Saving Michigan Avenue’s Ugliest Building

Johnson Publishing Building

Johnson Publishing Building

Johnson Publishing is moving out of its eponymous building at 820 South Michigan Avenue.  It’s moving into the top three floors of the Borg Warner Building (200 South Michigan Avenue).  It was just last week that the Tribune mentioned that a company was interested in the top three floors of that building, and it turns out to be Johnson.

The old building is now owned by Columbia College, which is spreading through the South Loop like a well-intentioned educational virus.  Columbia has done some very interesting things with its recently bought buildings, like its Theater and Film Annex (1415 South Wabash Avenue), or the ghost building Gensler is helping it resurrect at 618 South Michigan Avenue.  Other Columbia buildings have turned out less inspired.

But the institution does at least have a track record of historic preservation.  Its Theater Center (72 East 11th Street), Dance Center (1306 South Michigan), and Ludington Building (1104 South Wabash) could all have easily met tragic ends.  Instead, they have been preserved and made useful once again.

So now comes concrete elephant in the room: Is the old Ebony-Jet building worth saving?

Johnson Publishing Building

Johnson Publishing Building

Even if, like me, you’ve never read any of Johnson Publishing’s publications, the company’s contribution not only to Chicago history, but to the evolution of the nation, is formidable.  But is the building as iconic as its exiting resident?  Probably not.  Johnson’s historic icon is the red Ebony-Jet masthead, not some generic Midwestern office building.

The official architecturally-correct term for this building is “brutalist.”  But we have to face facts here, the building is just plain ugly.  But that’s OK because some people like ugly buildings.  Just like certain breeds of dogs are ugly, but they’re still cherished and loved by their owners.  Embrace the ugliness.

I know a few people who admire 820 South Michigan for its linear forms, for its strong horizontal members supported by just to rows of vertical beams, and for its welcoming double-height lobby.  I’m happy there are people in the world who can appreciate a building on that level. But remove the glass, and what do you have left?  A parking garage.

This building (and a few others nearby) should never have been foisted on the Michigan Avenue streetwall.  I’m sure that in the 70’s it was considered interesting and modern.  But it didn’t belong then, and time hasn’t healed the wound it inflicted on the view from Grant Park.  This is an opportunity for Columbia College to correct what went wrong here: Tear the thing down and start over.

What should be put in its place is a building that compliments the rest of the street and finishes (or at least restores) the historic streetwall.  The new building, itself, won’t be historic, but it can at least look close.  This portion of Michigan Avenue is like a row of teeth.  Some are old and beautiful.  Some are rotting and decayed.  Some are missing.  And this one is a sample of bad dental practices of the past that should be excised.

The Elysian Chicago

The Elysian Chicago

It’s often been said “they just don’t build them like that anymore,” but Chicago has proven that historic-feeling buildings can be built.  Imagine a shorter, stouter version of The Fordham (25 East Superior Street), or the new Elysian tower (11 East Walton Street) in this location.  Something around 15 or 20 stories.  They’re not perfect replacements, but they work with the neighbors, most notably the Hilton Chicago, and the Crane Company Building.

Columbia College has shown repeatedly that it knows how to take care of old buildings.  How to turn neglected pieces of yesteryear’s architecture into visual showcases.  This is a chance for Columbia to show us what it can do working from a blank slate, to see what happens when it graduates from renovating the past to constructing the future.

Just up the street Roosevelt University has made this matriculation with its amazing knock-off of South Korea’s SK Telecom building.  It’s Columbia’s turn to step up to the architectural plate and hit one out of the park.

Author: Editor

Editor founded the Chicago Architecture Blog in 2003, after a long career in journalism. He can be reached at

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