Chances are you’d be hard-pressed to find someone in our community who hasn’t had an Albert Kahn building pointed out to them by family or friends followed by, “He was Jewish you know?” He was, and for many of us that’s about all we know. So, who was this world-famous dreamer and draftsman? The visionary behind the Fisher Building, the Packard Automotive Plant, two(!) Temple Beth-Els on Woodward, UofM’s Angell Hall and so many others? Here’s the deal…

Temple Beth, Woodward Avenue at Eliot. Now the Wayne State University Bonstelle Theatre.
Courtesy Rabbi Leo M. Franklin Archives.
Temple Beth El at Woodward and Gladstone, built in 1922.
Now the Bethel Community Transformation Center.
Courtesy Rabbi Leo M. Franklin Archives.

Born in Germany in 1869, Albert was the son of poor Jewish German immigrants who came to Detroit in 1880. The oldest of eight, his father Joseph was a Rabbi and his mother Rosalie had a flair for visual arts and music.

(portrait)
Courtesy Rabbi Leo M. Franklin Archives.

Albert wanted to be an artist like his Mom but was partially colorblind. So instead, at 21 and for no pay at first, he became an office boy at the architectural firm of Mason and Rice where he learned to draft. It was a foot in the door, and the start of a career that would lead to fame and fortune.

The Hannah Schloss Memorial Building & Jewish Institute (1903; 1908).
Courtesy Rabbi Leo M. Franklin Archives.

Kahn won a scholarship to study in Europe, and then, in 1895 and back in the D, started Kahn and Associates with his engineer brother Julius (it’s still in business today.) Their big break came in 1908 with their invention of a revolutionary construction process of using reinforced concrete in the design and build of Detroit’s Packard Plant. It was a huge shift from the present wood construction, was safer, and created huge unobstructed interiors —which made possible Henry Ford’s eventual creation of the assembly line. And indeed, Henry Ford hired the brothers later that year to design his Highland Park Model T plant on Woodward where 15,000,000 Model T’s were made. (Long abandoned and awaiting redevelopment, it’s second life was as a favorite urban spelunking site for daring photographers and artists.)

Packard Automotive Plant building no. 10 in construction, c. 1905

“The father of modern factory design” as he became known, Kahn designed more than 2,000 industrial plants in the US and around the world. Including the 1917 half-mile-long Ford River Rouge complex in Dearborn where 120,000 workers were once employed. He created the Detroit Arsenal Tank Plant, the Willow Run Bomber Plant and numerous airfields and navel bases helping to firmly plant Detroit’s legacy as a vital contributor to President Roosevelt’s Second World War “Arsenal of Democracy.”

But fascinating factories weren’t the only blueprints Kahn drafted. He’s just as revered for the many amazing office buildings and houses he created both in Detroit and elsewhere (maybe he was an artist after all!). The stunning Art Deco Fisher Building? Albert. The Belle Isle Aquarium and Conservatory? Kahn’s. The Edsel and Eleanor Ford House. Yep. Temple Beth El (his home synagogue, now the Bonstelle Theatre) on Woodward? The bigger Temple Beth El on Woodward? Yep and yep. Kahn’s also the visionary behind many of the buildings on the University of Michigan campus in Ann Arbor. Including the Burton Memorial Tower, Hill Auditorium, Hatcher Graduate Library, West Hall (yes, the one with the arch leading into the Diag) and the William L. Clements Library—the building he later said he wanted to be remembered for the most.

Fisher Building lobby
By Dig Downtown Detroit – Fisher Building Lobby, CC BY 2.0

The Detroit Athletic Club? Yes, and no. Yes, he did design the DAC’s Renaissance Revival building. And no. When the DAC invited him to join the club, which prohibited Jews at the time, he politely declined. 

The William L. Clements Library, University of Michigan campus. By Michael Barera, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=27701319

As you can tell from this brief Beginner’s Guide, Albert Kahn had a long, industrious and creative career. He died on December 8, 1942 in Detroit at 73 years old. But his legacy, and his stamp on the skyline and architectural history of Detroit, will live on and on.    

Some of Kahn’s Classics

See how many of these amazing Albert Kahn buildings you recognize. Then go out and see them for yourself. When you do take special pride that he was Jewish, you know.

  • Hiram Walker offices, 1892, designer for Mason & Rice Windsor, Ontario
  • Children’s Free Hospital, 1896
  • Bethany Memorial Church, 1897
  • Bernard Ginsburg House, 1898
  • Edward DeMille Campbell House, 1899
  • Detroit Racquet Club, 1902
  • Packard Automotive Plant, 1903 (Kahn’s tenth factory built for Packard, but first concrete one)
  • Palms Apartments, 1903
  • Temple Beth-El, 1903 (Kahn’s home synagogue, now the Bonstelle Theatre of Wayne State University)
  • Belle Isle Aquarium and Conservatory, 1904
  • Brandeis-Millard House, 1904, Gold Coast Historic District, Midtown Omaha, Nebraska
  • Albert Kahn House, 1906 (his personal residence)
  • Burnham S. Colburn House, 1906
  • Gustavus D. Pope House, 1906
  • Allen F. Edwards House, 1906
  • George N. Pierce Plant, 1906, Buffalo, New York
  • Willistead Manor, 1906, Windsor, Ontario
  • Belle Isle Casino, 1907
  • Battle Creek Post Office, 1907, Battle Creek, Michigan 
  • Cranbrook House, 1907, 
  • Frederick H. Holt House, 1907
  • Highland Park Ford Plant, 1908, Highland Park, Michigan
  • Edwin S. George Building, 1908
  • Kaufman Footwear Building, 1908, Kitchener, Ontario 
  • Packard Motor Corporation Building, 1910–11, Philadelphia
  • Hugh Chalmers House, 1911
  • National Theatre, 1911
  • Ford Motor Company Assembly Plant, 1914, Cleveland, Ohio 
  • Liggett School-Eastern Campus, 1914 (Detroit Waldorf School since 1964)
  • Benjamin Siegel House, 1913-1914
  • Detroit Athletic Club, 1915
  • Garden Court Apartments, 1915
  • Vinton Building, 1916
  • Russell Industrial Center, 1916
  • Detroit News Building, 1917
  • Ford River Rouge Complex, 1917–28, Dearborn, Michigan
  • General Motors Building, 1919 (former GM world headquarters and second largest office building in the world at that time)
  • Fisher Body Plant 21, 1921
  • Phoenix Mill, 1921, Plymouth, Michigan
  • First National Building, 1922
  • Park Avenue Building, 1922
  • Former Detroit Police Headquarters, 1923
  • Temple Beth El, 1923 (a new building to replace the 1903 temple, currently occupied by the Bethel Community Transformation Center)
  • Walker Power Plant, 1923, Windsor, Ontario
  • The Flint Journal Building, 1924, Flint, Michigan
  • Olde Building, 1924
  • Ford Motor Company Lamp Factory, 1921–25, Flat Rock, Michigan
  • Detroit Free Press Building, 1925
  • 1001 Covington Apartments, 1925
  • Blake Building, 1926, Jackson, Michigan
  • Packard Proving Grounds, 1926, Shelby Charter Township, Michigan
  • S. S. Kresge World Headquarters, 1927
  • Edsel and Eleanor Ford House, 1927, Grosse Pointe Shores, Michigan
  • Argonaut Building 1928 (General Motors laboratory, now owned by the College for Creative Studies)
  • Griswold Building, 1929
  • New Center Building, 1930 (adjacent to the Fisher Building)
  • The Dearborn Inn, 1931, Dearborn, Michigan (world’s first airport hotel)
  • Former Congregation Shaarey Zedek Building, 1932
  • General Motors Building, 1933, Chicago Century of Progress International Exposition
  • Ford Rotunda, 1934, Dearborn, Michigan (designed for the Chicago World’s Fair; burned, 1963)
  • Burroughs Adding Machine Plant, 1938, Plymouth, Michigan
  • Dodge Truck Plant, 1938, Warren, Michigan
  • Detroit Arsenal Tank Plant, 1941, Warren, Michigan
  • Willow Run Bomber Plant, 1941 (used by Ford for bombers during the war, then by Kaiser for cars, then by GM for transmissions)

Buildings at the University of Michigan

  • Engineering Building (now West Hall), 1904
  • Hill Auditorium, 1913
  • Helen Newberry Residence Hall, 1915
  • Natural Science Building, 1915
  • Betsy Barbour Residence Hall, 1920
  • General Library (now Harlan Hatcher Graduate Library), 1920
  • William L. Clements Library, 1923
  • Angell Hall, 1924
  • Physical Science Building (now Randall Laboratory), 1924
  • Couzens Hall, 1925
  • East Medical Building (now North University Building), 1925
  • Thomas H. Simpson Memorial Institute, 1927
  • Alexander G. Ruthven Museums Building, 1928
  • Burton Memorial Tower, 1936
  • Delta Upsilon House (1903), 1331 Hill Street
  • Triangle House (1905–06), 1501 Washtenaw Avenue
  • Alpha Epsilon Phi House (1912), 1205 Hill Street (formerly Delta Gamma)
  • Psi Upsilon House (1924), 1000 Hill Street

Sources: Wikipedia contributors. “Albert Kahn (architect).” Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, 10 Jun. 2019. Web. 26 Jun. 2019. The Jewish Historical Society of America; and www.albertkahn.com.

You’re Invited to a Shabbat Garden Party at the Siegel Mansion (an Albert Kahn joint).

Celebrate Shabbat with NEXTGen Detroit and ChabaD on July 19, at the Siegel Mansion in Detroit’s historic Boston-Edison neighborhood. Designed by Albert Kahn and built in 1915, the 13,000 sq. ft. Italian-style villa was the private residence of Benjamin Siegel, owner of the upscale B. Siegel department stores. Get more information and register here.

Share on Facebook Share on Facebook