Columbia takes over publishing headquarters

By Shardae Smith

Columbia has added a new, centrally located building to its ever-growing urban campus in the form of the Johnson Publishing Company’s Michigan Avenue headquarters, the acquisition was announced on Nov. 16.

Johnson Publishing, 820 S. Michigan Ave., the nation’s largest African-American publishing company and producer of Ebony and Jet magazines, sold the property to the college for an undisclosed price and plans to relocate within 18 months.

Columbia President Warrick L. Carter said he was ecstatic with the new addition to the campus.

“We became excited about the Johnson property when we heard it had become available,” Carter said. “The college always keeps its eyes and ears open to know about opportunities in the neighborhood.”

The first tenant of the new building will be the Columbia Library, currently located in the South Campus Building, 624 S. Michigan Ave., which is structurally unable to house the school’s increasing collection of books and materials.

Columbia currently rents several properties, and Carter is known not to favor rental space.

The library won’t take up the entire space within the 11–story, 138,000-square-foot building, so the college plans to use the Johnson building as a way to eliminate rental properties and move other programs into either the South Campus Building or the new location. Carter said a space planning committee formed by Columbia will look at the current needs and make decisions accordingly.

“We knew the load of the library was going to eventually exceed the capacity in the 624 building,” Carter said. “If we were to leave it there, we’d have to reinforce [the space], which meant moving everything out of the library and putting it back. We didn’t have the slightest idea where to empty it to.”

The Johnson property purchase was the best way to fix the library’s problem because it cost less to buy than to renovate the South Campus Building, according to Alicia Berg, vice president of Campus Environment.

When it came to problems the library was having with its current structure, Library Director Jan Chindlund said she never doubted the college would find

a solution.

When it came to problems with the library’s current structure, Library Director Jan Chindlund said she never doubted the college would find a solution.

“For many years the space we currently have [for the library] has dictated what we can do and what we can offer,” Chindlund said. “We had every confidence the college respected the position of the library within the academic work of the school.

Carter said money for the renovations will come from an allocated budget and will not affect any other working projects.

The company also required the surrounding parking garage be bought with the building as a packaged deal.

Carter said the college will eventually lease the garage to a private company with the college’s needs met first.

It has been reported that the Johnson Publishing Co., has had financial troubles over the years. Documents from the Cook County Recorder of Deeds office show the company has liens against it totaling more than $500,000. The liens stem from unpaid services such as electrical labor, sprinkler systems and asbestos removal.

Jim Kutill, vice president of Appraisal Research Counselors, 400 E. Randolph, said since the real-estate market slowed in 2008 there have been very few sales in the area.

He said that makes it difficult to place a value on the new building since comparable sales are used to determine market value.

“That’s going to be an important comparable sale for us [in appraising] office space in the Loop and adaptive reuse for buildings such as what Columbia has done.”

It’s been reported Columbia bought the building for $8 million. Neither party would disclose the sale price.

Rodrigo Sierra, chief marketing officer for the company, said it is looking for a site that sets the tone for what the company will be as it moves forward. The publishing company is currently using one-third of the building’s space.

Sierra said Linda Johnson Rice, the founder’s daughter and company chairwoman, was comfortable in entering an agreement with the college because Columbia stressed the site’s use as a library, which he said is a tribute to company founder John Johnson.

“They were interested in preserving the building and honoring his legacy,” Sierra said. “The college is forming a committee and thinking of ways to honor John Johnson for building an African-American-owned company that has survived 70 years and is still striving today.”

Johnson Publishing Co. was founded in 1942 in Chicago with its current headquarters being the company’s home since 1972. Constructed by John Moutoussany, it is the first building in Chicago’s Loop designed by an African-American since Jean Baptiste Point Dusable’s Chicago River log cabin was built two centuries earlier.

“The building itself has historic importance in Chicago and among African-American’s around the globe,” Carter said. “So we are very pleased to figure out some kind of way in continuing the heritage and honoring the Johnsons.”