In Memoriam: The Johnson Publishing Building

The structure was a testament to the achievements of its founders, but the decision to sell it is the right one.


Like a number of employees who joined the company in recent years, I was stunned when I entered Johnson Publishing for the first time. Stepping into the building on Chicago's Michigan Avenue was like being transported back to my Aunt Edna's basement, circa 1975. Red leather sofas, foil wallpaper in the bathrooms, electric green carpets. All it needed was plastic carpet runners, wooden spoons on the wall and a drunken uncle pouring from a bottle of Johnnie Walker Red to complete the throwback.

But also like everyone else, I soon came to love it. The midcentury modern furniture that would cost a fortune in vintage stores; color-themed floors -- orange plaid on four, pink and mauve on three, cheetah print on seven; credenzas with built-in eight-track players; "Neckbone Day" in the cafeteria; and my living room-size office that overlooked Lake Michigan and the world's finest architecture. It was Mad Men, if Mad Men had actual black people in it.

Built in 1972, just four years after the riots, the building was its own loud protest -- a visual pronouncement that black America had arrived in all its striving, outrageous, hip and fashionable glory. Older staffers regaled us newbies with stories of payday poker parties in Mr. Johnson's office and impromptu cocktail bashes when Sammy Davis Jr. stopped by for a visit. Once you let all that sink in, it felt like an honor to be connected to that legacy and to be doing something to keep it alive.

And as a marketing tool, few things compared to having a tuxedoed waiter serve fried chicken and champagne to a prospective advertiser and having this conversation:

Client: This building is amazing. What other companies are in here?

Me: Nobody else. Just us.

Client: So Ebony leases the whole building?

Me: No, we own the whole building.

Deal done.

But pride and nostalgia aside, the cold business reality is that Johnson Publishing was long overdue to move on, for several reasons.