidiary of the Metropolitan Assurance Company. A collaboration between local black entrepreneurs Otto Stevenson and Daniel McKee Jackson, Metropolitan would become one of the largest funeral parlors on the South Side.
1920s advert for Metropolitan. Image courtesy of Chicago Public Library
Accompanying the Defender's return to the South Side at 4445 South King Drive came a new fine art gallery dedicated to exhibiting African American artists - the Blanc Gallery. Created by Cliff Rome, the proprietor of the adjacent Parkway Ballroom, the gallery's mission statement is to 'engage African Americans and all Chicagoans through the arts and to ignite dialogue on issues of spiritual, political and social significance.' Recent exhibits have included:
RaceSpacePlace - committed to investigating the 'polemics, politics and production of Blackness'
Perception/Reality (in the Age of Deception) - an exhibit by Raymond A. Thomas, designed to probe the 'ever adaptable race message.'
The Neo Negro - an exhibit by visual artist James Britt, which satirises and critiques public figures, pop icons, professional athletes and politicians.
Screenshot from the Gallery Black website, circa 2015
Otherwise known as the Borg-Warner Building, this building is the current headquarters of Johnson Publishing Company, and housed the offices of the Chicago Defender for a short period in the 2000s, prior to the newspaper's move back to the South Side.
200 South Michigan Avenue.
Image courtesy of Chicago Architecture
200 South Michigan stands at the site of the former Pullman Building which was built in 1885 and demolished during the 1950s. The building was named after its backer George Mortimore Pullman, a prominent American inventor and businessman who founded the Pullman Palace Car Company in the years following the Civil War.
Pullman's name would go on to become synonymous with sleeping cars on all major railways, and with the Pullman Porters who worked as handlers and assistants on the trains. Up until the 1960s, the Pullman Porters were comprised entirely of African Americans, and scholars such as Beth Tompkins Bates have credited them with contributing to the development of the black middle class during the late nineteenth and early twentieth century.
The Pullman Building, circa 1900.
Image courtesy of New York Public Library
In 1883 Pullman commissioned architect Solon Beman to design a dramatic new skyscraper which would carry his name and house his company's offices. Less than fifteen years after the Great Fire of Chicago, the Pullman Building would become one of the most recognisable additions to the rapidly changing Chicago landscape. While Beman would later become famous for adopting a classical architectural style - most notably at Chicago's World Fair of 1893 - the Pullman Building was Romanesque in influence, taking its cues from buildings such as Chicago's Glessner House designed by Henry Hobson Richardson. Pullman spent over $800,000 constructing the Pullman Building, which upon completion stood ten stories high and measured 169 feet by 120 feet along Adams Street and Michigen Avenue. Its roof was 125 from ground level, while the top of its corner tower stretched to over 160 feet above the streets below.
Joseph Korom has suggested that the Pullman Building was perhaps the first "truly mixed-use skyscraper" to be built in Chicago, with the structure housing 125 office suites and 75 apartments. In this regard, it can be seen as an important precursor to the mixed use skyscrapers which litter the near North Side of Chicago today. As with the vast majority of building's built in the centre of Chicago after the Great Fire, it was advertised as "completely fireproof." An imposing red granite, brick and terra cotta structure, the Pullman Building was also one of the first skyscrapers built in Chicago which faced Lake Michigan - a trend that would become increasingly popular throughout the twentieth century.
Pullman Building, circa 1884. Image courtesy of The Man On Five
The Pullman Company offices would remain in the Pullman Building until 1948, after which they were relocated to Merchandise Mart. Less than ten years later, the building itself would be razed as part of destructive redevelopment efforts by Mayor Richard Daley, alongside many other prominent downtown buildings. Its replacement was the more functional, but certainly less beautiful Borg-Warner Building, completed in 1958 for an estimated cost of $12 million.
Following the sale of 820 South Michigan, Johnson Publishing secured a lease of the 20th and 21st floors of 200 South Michigan Avenue. At around 11,000 total square feet, the new offices were much cosier than the more than 110,000 square feet available to JPC at its previous location - although multiple reports suggest that a significant proportion of that space had been unoccupied during the company's final years at 820 South Michigan.
Despite this dramatic downsizing, Crain's Chicago Business speculated that 200 South Michigan would be a good fit for the social aspirations of CEO Desiree Rogers and publisher Linda-Johnson Rice, with the building boasting a top-floor patio with views over Millenium Park and the Art Institute of Chicago. In 2014 the building switched hands when it was purchased for $69 million by Equus Capital Partners Ltd., a private equity real estate fund.
Third home of the Defender between 1960 and 2006, before the newspaper headed north to the South Loop. Originally home to the Illinois Automobile Club, forming part of the historic Motor Row district. Motor Row was designated a Chicago Landmark in 2000, and two years later was added to the National Register of Historic Places.
2400 South Michigan Avenue circa 2014. Photo courtesy of NelsonHill Properties
2400 South Michigan was designed by Phillip Brooks Maher, a notable figure in the Prairie School of architecture. Born in Kenilworth, Illinois in 1894, Maher would go on to study architecture at the University of Michigan's famed architectural school, before joining the practise of his father George Washington Maher, who was himself a major figure in American architecture due to his ability to blend traditional architectural approaches with the Arts & Crafts style. Together, the Maher's helped to design the Gary Gateway Improvement Plan, an ambitious urban redevelopment project designed to transform the landscape of Gary, Indiana. Following George's suicide in 1926, Phillip continued the project alone, redesigning his father's Prairie School plans for the city's governmental building's in favour of a neoclassical approach.
Constructors broke ground on the Illinois Automobile Club at 2400 South Michigan Avenue in 1936. A three-storey building which was an architectural mix of art deco and Spanish mission styles, the building originally served as the headquarters of the Illinois Automobile Association, joining a large number of other automobile outlets as part of the near South Side's Motor Row district which flourished during the first half of the twentieth century. Taking up around 30,000 square feet, including a huge basement which took up two sub-floors and included a swimming pool, the Club was intended as an "urban respite for the owners and executives who worked in the surrounding Motor Row district."
Construction of 2400 South Michigan, 1936. courtesy of Getty Images
In the years following World War II the building became vacant, as car dealers began to follow their predominantly white clientele into the suburbs. Concurrently, the expansion of Chicago's African American community out of the South Side meant that Motor Row became home to an important number of black and ethnic business enterprises such as the Defender and Chess Records whose address at 2120 South Michigan Avenue was immortalised in a Rolling Stones instrumental of the same name.
The building was acquired by the Chicago Defender in the late 1950s, and after months of fundraising its publisher John Sengstacke had acquired enough funds to push ahead with an ambitious redevelopment project. The Defender's staff officially moved into the new building in March 1959, although the newspaper's production and editorial teams remained at the previous address until the basement level swimming pool could be removed to accommodate the Defender's Goss printing presses. Other changes included the removal of a first-floor smoking lounge, which was retrofitted into a proper newsroom. Among many stylistic flourishes was the decision to etch into the lobby floor one of founder Robert Abbott's fondest declarations.
"No greater glory, no greater honor, is the lot of man departing than a feeling possessed deep in his heart that the world is a better place for his having lived."
2400 South Michigan First Floor Plan (as built). Image courtesy of Nelson-Hill
Second home of the Chicago Defender between 1920 and 1960, located in the Black Metropolis-Bronzeville Historic District. Formerly housed a Jewish synagogue. Designated a Chicago Landmark in September 1998.
3435 South Indiana, circa 2015. Photo courtesy of IIT Magazine.
By 1920, the Defender's circulation was rapidly approaching a quarter of a million weekly readers, and the newspaper had established itself as one of the country's most popular black periodicals. Emboldened by his success, Abbott moved his enterprise into its first permanent home at 3435 South Indiana Avenue. He had been looking for some time to expand the Defender's base of operations to solidify its self-appointed role as "the world's greatest weekly."
By moving further South, Abbott was able to locate the newspaper within the heart of the South Side's black business and entertainment district that flourished around 35th Street and State Street during the 1920s. The map below, taken from Davarian Baldwin's 2007 study Chicago's New Negroes, illustrates the centrality of 3435 South Indiana within the South Side's broader black business and cultural economy
The building had been designed by prolific architect Henry Newhouse, who was responsible for the development of over 700 buildings in Chicago during the late nineteenth and early twentieth century. Perhaps Newhouse's most famous building is the historic Sutherland Hotel in the Kenwood neighborhood of Chicago, which was completed in 1919 but immediately commandeered as a general hospital by the U.S army. The building was finally opened as a hotel in 1925. However, its residential rooms remained segregated until after World War II. Following the 1948 Supreme Court ruling in Shelley vs. Kraemer, the Sutherland integrated in 1952, and was transformed into 'the Southside's most progressive hotel', and a vibrant spot on the Chicagoan jazz scene.
Sutherland Hotel, circa 1930. Image courtesy of Chicago Public Library
Prior to housing the Defender, 3435 South Indiana had functioned as a synagogue, and the building retained Hebrew markings and lettering in its sandstone facade after the Defender's staff had moved in. The building had been owned by the South Side Hebrew Congregation, which had been formed in 1888 and had constructed its temple at 3435 South Indiana 11 years later.
For lapsed Jewish editor Ben Burns, who worked at the Defender during the 1940s and 1950s, the building's former function carried no small hint of irony. As a white editor in black journalism, Burns found himself "entering the Negro world by walking into a onetime Jewish temple. To become a Negro editor, I, a Jew who had never attended shul, would now spend most of my waking hours in a former synagogue." The building's congregation had left in 1915, for a new site on the intersection of South Michigan Avenue and East 59th Street, and it had been partially altered for warehouse use in the years prior to 1920.
Irrespective of the building's previous functions, Abbott soon set about remaking 3435 South Indiana into a physical embodiment of his newspaper's bombastic editorialising. The building's understated exterior was radically transformed with bold new signs and garish banners. The Defender's motto - "the World's Greatest Newspaper" - was emblazoned on the side of the building and visible for several blocks North.
3435 South Indiana. Image courtesy of Chicago Public Library
Similarly, the building's interior was re-purposed to make it suitable for publishing purposes. Its entrance hall was covered with photographs and memorabilia of notable editors and stories. Abbott's office was located on the ground floor, where he met with prospective editors and clients, and entertained visitors. The bulk of the Defender's editorial offices were located on the building's second floor and in a three story portion at the front of the building, while what had been the synagogue's auditorium at the rear of the property was converted into space for linotype and printing operations.
Prior to its move to 3435 South Indiana, the Defender's linotype and printing operations had been conducted by outside firms. Abbott had long sought to establish his own printing plant, and this was something which became even more necessary following the 1919 Race Riots, when his regular white-owned printing firm refused to print the newspaper. Anyone who had visited the building during its time as a synagogue would have been astonished to see the huge Linotype machines which now dominated the building's old auditorium.
Linotype machines at the Defender, 1941. Image courtesy of the Library of Congress
3435 South Indiana would remain the Defender's home until 1960, when the newspaper relocated to a larger site at 2400 Michigan Avenue, the former home of the Illinois Automobile Club. In the decades following the Defender's departure 3435 South Indiana was used by a number of companies, and was left vacant for increasingly longer periods as business opportunity dried up around the 35th Street and State district. However, the building was able to survive demolition efforts, alongside other notable sites such as the Pilgrim Baptist Church at 3301 South Indiana, which is recognized as a key site in the development of Gospel music.
The Chicago Defender was founded in 1905 by Robert Sengstacke Abbott, an African American lawyer and entrepreneur. Abbott was born in 1870 in Georgia, and would go on to study printing at the Hampton Institute in Virginia between 1892 and 1896. Following his graduation he moved North to attend the Kent College of Law in Chicago, and received a law degree from that institution in 1898.
Upon graduating, Abbott spent a number of years attempting to establish himself in the legal profession, working in Gary, Indiana, and then Topeka, Kansas, before returning to Georgia. However, opportunities for Abbott to develop his career as a lawyer remained fleeting. Frustrated, Abbott returned to the Windy City, where he switched his attentions to the field of publishing. In 1905, his publishing career began with the first issue of theChicago Defender: a four-page, six-column folded sheet which Abbott had cobbled together at a card table set up in the room he rented from Henrietta Lee at 3159 South State Street.
Robert Abbott, circa 1927. Image courtesy of Wikimedia
As Myiti Sengstacke Rice notes, during the newspaper's early years Abbott was a 'reporter, editor and newsboy, selling his paper door-to-door in barbershops, pool halls, churches and clubs.'
For a while Abbott attempted to maintain a professional front by renting a small office, but financial limitations meant that he quickly moved the headquarters of his publishing enterprise into his rented accommodation at 3159 South State Street. Aided by the patronage of his landlady Henrietta Lee, Abbott's newspaper would eventually expand to encompass the entire apartment.
3159 State Street would be absorbed into the expansion of the IIT campus during the 1940s. Today on the ground where the former home of theDefender stood is the McCormick Tribune Campus Center, featuring its iconic 'L' train station pictured above.
3647 South State Street, otherwise known as the Chicago Bee building, was home to the Bee newspaper between 1929 and its cancellation in 1947. The building fell into disuse and disrepair in the decades following World War II, but over the past twenty years has found new life as a branch for Chicago Public Library.
3647 South State Street.
Image courtesy of Wikimedia
During the Bee's early years, it was located alongside many of Anthony Overton's other entrepreneurial projects in the Overton Hygienic building. However, in order for the newspaper to develop further, Overton believed that it needed a building of its own to rival the impressive South Side offices of rival publications such as the Chicago Defender, which itself had moved into an impressive new site on South Indiana Avenue at the beginning of the 1920s. Overton had aspirations for the Bee to claim the Defender's title as Chicago's premier black newspaper. He believed that the development of a custom built site for the newspaper would play a central role in cementing it as a legitimate rival to the Defender's editorial crown.
Furthemore, Overton saw the Defender as a lower class affair which relied on sensationalism and the exploitation of reader fears and anxieties to help boost sales and circulation. By contrast, he envisioned the Bee as a more respectable organ - a sedate and sophisticated publication which 'would adhere to professional journalistic standards and appeal to middle-class, conservative black Chicagoans.' Accordingly, the building of the Bee would come to serve two purposes. It would simultaneously position Overton's publication as a legitimate competitor to the Defender's reputation as Chicago's premier black publication, while at the same time serving as a physical reminder of the newspaper's sophisticated editorial tone.
Z. Erol Smith architectural drawing of the BEE building, 1929.
Image courtesy of NPS
The result - a three-story Art Deco building designed by Z. Erol Smith to the tune of around $200,000, stood as a symbol for a successful and stylish black publishing enterprise. The building's architectural design was intended to reflect a specific image of black modernity and style - a physical manifestation of the urban culture and entrepreneurial spirit of Chicago's 'New Negroes', as described by scholars such as Davarian Baldwin.
On his excellent website Chicago Patterns, John Morris has suggested that the building's exterior terra cotta inlay was created by the Northwestern Terra Cotta company of Chicago. The company was a renowned trimmings company well used within the city's construction industry and by architects such as Frank Lloyd Wright. Its patterns can be found on a host of Chicago landmarks, including the Civic Opera House, the Chicago Theater, and the Wrigley Building.
Exterior of the Chicago Bee building.
Image courtesy of Chicago Patterns
Unfortunately, the construction of the Bee building coincided with the onset of the Great Depression, and Overton's businesses suffered. The Bee was the sole occupant of 3647 South State Street for a short period of time before the Overton Hygienic Company also moved into the building following the failure of Overton's bank. The newspaper also suffered from the departure of influential editors such as James Gentry, who defected to the Defender during 1932.
When it was constructed, the Bee building was presented as a crown jewel in the vibrant South State street corridor which had emerged as the center of Bronzeville and life in the South Side's "Black Metropolis" during the early twentieth century. However, as the focus for black business and entertainment shifted further South towards the intersection of 47th Street and South Parkway, the building became increasingly isolated. Following Overton's death and the demise of the Bee in the 1940s the building fell into disrepair - a fate that was mirrored by nearby institutions such as the Wabash Avenue YMCA at 3763 South Wabash, which closed its doors in 1969. After Overton Hygienic finally went under during the 1980s the Bee building became vacant.
In a 1993 article for the Chicago Reader, Adam Langer painted a pessimistic image of the building's future. Between the 1970s and the early 1990s, the population of the mid-South Side had almost halved, and over half of its residents lived below the poverty line. When the Chicago Bee building had been completed, it was intended to be seen as a symbol for the vibrant black independent business community on the South Side.
However, by the time Overton Hygienic had disbanded in the early 1980s, the area had been decimated by deindustrialisation and the disintegration of minority enterprise. Langer estimated that nearly 1/3 of the land was vacant or abandoned, and prominent landmarks such as the Chicago Bee building and the Eighth Regiment Armory had suffered considerably from "the ravages of time, weather, vandals, and brick thieves."
Chicago Bee Building, circa 1985.
Image courtesy of NPS
Grassroots efforts to help redevelop the State Street corridor led to the Chicago Bee building being added to the National Register of Historic Properties in 1986 - an important act in helping to secure the building's long-term future. During the 1990s community based organisations such as the Mid-South Planning Group pushed for the development of a Black Metropolis Historic District. A central part of the Group's plans included the rehabilitation of the Bee building as a branch of Chicago Public Library. Following years of hard work, half-promises and frustrating delays, the restored Bee building was officially opened as a branch of Chicago Public Library in May 1996.
The afterlife of the building - as an important educational and civic centre, and as part of the developing Black Metropolis Historic District - is striking given that it could easily have suffered the same fate endured by many of the area's buildings in the decades following World War II. A large number of historically significant building's along the South State corridor were razed as part of urban renewal and land clearance programmes during the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s. The construction of the Dan Ryan Expressway, which was completed in 1961, had a particularly damaging effect, with the highway cutting straight through the heart of many black communities. Thanks in large part to the efforts made by grassroots coalitions and organisations such as the Mid-South Planning Group, the Chicago Bee building has been saved. Today, it remains an important civic hub for local communities.
3619 South State Street, otherwise known as the Overton Hygienic Building, was commissioned by Anthony Overton in 1922 as a mixed-purpose office and manufacturing building. It was home to the CHICAGO BEE between 1922 and 1929, when the paper moved into a custom built headquarters just a few plots further south on State Street. After Overton sold the building it served a variety of functions, including as a hotel and flophouse. In 2007 The Davis Group completed a multi-million dollar renovation project aimed at restoring the build to its former glory. It is currently owned by the Mid-South Planning and Development Commission, which intend to use the space as an incubator for small business and social enterprise development.
3619 South State Street, circa 2010.
Image courtesy of Andrew Jameson
As the Overton Hygienic Company expanded in the years following World War I, Anthony Overton envisioned a six-story business hub for his various publishing and business endeavours. His dream became part of a rivalry with fellow black businessman Jesse Binga, and the two men came to play a central role in the development of new real estate along the South Side business corridor during the 1920s.
During its formative years the Chicago Bee shared its headquarters with the Hygienic Company at 3619-3627 South State Street, at the heart of the South Side's 'Black Metropolis.' Still standing today, the Overton Building was a multi-use four storey building which following its construction in 1922 would become one of the most recognisable black-owned businesses in Chicago.
It also came to house the offices of Walter T. Bailey, who became the first black architectural graduate from the University of Illinois, and the first licensed black architect in the State. Bailey maintained offices in the Overton Building while working on what would become the largest commission of his career - the National Knights of Pythias Temple at 3737 South State Street. Lee Bey has suggested that, at the time, the Temple was 'the most expensive building ever built, and designed, by black people.'
820 South Michigan, Image courtesy of Google Earth
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.
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