Johnson Publishing Building: Sold and Saved

By Molly Walsh, Campus Reporter

The historic Johnson Publishing Building, formerly home to Ebony and Jet magazines, will have its important place in publishing history preserved while it is renovated into apartments, said 3L Real Estate CEO and founder Joseph Slezak.

The building, 820 S. Michigan Ave., was sold in late November to 3L Real Estate, a Rosemont-based firm that develops vintage residential properties, according to a Nov. 27 press release from the company. The building was once the main office of Johnson Publishing, a trailblazer among African-American publishers.

Slezak said he was intrigued by the idea of purchasing the building after it went on the market in summer 2016 because of its location, size and history. The real estate firm plans to renovate the interior into 150 apartments by summer 2019, Slezak said.

“We are happy to preserve it standing the way it is. The [Ebony and Jet] signs will be kept on top of the building, which was a big question that was asked,” Slezak said. “The exterior of the property will pretty much look the same with any upgrades we do to it, like windows and other aspects, to preserve that kind of consistency and history.”

Columbia president and CEO Kwang-Wu Kim said the building was a possible location for a student center or library before being sold to 3L for about $11 million. All profits will go toward the new student center’s construction at the corner of 8th Street and Wabash Avenue.

“We hired several architects to look at the Johnson Building to ask them if it was possible,” Kim said at a Dec. 4 student center forum. “They all came to the conclusion that it was possible but very expensive. You would have to readapt the building. We probably wouldn’t end up with what we were looking for.”

It was important to keep the building’s exterior preserved, since it is a landmark, and part of the city’s skyline and a visual people resonate with, Kim said.

Vice President of Business Affairs and CFO Jerry Tarrer was not available for an interview at press time, but provided an emailed statement from the News Office to The Chronicle.

“A large majority of the proceeds from the sale of the Johnson Building will go toward the development of the student center,” the Dec. 7 email stated. “Any remaining amount would go toward another fixed asset at the college or into the endowment fund. The college completely owned the building with no debt against the property. Please note that the college is not disclosing the [exact] amount of the sale.”

Slezak said the units will be affordably priced, so a wide range of people can take advantage of the building and the South Loop.

3L also agreed to purchase the 731 S. Plymouth Court Building from the college but has not decided whether or not to use it as student housing or apartments, as reported Nov. 29 by The Chronicle.

In addition to the Plymouth Court Building, the college has sold the Theatre/Film Annex building located at 1415 S. Wabash Ave., according to a Dec. 7 emailed  statement from the college’s News Office.The building was sold to luxury real estate developer CMK Companies for $6.5 million in October, according to a Dec. 5 Crain’s Chicago Business article.

The building was where students would work on scenery production, costumes and props. The space and resources will  be housed at the newly renovated Getz Theater, according to a Dec. 8 emailed statement from the News Office.

“The 1415 S. Wabash building is one of several such assets that the college has been evaluating to either re-purpose or sell,” a Dec. 8 emailed statement from Tarrer said. “The proceeds of this sale will be reinvested in our classrooms and other capital projects or added to the college’s endowment fund.”

Slezak said he was excited to have the opportunity to reactivate a historic building on Michigan Avenue that has not been used in recent years with the Johnson Building purchase.

“We love bringing buildings back to life and giving them another 50- to 100-year story ahead of them,” Slezak said.