Friday, November 13, 2015

Interior design...with Soul: A look inside the former Ebony/Jet HQ Building

The interiors of the former--and now vacant--Ebony/Jet Building at 820 S. Michigan continue to fascinate me. And I'm not alone. A Chicago photographer shares the same fondness. More on that later.

Columbia College has owned the 11-story one-time headquarters of Johnson Publishing Company since 2010. I got a tour of the place in 2013 when I wrote an architecture photoblog for WBEZ.

What I said then:

"Behind pioneering black architect John Moutoussamy's four walls were offices designed with an exuberant, high-style and fearless mix of a color, texture, art, contemporary furnishings and pattern. Created by interior designers William Raiser/Arthur Elrod, the offices embodied an Afrocentric modernism that was well-turned, avant garde and quite hip--a perfect match for publisher John H. Johnson's groundbreaking magazines.. [and] those stunning, original interiors remain in the empty old building--virtually unchanged since the tower's 1972 opening."
"The colors of the '70s are still there--and boldly so: rusts, reds, harvest golds, deep browns."
I didn't have much time to shoot during my visit, but I got what I could. My favorite of the bunch is the above photo of the JPC's so-funky-it-is-almost-undescribable test kitchen. 

I have no idea what Columbia now intends to do with this building or those mind-blowing interiors. The college originally bought the structure to convert it into a library and a historic center that would remember and honor John H. and Eunice Johnson's incredible contribution to culture and society. 
But that was under a previous university president. Plans seem a bit mothballed now and the university won't return phone calls on the matter. There is a pop-up gallery that ends this week in the building's lobby. So at least that's something. But still..

Which brings me to Chicago photographer Barbara Karant. She's spent the last couple of years documenting those wild interiors and bringing them renewed notice recently. She appeared on my Architecture360 podcast on Rivet Radio to talk about the project. She also brought along some of her images (dig that crazy wallpaper and floor covering).

 Karant hopes to do a book with her images--and I hope does. Photos like hers are the only way most people will see this one-of-a-kind spaces. Columbia--which bought the building with such fanfare in 2010--rarely lets the public inside there. 
Which is a shame. A tour of that building could have been a high-point of the Chicago Architecture Biennial going on now, or the Chicago Architecture Foundation's yearly Open House Chicago, which happened last month. 
Such exposure could've only helped their cause.


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