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Chicago Considers Making Former 'Ebony' And 'Jet' Headquarters A Historic Landmark


Chicago officials are considering whether to give landmark status to the Johnson Publishing Company building. This is the only building in downtown Chicago that was designed and commissioned by African-Americans. And it was home to Ebony and Jet magazines. Raymond Thomas was a creative director for Johnson Publishing and worked in the building for more than 20 years. He joins us now from Chicago to tell us more. Welcome.

RAYMOND THOMAS: Good morning. How are you?

GARCIA-NAVARRO: I'm very well. Can you paint a picture of what this building looks like?

THOMAS: Well, the building is kind of a marble front facade building. And it has a signage on top that reads Ebony Jet that shines at night like a beacon. And anyone who's traveling on Lake Shore Drive can see the sign at night. And it's been probably one of the most inspirational sites, particularly for African-Americans, that we have.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: I want to talk a little bit about the interiors, too. They - I've seen some of the pictures. And I would describe it as a kind of groovy opulence.

THOMAS: (Laughter).

GARCIA-NAVARRO: I mean, it's just really cool. Tell us about some of the interiors.

THOMAS: Well, every floor of a building has its own personality. And so you had materials like ostrich skin used as wallpaper, the highest grade of every kind of materials, marble. And when the elevators open up to each floor, there's this explosion of color and texture. And I've never seen anything like it.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: What was it like working there? Describe to us what it felt like to work at this sort of center of black culture in many ways.

THOMAS: It was a place where, on any given day, you can see celebrities like Dr. J or Michael Jordan or Shaq. I got to say one of my greatest moments was meeting Stevie Wonder, who was my hero. And I got a chance to have a personal audience with Stevie, which was, you know, to say the least, incredible. So yeah. And it's a place where, I mean, if those walls could talk, you know...

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Yeah. The company moved out of the building in 2012. And it was sold. And it's now owned by Columbia College Chicago. Were you concerned at the time about the building's fate?

THOMAS: Very much so. It was always a fear because you would think that they would just, you know, bulldoze the building and build a nine-story townhouse...

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Office block or...

THOMAS: Yeah, something...

GARCIA-NAVARRO: ...Condos or...

THOMAS: That's why it's such a great thing for the black community and just for Chicago and the world that this place is going to be preserved. And it can always be this place that we can celebrate.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: That's artist Raymond Thomas, who worked at the Johnson Publishing Company building for more than 20 years. Thanks so much for being with us.

THOMAS: Thanks for having me.

(SOUNDBITE OF STEVIE WONDER'S "I WISH") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.