The exhibit includes extensive blueprints, photos, illustrations and models of buildings designed by Albert Kahn Inc., as well as some of his own drawings and family photographs.
Detroiters live among the diverse and innovative buildings created by Albert Kahn Inc. (now Albert Kahn Associates) during the first half of the 20th century. The Fisher Building, Ford Motor Company’s Highland Park Plant, the Belle Isle Aquarium and Temple Beth El in Detroit are a few examples. The Albert Kahn Legacy Foundation was created in 2021 to honor, educate and preserve Kahn’s legacy as America’s foremost industrial designer during the first half of the 20th century.
Last year, the Albert Kahn Legacy Foundation, composed of some staff members of Albert Kahn Associates and other interested local residents, created a small pop-up exhibit about the architect’s life and work that was displayed in the Fisher Building. But the intent was always to produce something more substantive and permanent.
Eighteen months later, a group of volunteers completed a new, comprehensive exhibit, guided by Detroit Historical Museum staff and sponsored by the Edward and Linda Dresner Levy Foundation. Albert Kahn: Innovations & Influence On 20th Century Architecture will be on display at the Detroit Historical Museum through July 3.
A well-attended opening reception on April 28 included several descendants of Albert Kahn and featured speakers from the Foundation board, including Heidi Pfammes, president; Levi Smith, vice president; and Barbara Cohn, event chair, who is also a trustee.
The exhibit includes extensive blueprints, photos, illustrations and models of buildings designed by Albert Kahn Inc., as well as some of his own drawings and family photographs. All of these displays, accompanied by explanatory text, portray the amazing life and career of a German Jewish immigrant whose formal education ended at the seventh grade because he needed to work and help support his large family.
According to Michael G. Smith, an architectural historian and author who is also an Albert Kahn Legacy Foundation trustee, the Kahn family left Germany because Jews were being attacked and their citizenship was threatened. The Kahn family, who immigrated to Detroit in 1881, was educated, and Albert Kahn spoke four languages including Yiddish, Smith explains. His father was a Reform rabbi. (Albert Kahn later became a board member of Temple Beth El and chaired its Choir Committee.)
When Albert Kahn joined Mason & Rice, a local architectural firm, as an errand boy, Kahn devoted himself to learning as much as possible from the firm’s employees and library. After nine months, the firm began to pay him to trace and draft drawings, and he was later promoted to head draftsman. In 1902, Kahn established his own firm.
An Architectural Innovator
Early on, Kahn was an innovator as an architectural designer, builder and businessman. He was instrumental in transforming American factories from dark, cramped buildings to large, naturally lit facilities that provided better environments for workers and for more efficient production. This change was facilitated in part by the development of a reinforced concrete bar and construction system by his brother, Julius. “This reinforced concrete was reasonably priced and replaced brick, steel and wood buildings previously used for factories,” Smith says.
Kahn also introduced an organizational structure that enabled his firm to handle a large volume of projects. He set up teams of architects and engineers, similar to Ford’s production teams.
While many Detroiters know that Kahn’s firm designed the Detroit Athletic Club, General Motors headquarters as well as many Ford manufacturing plants, they may not realize that Albert Kahn Inc. designed factories to produce Navy ships (1917) and for Detroit’s Arsenal of Democracy to support U.S. forces during World War II. In addition, the firm was hired by Russia in the 1930s to design modern factories for the first Five-Year Plan of the Soviet Union.
Closer to home, Albert Kahn Inc. designed many of the best-known buildings at the University of Michigan Ann Arbor campus, including Hill Auditorium. The firm is credited as being the first to use scientific principles of acoustics on a large scale, enabling sounds from the Hill stage to be heard throughout the auditorium.
The Albert Kahn Legacy Foundation is working on plans for future displays of the exhibit.
“I hope people will see and learn about Kahn’s many innovations on 20th-century architecture, and his broad range of architecture from residential homes to industrial factories,” Barbara Cohn says. “Many people know about his development of modern industrial architecture, but what is not known is the scope of his work and influence on the future of architecture. We hope people will connect to Kahn with the many stories we tell in the exhibit from successful immigrant to modernism to his global impact.”
The Albert Kahn: Innovation & Influence On 20th Century Architecture exhibit will be at the Detroit Historical Museum through July 3. For more information, visit albertkahnlegacy.org or detroithistorical.org/detroit-historical-museum/exhibitions/special-exhibitions. Eric Keller, a graphic designer and illustrator, designed the exhibit and Jim Garrett, a local programmer, constructed the LEGO models of Kahn buildings. Local film editor Stuart Shevin assembled the drone footage taken above the Fisher Building that is featured in the exhibit.