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.
First, the building was just too big for the company's needs. Its founder built for a company expecting rapid and long-term expansion. And while it certainly grew, JPC never expanded to the building's massive capacity. If the Chicago company squeezed in tight the way New York companies often do, the building could easily have accommodated a staff four or five times its size. That's a lot of wasted light and heat.
In fact, well before the company's public distress, executives were asked to float ideas on how to creatively generate revenue from the overabundance of space. Concepts ran the gamut: turning the lobby into a branded-merchandise store, using several floors for a black photography museum based on the Ebony archives, and even closing the company's legendary $1-a-day cafeteria and converting it into a soul food restaurant open to the public.
Second, the Johnson building is too specific. It is not standard office space. It was built to serve the operational needs of Johnson Publishing. From its physical plant to security, it was built for one company alone, and sharing the space for lease was simply impractical.
But more significant, from the perspective of smart industrial design, the layout was designed for the way American companies operated in the 1970s, not 2010. Its layout is a monument to the kind of top-down hierarchy that smart companies rejected a decade ago -- closed doors, high-walled cubicles, executive offices. There are none of the modern design tricks that foster the things well-managed companies hold dear in the 21st century: collaboration, communication, wellness, flexibility, nimbleness.
In many ways, the flaws that developed in the building's design over time reflect the flaws that developed in the company's culture, and perhaps even exacerbated them. So whether the deal to sell was an emergency move or a shrewd one is immaterial. It was, quite simply, necessary.
For anyone decrying some great loss of history, I would argue that the history is secure. More important than Johnson Publishing owning the building or residing in it is that the building even existed for its time. It stands as a major achievement. Historians and preservationists should be more concerned that the landmark does not get torn down and that its story be told prominently and correctly.
As for the company itself, I would advise my former colleagues not to wait to move. Get out as soon as possible and begin anew. Scrap the "world's largest black publishing company" hype and start acting like a startup. Find a funky warehouse with creaky floors, drafty windows and exposed beams, and a great view of an alley -- some space that reeks of innovation, creativity and growth. Then crank the music loud and start having fun again. Less Mad Men, more Facebook.
Eric Easter is the former vice president of digital and entertainment for Johnson Publishing Co. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.