Albert Kahn’s impact upon Detroit is visible and all around us.
Before the year ends, there is one more anniversary to acknowledge. In 2020, Albert Kahn Associates Inc. has celebrated its 125th year anniversary. Its namesake, founder and Jewish Detroiter Albert Kahn, was an innovator and the world’s foremost industrial designer and architect of the 20th century.
Kahn’s impact upon Detroit is visible and all around us. Drive around Detroit and you will find hundreds — yes, hundreds — of Kahn Associates buildings. For example, start at Belle Isle and see the Kahn-designed aquarium (1904), the first aquarium in America. In the New Center area you will see “Detroit’s Largest Art Object,” the city’s iconic art-deco Kahn masterpiece, the Fisher Building (1928). Downtown, see the prestigious Detroit Athletic Club (1915).
Sidenote — when Kahn designed the Athletic Club, Jews were not allowed to be members. Kahn was offered but declined a membership.
Travel west of Detroit to see other Kahn buildings. In Dearborn, see the Ford Motor Company’s massive River Rouge industrial complex. When completed, it was the largest in the world (1917-1928). Further west, in Ann Arbor, you could attend a concert at the beautiful Hill Auditorium at the University of Michigan (1913), one of several Kahn structures on its campus.
Sidenote — despite Henry Ford I’s antisemitism, Kahn was the chief architect for the Ford Motor Company during his lifetime.
Kahn represented a classic tale of immigrant success in the United States. Born in Germany in 1869, Kahn was the oldest son of a rabbi. The family migrated to America in 1881, and soon after, to Detroit. Kahn left school in the seventh grade to find work and support his family. After working in odd jobs, he was hired as an errand boy at the architecture firm of Mason & Rice. In 1895, Kahn struck-out on his own as an architect. By 1920, his firm had 400 employees. Before his death in 1942, Kahn transformed his company into the employee-owned firm it is today.
Albert Kahn and Kahn Associates are often cited in the William Davidson Digital Archive of Jewish Detroit History over the past century, on 1,148 pages of the Detroit Jewish Chronicle and JN. Kahn is first mentioned in the Chronicle on April 14, 1916, on a list that shows his $1,000 contribution toward the relief of Jews in Europe during WWI. The front-page story in the Nov. 2, 1917, issue of the Chronicle cites his presentation of plans for a new Temple Beth El, which opened in 1922. On Dec. 11, 1942, his death was front page news for the Chronicle and for a feature story and editorial in the JN. In short, the Davidson Archive holds many stories about Kahn and Kahn buildings, as well as books and exhibits about Kahn. He continues to be a subject of current interest.
Only a few other elite designers and architects have made a mark on the landscape of America and the world like that of Albert Kahn. If you live anywhere in Metro Detroit, you are only a few minutes away from a Kahn building, a visible reminder of the work of a great Jewish Detroiter.
BTW — there is a new Albert Kahn Legacy Foundation, established to honor Kahn’s life, work, and lasting influence. Go to albertkahnlegacy.org for details.
Want to learn more? Go to the DJN Foundation archives, available for free at www.djnfoundation.org.