Updated: June 12, 2018 at 11:51 a.m.
The legendary, swanky “test kitchen” used by Ebony magazine has been sold for $1 to the preservation group Landmarks Illinois.
The orange and green kitchen was housed inside the historic Johnson Publishing building on Michigan Avenue — home to influential black publications like Ebony and Jet.
Last fall, the space was sold to 3L Real Estate, a local development company, after sitting vacant for the better part of a decade under Columbia College Chicago’s ownership. A spokeswoman for 3L said Landmarks Illinois was the “best place to ensure the safety and preservation of the kitchen.”
“Whether it ends up at DuSable, the Smithsonian, or the Chicago History [Museum] will be a collective decision down the line,” said spokeswoman Marilyn Katz in an email.
The test kitchen was one of the last remaining features of the building that remained almost completely intact.
Lee Bey, an architectural critic in Chicago, said the kitchen represents the best of the building’s sometimes eccentric designs.
“[The building’s] crazy, beautiful, psychedelic, afro-modernism kind of design — all of that is gone,” Lee said. “But this kitchen represents that design at its height.”
The room’s wallpaper — a mix of green, red, and orange — created a groovy space to test out recipes for Ebony magazine’s monthly feature, “A Date with a Dish.”
“For many mothers during the time, during the ’70s and ’80s, trying out those recipes was something that many of them did,” Bey said. “So it kind of has this cultural impact beyond it just being a kitchen [and] a cool space.”
The 11-story building opened in 1972 and was the first and only downtown Chicago building bought and designed by African-Americans — publisher John H. Johnson and architect John Warren Moutoussamy.
Bey, the former vice president of the DuSable Museum of African American History, said the museum was in the works to acquire the test kitchen but the plan fell through due to finances.
That’s when Landmarks Illinois stepped in.
Bonnie McDonald, president and CEO of Landmarks Illinois, said the nonprofit bought the kitchen in early April.
“It is one of the most noteworthy interiors in the entire city of Chicago,” McDonald said. “It tells the important story of the Johnson family, the Johnson Publishing Company, as well as being a symbol of black achievement and power.”
McDonald said her team is putting together an advisory panel to help decide where to display the test kitchen, which is currently in storage.
“Ideally we want to ensure that the kitchen is reinstalled the way that it had been in the Johnson Publishing building,” McDonald said.
3L Real Estate purchased the building last November, and plans to convert the building into apartments that are expected to go on the market next year.
City officials designated the building as a city landmark, but the status only protects the building’s exterior architecture.
Bey said he’s happy at least a portion of the original space can be preserved.
“I think that’s important particularly in the time when the city is losing its black population,” Bey said. “Many African-Americans feel that we’re losing bits and pieces of things we created here and Chicago.”
Bey said he hopes that preserving the test kitchen sends a message — that black spaces and histories are worth lifting up.
Lakeidra Chavis is a producer and reporter for WBEZ. Follow her at @lakeidrachavis.
Editor’s note: This story was updated to include a statement from a spokeswoman for developers 3L Real Estate.