This new building reflects our faith in the strength and vitality of that long line of Black men and women who have contributed so much to this country and this community. Most importantly, this new building is a poem in marble and glass which symbolized our unshakable faith that the struggles of our forefathers were not in vain and that we shall indeed overcome in this land in our times.1
These words were delivered by John H. Johnson, president of the Johnson Publishing Co. during the opening of their eleven-story headquarters on Michigan Avenue in 1972. The building, the first ever exclusively designed and constructed in Chicago’s Loop by a Black-owned corporation, sat just south of Chicago’s Michigan Avenue cliff, a remarkable set of buildings designed by some of the most prominent architectural offices in the city: Holabird & Roche, Henry Ives Cobb, D. H. Burnham & Co., and Graham, Anderson, Probst & White to name a few. On that May 16, 1972, in front of more than 1,000 business and civic leaders, including Mayor Richard J. Daley, Rev. Jesse Jackson, and Pulitzer-Prize-winning poet Gwendolyn Brooks, this striking building joined the list of structures on Michigan Avenue. The architect of the headquarters was the fifty-year-old John Warren Moutoussamy, partner at Dubin, Dubin, Black & Moutoussamy. It was a historic milestone for the Johnson Publishing Co., for John Moutoussamy, and for Chicago.
John Warren Moutoussamy was born on January 5, 1922, in Chicago, the son of Jean Marie Moutoussamy and Julia Nettie (Walker) Moutoussamy. He studied at Tilden Technical High School and Englewood High School on Chicago’s South Side. One of his teachers at Tilden Technical High School was architect Paul D. McCurry, who he would later reconnect with early in his professional career. Moutoussamy married Elizabeth Rose Hunt on March 15, 1942. A graduate of DuSable High School, she would later graduate from the Harrington Institute of Design with an interior design degree.
After serving in the Army during WWII, Moutoussamy enrolled in the architecture program at the Illinois Institute of Technology (IIT) on the GI Bill. There, he studied under Department of Architecture director Ludwig Mies van Der Rohe. Notable classmates included Yau Chung Wong, Jacques Brownson, Carter Manny, and Bruno Conterato. Each of them had remarkable careers, with leadership roles at some of the most prominent offices (C.F. Murphy Associates, Office of Mies Van Der Rohe), later starting their own offices and leading organizations such as the Graham Foundation for Advanced Studies in the Fine Arts. With the help of Walter Peterhans, who was teaching the visual training course at IIT, Moutoussamy worked for Mies van Der Rohe while in school.2
Moutoussamy graduated from IIT with a B.S. in architecture in 1948 and applied to the architecture office of Skidmore, Owings & Merrill. He was not offered a position at the firm despite having studied and worked under Mies van Der Rohe.3 His classmates Yau Chun Wong and Bruno Conterato joined SOM. His first job was working for the Chicago Park District, before joining K. Roderick O’Neal’s office. O’Neal, who had also studied architecture and planning at IIT under Mies van Der Rohe, had opened his own office in 1946. In the early 1950s, Moutoussamy joined the architecture office of Schmidt, Garden & Erikson Architects as a draftsman. There he would reunite with architect Paul D. McCurry, who had joined the firm in 1946 and would become a partner a decade later.
During this period of his career, he designed a house for his wife Elizabeth and three children: John Jr., Claude Louis, and Jeanne Marie. Completed in 1954, the one-story building is located on a 60 by 125-foot lot in Chicago’s Chatham neighborhood on the South Side. In his book Southern Exposure: The Overlooked Architecture of Chicago’s South Side, architecture critic and photographer Lee Bey mentions that “the blonde-brick residence is elegant in its simplicity: the home and its integrated garage greet the street as a single rectangular piece.”4 The yellow brick was perhaps a nod to Moutoussamy’s time at IIT, where Mies van der Rohe had used the same yellow iron spot brick on many of the campus buildings. The house has also been included in the book Modern in the Middle: Chicago Houses 1929-75 by Michelangelo Sabatino and Susan Benjamin. In it, Sabatino mentions that “the house stood out with its flat roof and subtle differences such as locating the primary entrance on the side of the house. Natural ventilation was incorporated into the design thanks to louvers installed in the lower section of the windows.”5 Moutoussamy’s daughter, photographer Jeanne Moutoussamy-Ashe, said, “I loved growing up in my father’s house. It was an accomplishment that, as a child, made me feel very special and, in time, very, very proud.”6
A few years later, Moutoussamy would design two single-family homes just a few blocks north, also in the Chatham neighborhood. Located on the 8500 South Wabash block and completed in 1959, the two identical one-story houses have mirrored entrances from each other, with the only difference being the brick used on the front façade: yellow for the house to the north and red for the house to the south. The houses were commissioned by real estate / developer James Lynch, whose own house was located between the two lots where Moutoussamy would build the houses (Lynch’s house had been moved to that lot when the Dan Ryan Expressway was being built).
The house to the north was purchased by Alex Poinsett and his wife Norma R. Poinsett for their family that included their two children, Pierrette Mimi and Pierre. Alex Poinsett, who joined Johnson Publishing Co. in 1957, would spend three decades with the company, first writing for Jet and then as senior editor at Ebony magazine. He was also an acclaimed author and one of the forty-four journalists that founded the National Association of Black Journalists in 1975.7
In this house, Moutoussamy used once again the yellow brick that he had selected for his house but replaced the flat roof with a pitched roof and located the primary entrance at the front of the house. While the exterior related to the typical Chicago bungalow present in the neighborhood, the interior had a distinct layout, with the kitchen located at the front of the house (contrary to the traditional bungalow) and a hallway running through the middle of the house, with the bedrooms on one side and the bathrooms and closets to the other side. In the mid-1980s, the Poinsett family built an addition to the back of the house and a few years later, the originally cantilevered porch was altered as the wood structure had rotted. The house to the south still has the original footprint.
After the death of Alex Poinsett in 2015, the house was sold and underwent a major renovation. Unfortunately, the large glass sliding doors that opened to the front porch were replaced by three standard-size windows, but the porch railing is still original. While the house is no longer in the family, A. Pierre Poinsett Sr. and his mother were able to visit it after it was renovated. Pierre, who was six months when the family moved in, recalls this area of Chatham as “a very unique place to live. People looked out for each other, which was important for a Black community in the 1960s. It was an interesting time in terms of the optimism that Black people had, coupled with the opportunities that seemed to open up. There were people pushing for those opportunities.”8 Many of them lived in Chatham, including George and Joan Johnson, founders of the Johnson Products Company; civil rights attorneys Lawrence E. Smith and Frank Anglin; restaurateur Helen C. Maybell; and Jolyn Robichaux, owner of Baldwin Ice Cream.
After leaving the office of Schmidt, Garden & Erikson Architects in 1956, Moutoussamy joined the office of PACE Associates headed by principals Sam C. Sit, Charles Booher Genther, John F. Kausal, Jerome J. Neri, and M. Ali Yusuf. Major works by the office prior to Moutoussamy joining the firm included buildings at the Illinois Institute of Technology (including S.R. Crown Hall), 860-880 N. Lake Shore Drive and 900-910 N. Lake Shore Drive, and Promontory Apartments, all developed in partnership with Mies van der Rohe. During Moutoussamy’s time at PACE the firm continued to work on projects developed in partnership with Mies, such as preliminary studies for the Chicago Federal Center.
In 1965 Moutoussamy left PACE to start his own practice and start work on a large-scale housing development in Bronzeville that would later be known as the Theodore K. Lawless Gardens. The vast, multi-structure housing project spanned over 2.5 acres and consisted of high-rise buildings over twenty-four stories tall as well as fifty-four townhomes. Draper and Kramer had arranged a partnership with a group of Black professionals including physician Dr. Theodore K. Lawless, publisher John H. Johnson, and dentist Dr. William J. Walker. While the complex was partially subsidized from the National Housing Act to support construction of middle-income housing, the remaining financing needed to come from banks. According to Arthur D. Dubin, partner at Dubin, Dubin and Black, Draper and Kramer were very concerned about the mortgage and moving forward with the project, and they felt that it needed some architectural backing. Draper and Kramer persuaded their project partners that Moutoussamy should partner with an architectural firm to provide the necessary backup and satisfy any mortgage banking firm that would lend such an enormous amount of money.9 From the five architecture offices suggested to him, Moutoussamy chose to form a team with Dubin, Dubin and Black because he had worked with partner John Black while at PACE (Black had joined Dubin, Dubin in 1965). At the beginning, Moutoussamy was a collaborator of Dubin, Dubin and Black, where he was the designer and architect of record for Lawless Gardens with a separate office at the Builders building and separate timecards and accounting.10 Less than a year later, Moutoussamy was asked to join the firm as the fourth partner, renaming the firm Dubin, Dubin, Black & Moutoussamy. Moutoussamy became the first Black architect to have a partnership at a large Chicago architecture firm. Lawless Gardens would be completed in 1969 and, a year later, it won an Honor Award by the Chicago Chapter of the American Institute of Architects.
As Lawless Gardens was being completed, design began on the headquarters for the Johnson Publishing Co., a new 110,000-square-foot building on Michigan Avenue that would be the architectural manifestation of Ebony, Jet, Black World, and Black Stars magazines. This new building would be the fifth home for Johnson Publishing Co. since its founding in 1942 and the first purposely built. Publisher John H. Johnson, who was part of the team that had commissioned Lawless Gardens, selected John Moutoussamy as the architect of the building. It was the first corporate building built by a Black-owned company and was the first—and remains the only—high-rise building designed by a Black architect in downtown Chicago.
As Lee Bey points out, “Johnson built the building at the peak of his powers, and it showcases how successful his media empire had become. Most media never told stories of Black people or gave them little attention when they did. Johnson told those stories, and chronicled Black achievement and became wildly successful. The building—built on one of Chicago’s most famous streets—underscores that success and the importance of Black people and Black stories.”11
The building has a sculptural presence on Michigan Avenue. Without ornamentation, the horizontal twenty-one 40-foot-wide bands of stone and glass define its main façade facing east and establish a clear rhythm. The recessed windows emphasize the play of light and shadow, an effect that increases in the top two floors where the glass plane is even further back to accommodate outdoor terraces. Placing the two columns visible from the outside between the plane of the glass and the solid band emphasizes the horizontality of the façade.
John Moutoussamy mentioned that “one of the very first things we decided was that the building had to reflect the type of company it would house. Mr. Johnson insisted that he did not want one of those ‘shirt-front’ glass and steel buildings. What he wanted was marble… lots of it… so that the building would express permanence and would have character without flamboyance.”12
The eleven-story building was designed to house Johnson Publishing Co.’s 300 employees and all the activities related to their publications, from offices, conference rooms, and reception areas to dining and kitchen facilities, a photographic studio, computer room, and an awards room. For the interiors, John H. Johnson hired Arthur Elrod and William Raiser of the Palm Springs-based Arthur Elrod Associates, Inc. The Johnson family was familiar with the designers because the two had also designed the interiors of their Chicago home as indicated by Adele Cygelman, author of the book Arthur Elrod: Desert Modern Design, in a Chicago Tribune article in 2019.13 If the exterior of the building had a stoic presence, the interior was exuberant in colors and materials. Subtle colors were complemented by bright oranges, reds, greens, and blues. Color matching furniture as well as wallcoverings of different materials were found across the floors. It was an expressive and exciting environment for those working in the building as well as the many visitors that the company accommodated. The remarkable interiors have been the focus of artists such as David Hartt14 and Barbara Karant.15
One of the most remarkable and colorful spaces was the JPC Test Kitchen. Located on the tenth floor, which was dedicated entirely to food preparation and dining facilities, the all-electric kitchen was used to test many of the recipes that appeared in Ebony. A swirling multicolor fabric laminated in plastic covered all the cabinets and walls while other surfaces were laminated in a solid chartreuse color.16
Another important aspect of the building was the permanent collection of Black American and African art that included paintings, drawings, and sculptures. It was the world’s largest and most representative corporate collection of Black artists’ work. Nearly two hundred artworks were displayed in private and public spaces, including two sculptures by Richard Hunt and Geraldine McCullough located in the eighteen-and-a-half-foot-tall building lobby that could be seen from the sidewalk.17
During the opening of the building, George Johnson, president of Johnson Products Co., said “I think this is absolutely the most magnificent structure that we have in the downtown section of Chicago and I think it’s a great tribute that a Black man has put it there.”18
In 2010, Johnson Publishing Co. sold the building to Columbia College Chicago for $10 million. The college considered turning it into their library and student center, but the plan never came to fruition and they sold it in 2017 to 3L Real Estate.19 On December 17 of that year, the building was designated as a Chicago Landmark, protecting it from demolition and requiring the preservation of the iconic Ebony Jet sign located atop the building. 3L Real Estate has converted the building into 150 studio, one-bedroom, and two-bedroom apartments.20
Starting in 2012, the Johnson Publishing Co. donated 15,000 items from their archives, including books, periodicals, furniture, paintings, and sculptures, to the Chicago-based Rebuild Foundation, established by artist Theaster Gates. The Johnson Publishing Archive and Collection is housed in the restored Stoney Island Arts Bank located in the South Shore neighborhood.
In 2018, Landmarks Illinois purchased the test kitchen for $1, saving it from demolition. After being temporarily in a storage unit, the organization accepted a proposal by the Museum of Food and Drink in Brooklyn, New York, who will be exhibiting it as part of their upcoming exhibition African/American: Making the Nation’s Table.21
In 2019, the J. Paul Getty Trust, the Ford Foundation, the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, and the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation paid $30 million to purchase an archive of more than four million images from Ebony and Jet magazines documenting seventy years of African American life. Ultimately, it will be donated to the National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, D.C and made widely accessible.22
Last year, The New York Times convened a series of architects to select twenty-five of the most significant works of postwar architecture. Of the Johnson Publishing Co. headquarters, included in the selection, architect Toshiko Mori mentioned that “it’s one of the most complete manifestations of African American aesthetics from that time.”23
After the completion of the Johnson Publishing Co. headquarters, Moutoussamy continued to design many significant structures in the city, including three buildings for the City Colleges of Chicago: Harry S. Truman City College (1976) in Uptown, Richard J. Daley College (1981) in West Lawn, and Olive-Harvey College (1981) in Pullman.
The Carver High School (1973), now Carver Military Academy, is located on the far South Side next to Altgeld Gardens Homes, a public housing project built between 1944 and 1945. He also designed the one-story Woodlawn Neighborhood Health Center (1972) and the nearby Bessie Coleman Library (1993), named after Bessie Coleman, the first Black woman to fly an airplane and the first African American to earn an international pilot’s license. The library is located next to the historic 1924 Washington Park National Bank Building by architect Albert Schwartz, currently threatened with demolition.24
Multi-family residential buildings include Regents Park Apartments (1972) in Kenwood. A complex built on the site of the former Chicago Beach Hotel, it features 35-story and 36-story concrete towers that overlook Lake Michigan and Burnham Park.
To give a sense of the amount of multi-family housing being done by Dubin, Dubin, Black & Moutoussamy during the1960s and 70s, partner John Black once said that “twenty percent of all federally financed multi-family housing in the United States [had] been done by Dubin, Dubin, Black and Moutoussamy because we understood their program.”25
Another significant project designed by Moutoussamy is the Alpha Kappa Alpha International Headquarters. Completed in 1983 in Hyde Park, it was originally a two-story, 16,800 square-foot building. A third floor was added in 1992 as more space was needed. The last renovation of the now 31,000 square-foot building took place between October 2016 and the end of 2017 when, among other things, the existing glass was replaced with new insulated glazing.26
Moutoussamy, who sat on the Board of Directors of the Chicago Urban League, designed their new four-story 32,000-square-foot headquarters in 1984. The white-painted steel and glass building in Bronzeville replaced the previous headquarters located next door for the organization founded in 1916 as a local branch of the National Urban League.27
John Black retired in 1978 and Dubin, Dubin, Black & Moutoussamy continued as Dubin, Dubin & Moutoussamy. Among many other projects, they served as the general architectural consultant on the CTA Orange Line and designed the Davis Street stop in Evanston and the Dempster-Skokie station. The year Black retired, Moutoussamy became Fellow of the American Institute of Architects. Besides his work as a practicing architect, during the last twenty-five years of his life he took on other civic roles in prominent institutions: he was a trustee of The Art Institute of Chicago between 1973 and 1995; a trustee of Loyola University between 1972 and 1981 (he would receive an honorary degree from Loyola University in 1982); in the Board of Governors of the School of the Art Institute of Chicago between 1980 and 1993; and vice chairman of the Chicago Plan Commission between 1979 and 1981.28
On May 6, 1995, John Moutoussamy died of a heart attack while at Burnham Woods Golf Course. He was 73. After his death, Dubin, Dubin & Moutoussamy and S.L. Reid & Co merged to create the firm of DubinReid, no longer in practice. A limited set of items of the architecture office Dubin, Dubin, Black & Moutoussamy is part of the collection at the Art Institute of Chicago. According to Nathaniel Parks, Director of the Art Institute of Chicago Archives, when the last iteration of the Dubin, Dubin, Black & Moutoussamy firm closed, some of the remaining material went to the Chicago History Museum. Of the four partners, only Arthur D. Dubin was interviewed as part of the Chicago Architects Oral History Project started in 1983 under the auspices of the Art Institute’s Department of Architecture.
Chicago architect and historian ElDante C. Winston points out that “Moutoussamy can arguably be considered the godfather of Black architects in Chicago. A devout Miesian, he is perhaps Chicago’s most prolific Black architect in terms of the number of signature buildings. Consider the fact that the AIA awarded his Lawless Garden Homes top honors when it was built, ahead of SOM’s John Hancock Center.”29
Despite his prolific and remarkable career, his buildings lack official recognition and protection. “While the City of Chicago landmarked the Johnson Publishing Co. headquarters in 2017, none of John Moutoussamy’s other buildings are landmarked, and his work is not reflected in the Chicago Historic Resources Survey,” indicates Elizabeth Blasius, architectural historian, writer, and cofounder of Preservation Futures. “Because of this, none of his works in any of Chicago’s neighborhoods; not the house he designed for himself and his family in Chatham, not the Chicago Urban League Headquarters in Bronzeville, and perhaps most importantly, not the Alpha Kappa Alpha International Headquarters in Hyde Park are protected from demolition or recognized as significant. It is frankly not enough to have just one building by John Moutoussamy landmarked when there are so many others that deserve recognition and resources.”30
Almost three decades after his death, his work continues to be rediscovered and his pioneering contributions to architecture and Chicago start to be acknowledged by new generations of architects and historians. On the centenary of his birth, it is critical that his work is taken into consideration to be officially landmarked and gain the protection and resources needed to be preserved and celebrated.
The author would like to acknowledge the contributions made by Elizabeth Blasius, Jacob Chartoff, Julie Michiels, Jeanne Moutoussamy-Ashe, Pierrette Mimi Poinsett, A. Pierre Poinsett Sr., Michelangelo Sabatino, and ElDante C. Winston. Several biographical elements have been taken from the Chicago landmark designation application submitted for the Johnson Publishing Co. headquarters in 2017 and written by Matt Crawford with research assistance by Melanie Bishop.
John W. Moutoussamy and Elizabeth R. Moutoussamy House
361 East 89th Place, Chicago, IL 60619
Alex Poinsett and Norma R. Poinsett House
8532 South Wabash Avenue, Chicago, IL 60619
Lake Terrace Condominiums
7337 South South Shore Drive, Chicago, IL 60649
6700 South South Shore Drive, Chicago, IL 60649
Lawless Garden Apartments
3620 South Rhodes Avenue, Chicago, IL 60653
Michigan Beach Apartments
7251 South South Shore Drive, Chicago, IL 60649
Johnson Publishing Co. Headquarters
820 South Michigan Avenue, Chicago, IL, 60605
The Woodlawn Neighborhood Health Center
6337 South Woodlawn Avenue, Chicago, IL 60637
Regents Park Apartments
5050 South Lake Shore Drive, Chicago, IL 60615
Carver Military Academy High School
13100 South Doty Avenue, Chicago, IL 60827
Harry S. Truman City College
1145 West Wilson Avenue, Chicago, IL 60640
Richard J. Daley College
7500 South Pulaski Road, Chicago, IL 60652
10001 South Woodlawn Avenue, Chicago, IL 60628
Alpha Kappa Alpha International Headquarters
5656 South Stony Island Avenue, Chicago, IL 60637
Chicago Urban League
4510 South Michigan Avenue, Chicago, IL 60653
Bessie Coleman Library
731 East 63rd Street, Chicago, IL 60637