Chicago fights to save historic EBONY building from developers

Erick Johnson - Chicago Crusader | 3/1/2017, 3:52 p.m.
Downtown Chicago is set to explode with construction. In the next several years, the city that gave birth to the ...

Downtown Chicago is set to explode with construction. In the next several years, the city that gave birth to the skyscraper will have a new look. A new generation of glitzy skyscrapers will sprout up all over the city, dramatically altering its famous skyline with bold new designs and soaring to greater heights.

The most fertile ground for the newest crop of high-rises is on South Michigan Ave., where, in the last several years, powerful developers have been harvesting plans to capitalize on one of the wealthiest residential districts in the city.

After intense meetings with residents and historic preservation officials, developers are moving forward with ambitious and jaw-dropping plans to plant mega-size buildings that would transform a relatively quiet residential district into a bustling neighborhood full of retail shops and post-new condominiums.

For developers, it’s a race to the top in a battle to build the biggest and best skyscraper as large as the ego of a high-powered business mogul.

Sitting amidst these dreams is a small, but well-known 11-story building that’s been vacant for nearly seven years. Known to many visitors around the country as the “EBONY/Jet building,” for decades, it was the corporate headquarters of the Johnson Publishing Company. In its glory days, it was the engine behind EBONY and Jet magazines that sat on millions of coffee tables in the homes of Black America. Once a proud symbol of achievement, the once Black-owned building still stands on one of the most prominent streets in America. It’s now empty and perhaps the most vulnerable building to hungry developers.

In several years, the EBONY/Jet building will be wedged between two fresh skyscrapers. To the north of it will be the 620-foot “Essex on the Park” skyscraper, which officially broke ground on Jan. 19. When completed, the skyscraper overlooking Grant Park and Lake Michigan will have 479 luxury rental apartments. The deal also includes rehabbing and expanding the neighboring Essex Inn Hotel to 271 guest rooms.

Two blocks south of the EBONY/Jet building will be an 86-story glass skyscraper that will resemble a stack of giant ice cubes. Reportedly named the Jahn Tower, it will have 506 units; 308 will be condominiums. There is the 515-foot tower at 1326 S. Michigan and the planned twin skyscrapers on Indiana Ave., which at 76 stories high, will be third tallest building south of the Willis Tower.

And this is just the South Loop. Skyscrapers are going up on the North Side, too.

As the city experiences a boom in new skyscrapers, the house that EBONY/Jet founder John H. Johnson built remains a decaying relic that’s up for sale as hungry developers push the limits of their projects into unchartered waters. The buzzards of urban progress are closing in while the EBONY/Jet building stands increasingly vulnerable to extinction as space grows tight on South Michigan Ave. and demands for bigger, stylish skyscrapers climb to greater proportions.

For the EBONY/Jet building, an edifice whose history and important contributions to Black America has inspired generations for decades, the warning signs are there.