When Ebony magazine’s staff moved into a new Chicago headquarters in late 1971, they found their offices cloaked in rich earth tones, bold geometric patterns and shifting textures. The sumptuous decor, the work of William Raiser and Arthur Elrod, made for a building that was “legendary for its interior design,” says Joanne Hyppolite, the African Diaspora curator at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture (NMAAHC).
Of particular note was a room on the 10th floor of the building, which housed the Ebony test kitchen. Like the rest of the headquarters, it made a strong impression, with its cabinets covered in a swirling, psychedelic pattern of vibrant green, orange and purple.
“You could almost taste the colors, smell the colors; it made you happy,” Charlotte Lyons, food editor of Ebony magazine from 1985 to 2010, tells the Chicago Sun-Times’ Emmanuel Camarillo. “If you came into that kitchen it would make you smile.”
When it was finished in 1972, the kitchen was fitted with state-of-the-art equipment for its time, including all-electric appliances like a fridge with an ice and water dispenser and a trash compactor.
Today, this once-cutting-edge kitchen is the only remainder of the spectacular interior of the last and greatest headquarters of Johnson Publishing, the trailblazing company behind magazines like Ebony and Jet. Now, the room is becoming part of NMAAHC’s permanent collection.
“It allows us to tell the story of Johnson Publishing in a way that we haven't been able to before,” Hyppolite says. “This is the only extant and surviving space from the building itself. It's an immersive experience. You cannot walk into that space and not be wowed by the design.”
In a time when Black people were shut out of many opportunities, Johnson Publishing Company was an example of a thriving Black-owned business, and its magazines offered documentation of Black life and culture as white stories and faces dominated most media, Hyppolite says.
“One of the things they're capturing is the taste and the flavors of Black food and Black expertise in cuisine,” she says. “It's actually paying attention to what is happening around the country, and the interests that the Black population has, and their particular ways and styles of cooking.”
In its heyday, Ebony’s test kitchen was the proving ground for recipes for home cooks that would be printed in the magazine’s extremely popular food column, “Date With a Dish,” as well as community-contributed recipes the publication solicited for its “Your Favorite Recipe” column contest. It was the magazine’s third such kitchen, and the recipes coming out of it showcased the culinary prowess of the Black community across regions and cuisines, Hyppolite says. “Prior to the 1960s, one of the few occupations that African Americans had a lot of access to was the culinary field,” she says. “They [magazine staff] are sophisticated enough to know that Black people are in everybody's kitchens and contributing to all types of food.”
The 26-by-13-foot space saw flavors from around the world, going beyond Southern soul food with recipes that pulled inspiration from African, Caribbean and Latin American cuisine.
“This kitchen, it’s like—I don’t even know if calling it the Black Julia Child’s kitchen does it justice, but it is that important,” Jessica B. Harris, a culinary historian focusing on foods and foodways of the African Diaspora, told the New Yorker’s Sophia Hollander in 2022.
The test kitchen is “a living, breathing testament to the power of Black excellence and innovation in the culinary world,” says Kevin Young, NMAAHC's director, in a statement. "The kitchen was a place were recipes were reimagined, flavors were explored and stories were shared—a place that celebrates Black history and culture in a way that was not only inspiring but delicious."
However, the kitchen’s history hasn’t always been given its due.
In 2018, it almost vanished for good. Columbia College, which had purchased the building from Johnson Publishing as it downsized, sold the building to 3L Real Estate. Though a grassroots effort saved the building from demolition by acquiring landmark status, the designation protected only the exterior of the building. As construction began to convert the property into housing, Raiser and Elrod’s work began to vanish. The quick work of volunteers with Landmarks Illinois saved the test kitchen. In just one weekend, they documented and dismantled the iconic room to preserve it.
Once the test kitchen was saved, its 900-pound range hood and built-in can openers stayed in storage until the Museum of Food and Drink took on the task of restoring and updating elements of the test kitchen. The museum borrowed the kitchen for its 2022 exhibition “African/American: Making the Nation’s Table.”
Conservation efforts will continue as the kitchen takes up permanent residence in NMAAHC's collection. The museum has no immediate plans to display the space, since it will require significant work to rebuild the room according to building and preservation codes and to ensure its longevity, according to Hyppolite.
In the meantime, photographs and information about the kitchen are available on NMAAHC's website as part of the museum’s initiative focusing on “foodways’ integral role in African American culture during the modern era,” per a statement.
After the kitchen has been properly preserved, Hyppolite hopes visitors will be able to walk through, or at least peer into, “the ultimate period room for a kitchen that was associated with Black cuisine.”
Lee Bey, an architecture critic for the Chicago Sun-Times who helped save the kitchen by alerting Landmarks Illinois to its impending destruction in 2018, is glad to see the space preserved for future generations.
“I’ve seen photographs, but there’s nothing like experiencing that space up close,” he tells WTTW’s Eunice Alpasan.
Editor’s Note, June 12, 2023: This story has been edited to correct the name of the group Landmarks Illinois.