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Albert Kahn (architect)

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Albert Kahn
Born(1869-03-21)March 21, 1869
DiedDecember 8, 1942(1942-12-08) (aged 73)
Detroit, Michigan, US
RelativesJulius Kahn, brother
Albert E. Kahn, nephew

Albert Kahn (March 21, 1869 – December 8, 1942) was an American industrial architect who designed industrial plant complexes such as the Ford River Rouge automobile complex.[1] He designed the construction of Detroit skyscrapers and office buildings as well as mansions in the city suburbs. He led an organization of hundreds of architect associates and in 1937 designed 19% of all architect-designed industrial factories in the United States. Under a unique contract in 1929, Kahn established a design and training office in Moscow, sending twenty-five staff there to train Soviet architects and engineers, and to design hundreds of industrial buildings under their first five-year plan. They trained more than 4,000 architects and engineers using Kahn's concepts. In 1943, the Franklin Institute posthumously awarded Kahn the Frank P. Brown Medal.


Kahn was born on March 21, 1869, to a Jewish family in Rhaunen, in the Kingdom of Prussia.[2] He received his early education in the school of Luxembourg.[3] At age twelve in 1881, Kahn immigrated with his family to Detroit, Michigan.[4] His father Joseph was trained as a rabbi; his mother Rosalie had a talent for the visual arts and music.[4] Kahn had four brothers, including Moritz, who became an engineer, and Julius Kahn, an engineer and inventor, who later collaborated with him in his architectural firm. They also had two sisters.[4]

Kahn quickly learned English and went to Detroit public schools. In 1883, he got a job at the architectural business of Mason and Rice where he got his initial architectural training.[4] While working there he primarily designed residences and bank buildings. In 1891, at age 22, he won a Rotch Traveling Fellowship to study in Europe, where he toured Germany, France, Italy, and Belgium with Henry Bacon, another young architecture student. Bacon later designed the Lincoln Memorial that is located in Washington, D.C.[4][5] After leaving Mason & Rice in 1895, Kahn joined in a partnership with Alexander B. Trowbridge and George W. Nettleton known as Nettleton, Kahn & Trowbridge.[6] He married Ernestine Krolik in 1896 and they had four children.[7]

Kahn, in 1902, formed a partnership with his brother Julius, a civil engineer. Later that year, Julius developed a novel and scientific method of reinforcing concrete with steel, making reinforced concrete construction practical and economical. After receiving a patent on the "Kahn System" of construction in 1903, Julius left Kahn's firm and established the Trussed Concrete Steel Company, or Truscon, to market the product. Reinforced concrete allowed for much larger open spaces within factory interiors not obtainable with conventional wood construction and at a lower cost than steel frame construction. Concrete had other beneficial characteristics, such as far better protection from fire and greater load-bearing capacity. By 1905, hundreds of buildings within the United States were being constructed using the Kahn System, including the first reinforced concrete automobile plant, completed for the Cadillac Motor Car Company at 450 Amsterdam Street in TechTown, Detroit.[8] Julius Kahn collaborated with his brother on the design of many industrial projects throughout the US constructed with reinforced concrete, particularly automobile factories, with the result that Kahn became widely known for his expertise in the construction of concrete industrial structures.[9]

Kahn was also responsible for designing many of the buildings and houses built under the direction of the Hiram Walker family in Walkerville, Ontario, including Willistead Manor. Kahn's interest in historically styled buildings is also seen in his houses in Detroit's Indian Village, the Cranbrook House, the Edsel & Eleanor Ford House, and The Dearborn Inn, the world's first airport hotel.[10] Kahn's firm designed the Art Deco Fisher Building in Detroit's New Center area, a 28-story designated landmark. In 1929, the building was awarded a silver medal by the Architectural League of New York in the category of the year's most beautiful commercial building.[11] From 1917 to 1929, Kahn's firm also designed the corporate headquarters for all three of the major Detroit daily newspapers and the General Motors building, at the time of its completion in 1922, the second largest office building in the world.[11] His work was part of the architecture event in the art competition at the 1928 Summer Olympics.[12]


Henry Ford became interested in Kahn's unique designs that showed many benefits. Ford had Kahn design Ford Motor Company's Highland Park Ford Plant in 1909, for developing production techniques in the assembly line of manufacturing the Ford Model T on a large scale. In 1917, Kahn designed the half-mile-long Ford River Rouge Complex in Dearborn, Michigan. That factory complex was developed into the largest manufacturing cluster of plants in the United States and later the largest industrial manufacturer in the world with a workforce of 120,000 employees.[13][14]

Kahn also designed many of what are considered the classic buildings of the University of Michigan in the city of Ann Arbor. These include Angell Hall, Burton Memorial Tower, Hill Auditorium, Hatcher Graduate Library, and William L. Clements Library. Kahn said later in life that, of all the buildings he designed, he wanted most to be remembered for his work on the William L. Clements Library. Kahn frequently collaborated with architectural sculptor Corrado Parducci. In all, Parducci worked on about 50 Kahn commissions, including banks, office buildings, newspaper buildings, mausoleums, hospitals, and private residences.[15]

Kahn's firm was able to adapt to the changing needs of World War I and designed numerous army airfields and naval bases for the United States government during the war. During World War II, Kahn and his firm were in charge of several of the U.S. government's important construction projects that included aeronautical and tank arsenal plants. His 600-person office was involved in making Detroit industry part of America's Arsenal of Democracy. Among others, the office designed the Detroit Arsenal Tank Plant, and the Willow Run Bomber Plant, Kahn's last building, located in Ypsilanti, Michigan. The Ford Motor Company mass-produced Consolidated B-24 Liberator bombers here.[16]

In 1937, Albert Kahn Associates was responsible for 19% of all architect-designed industrial factories in the United States.[17] In 1941, Kahn received the eighth-highest salary and compensation package in the U.S., $486,936, of which he paid 72% in tax.[18] Kahn worked on more than 1,000 commissions from Henry Ford and hundreds from other automakers. Kahn designed showrooms for Ford Motor Company in several cities, including New York, Washington, D.C., and Boston.[4]

As of 2020, approximately 60 Kahn buildings were listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Five of these (the Fisher Building, Ford River Rouge complex, Edsel and Eleanor Ford House, General Motors Building, and Highland Park Ford Plant) were designated National Historic Landmarks.[19] Not all of Kahn's works have been preserved. Cass Technical High School in Detroit, designed by Malcomson and Higginbotham and built by Kahn's firm in 1922, was demolished in 2011, after vandals had stripped it of most of its fixtures.[20] The Donovan Building, later occupied by Motown Records, was abandoned for decades and deteriorated. The city demolished it as part of its beautification plan before the 2006 Super Bowl XL.[21] In Kalamazoo, Michigan, the Kahn designed Checker Cab Manufacturing plant was shuttered following the bankruptcy of Checker Motors Corporation, in 2009. It was leveled in 2015.[22]

Fifteen Kahn buildings are recognized by official Michigan historical markers:[23]

In the Soviet Union[edit]

On May 8, 1929, through an agreement signed with Kahn by Saul G. Bron, President of Amtorg, the Soviet government contracted Albert Kahn Associates to help design the Stalingrad Tractor Plant, the first tractor plant in the USSR. On January 9, 1930, a second contract with Kahn was signed for his firm to become consulting architects for all industrial construction in the Soviet Union.[24] Under these contracts, during 1929 to 1932 and the Great Depression, Kahn's firm established a design and training bureau in Moscow to train and supervise Soviet architects and engineers. This bureau, under the government's Gosproektstroi, was headed by Moritz Kahn and 25 others of Kahn Associates staff, who worked in Moscow during this project. They trained more than 4,000 Soviet architects and engineers;[25] and designed 521 plants and factories[4] under the nation's first five-year plan.[24][26]

Kahn-designed buildings[edit]

Kahn has been called the "architect of Detroit" and designed almost 900 buildings in the city.[27] Below is a listing of some of those buildings. All are located in Detroit, unless otherwise indicated.

Buildings at the University of Michigan[edit]

Below are University of Michigan campus structures built during Kahn's career.[7][34]

Greek Organization Buildings:

Death and legacy[edit]

Kahn died in Detroit on December 8, 1942.[7] Many of his personal working papers and construction photographs are housed at University of Michigan's Bentley History Library.[38] His personal working library, the Albert Kahn Library Collection, is housed at Lawrence Technological University in Southfield, Michigan.[39] The Archives of American Art at the Smithsonian house most of the family's correspondence and other materials.[40]

The life and works of Kahn were celebrated in an exhibition of photographs, drawings, and models at the Detroit Institute of Arts from September 15 to November 1, 1970. It commemorated the 75th anniversary of the architectural firm which was founded by Kahn.[41] Many of Detroit's leading industrialists who work in the buildings designed by Kahn were present at the celebration.[42]

A staff writer for the Times Herald newspaper in 1970 wrote that Kahn was often called the father of industrial architecture. He was referred to as Architect of the Colossal by Reader's Digest magazine. The science museum Franklin Institute in Philadelphia recognized him as an architectural pioneer and awarded him their gold medal. The American Institute of Architects awarded him two of their gold medals in his lifetime. The staff writer estimated that Kahn was the architect of two billion dollars worth of structures before his death in 1942. The committee on science and arts of the Detroit Institute of Arts noted that none of Kahn's discoveries were ever patented, but instead were placed in the hands of architects and engineers engaged in construction during World Wars I and II. The 184 page catalogue put in book form called The Legacy of Albert Kahn consists of two essays on the works of Kahn, one by W. Hawkins Ferry the architectural writer and Honorary Curator of Architecture at the Detroit Institute of Arts and another written by Walter B. Sanders as a Professor of Architecture at the University of Michigan.[43]

Detroit Free Press writer and historian John Gallagher notes that Kahn produced 1900 buildings, among them being the Fisher Building, the General Motors headquarters, the Ford River Rouge Complex, and many buildings on the campus of the University of Michigan. He points out that what was modern in 1920, like his automobile factories that he built between 1900 and 1920 were obsolete by 1990s standards and were being torn down. Some of his other buildings at that time no longer served the purpose for which they were constructed and were being remodeled for other uses.[44]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ "Ford River Rouge Complex | MiPlace".
  2. ^ Bryan 2003, p. 139.
  3. ^ Blenz 1981, p. 133.
  4. ^ a b c d e f g Johnson 1997, pp. 161–164.
  5. ^ Borth, Christy. Masters of Mass Production, Indianapolis, IN: Bobbs-Merrill Co., 1945, pp. 97-100.
  6. ^ ""About Albert Kahn"". Albert Kahn Legacy Foundation. 2021. Retrieved October 24, 2021.
  7. ^ a b c Blenz 1981, p. 134.
  8. ^ Smith, Michael G., "The First Concrete Auto Factory: An Error in the Historical Record," Journal of the Society of Architectural Historians (2019) 78 (4): 442–453.
  9. ^ Ferry 1970, p. 11.
  10. ^ Ganem 2011, p. 108.
  11. ^ a b Galster 2014, p. 36.
  12. ^ "Albert Kahn". Olympedia. Retrieved July 25, 2020.
  13. ^ Borth, Christy. Masters of Mass Production, pp. 107-8, Bobbs-Merrill Company, Indianapolis, IN, 1945.
  14. ^ Herman, Arthur. Freedom's Forge: How American Business Produced Victory in World War II, p. 22, Random House, New York, NY, 2012. ISBN 978-1-4000-6964-4.
  15. ^ Borth, Christy. Masters of Mass Production, pp. 109-10, 120-28, Bobbs-Merrill Co., Indianapolis, IN, 1945.
  16. ^ Herman 2012, pp. 51–2, 96–8, 148, 200, 227–9, 242.
  17. ^ Johnson 1997, p. 164.
  18. ^ "Compensation and the I.R.S.: It's not the 'Good' Old Days". The New York Times. December 1, 2010. (Business Day section). Retrieved January 21, 2014.
  19. ^ Hickman, Matt (October 27, 2020). "Albert Kahn Associates celebrates 125th anniversary with launch of interactive map of projects in Detroit and beyond". The Architect's Newspaper. Retrieved August 7, 2021.
  20. ^ Cass Tech High School (old). Historic Detroit. Retrieved on November 20, 2014.
  21. ^ "Donovan Building". Historic Detroit Organization. 2021. Retrieved August 7, 2021.
  22. ^ "Checker's Albert Kahn Designed Plant". Checker Car Club of America. May 30, 2021. Retrieved August 7, 2021.
  23. ^ "Michigan Historical Markers". Retrieved June 17, 2020.
  24. ^ a b Melnikova-Raich, Sonia (2010). "The Soviet Problem with Two 'Unknowns': How an American Architect and a Soviet Negotiator Jump-Started the Industrialization of Russia, Part I: Albert Kahn". IA, The Journal of the Society for Industrial Archeology. 36 (2): 59–73. ISSN 0160-1040. JSTOR 41933723.
  25. ^ "Industry's Architect". Time. June 29, 1942. Archived from the original on January 14, 2009. Retrieved April 4, 2008.
  26. ^ "Albert Kahn Associates records". Bentley Historical Library. Retrieved August 7, 2021.
  27. ^ John L. Dorman (March 26, 2018). "In Energized Detroit, Savoring an Architectural Legacy". New York Times online. Retrieved August 7, 2021.
  28. ^ "Plans at old Shaw Walker site". MLive. Retrieved July 31, 2017.
  29. ^ James and Jennifer Crumbley found in century-old building with rich history Detroit Free Press
  30. ^ "Brad Flory column: Good-bye to a landmark once 'the essence of Jackson'". MLive.
  31. ^ "Chronicle Building now owned by Muskegon Community College". MLive. Retrieved July 31, 2017.
  32. ^ "Detroit Times Building". Buildings of Detroit. Archived from the original on October 26, 2010. Retrieved October 29, 2010.
  33. ^ "New Heating Plant Under Construction" (PDF). Notre Dame Scholastic Magazine: 14. October 23, 1931.
  34. ^ "Ann Arbor Observer". Ann Arbor Observer Company. 2002. pp. 27–33. Retrieved July 28, 2021.
  35. ^ "U-M to remove Little, Winchell names from campus facilities". University of Michigan. Retrieved December 2, 2021.
  36. ^ "Major Projects: Alexander G. Ruthven Museums Building Renovation and Addition". University of Michigan. Archived from the original on April 16, 2018. Retrieved January 1, 2019.
  37. ^ "Alpha Epsilon Phi - ΑΕΦ | Greek Life". fsl.umich.edu. Retrieved May 25, 2018.
  38. ^ "Bentley Historical Library Albert Kahn Associates Records 1825-2014".
  39. ^ "Albert Kahn Research Symposium". Archived from the original on July 24, 2020. Retrieved June 10, 2019.
  40. ^ "Archives of American Art, Albert Kahn Papers".
  41. ^ Ferry 1970, pp. 1–11.
  42. ^ "Tribute Paid to Alfred Kahn". Detroit Free Press. Detroit, Michigan. September 15, 1970. p. 27. Retrieved October 25, 2021 – via Newspapers.com Open access icon.
  43. ^ "Institute Salutes Detroit Architect". The Times Herald. Port Huron, Michigan. September 18, 1970. p. 18. Retrieved October 25, 2021 – via Newspapers.com Open access icon.
  44. ^ "More gaps in the Kahn legacy". Detroit Free Press. Detroit, Michigan. February 21, 1994. p. 27. Retrieved October 25, 2021 – via Newspapers.com Open access icon.


Further reading[edit]

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