Dedicated Historical Foundation to Honor Life’s Work of Detroit’s Master Architect


Beth El, Woodword and Elliot Temple, 1903 (later the Bonstelle Theater). (Michael G. Smith)

The Albert Kahn Legacy Foundation wants to provide a space for storing archives and plans to create traveling exhibitions and offer educational programs.

Many Detroiters have visited the Fisher Building, the Bonstelle Theater, or the Hill Auditorium at the University of Michigan without realizing that they were designed by Albert Kahn.

“He didn’t get his place among the famous Detroiters – his story doesn’t go everywhere, even though his work does,” said Heidi Pfannes, senior associate and director of business development at Albert Kahn Associates Inc. and president of the new Albert Kahn Legacy Board of Trustees.

As an immigrant from a poor German-Jewish family, Kahn’s formal education ended in seventh grade. However, he was mentored by several Detroit architects, studied extensively himself and showed extraordinary talent, focus and determination as an architect from a young age.

Kahn achieved great success at a time when anti-Semitism was widespread in the United States and Detroit. In the 1920s and 1930s Detroit newspaper advertisements for rental homes could say “No Jews or Dogs”. Kahn designed at least two private clubs – the Detroit Athletic Club and the Detroit Golf Club – at the beginning of the 20th century, which did not accept Jewish members at the time of construction.

Stained glass windows from Kahn’s Beth El Temple, now on display in the Beth El Temple in Bloomfield Township. Michael G. Smith

Despite all of these obstacles, Kahn’s work is astounding in its breadth of design styles, structural innovations, and the scope and scope of its projects – including factories, office buildings, synagogues, auditoriums, and a hospital among many others.

The company he founded in 1895, now known as Albert Kahn Associates Inc., designed 2,000 factories between 1900 and 1940. His firm was the official advisory architect for the USSR’s Five-Year Plan, designing 500 factories there from 1929 to 1931. In addition, Kahn designed many American military installations for the First and Second World Wars, as well as factories in which war materials were produced.

Legacy celebrated

Last year a group of local historians, architects, archivists and other interested volunteers established the Albert Kahn Legacy Foundation to “celebrate and preserve the legacy of Albert Kahn, often referred to as the greatest American industrial architect of the 20th century.” One of the motivating factors for establishing the foundation was the 125th anniversary of Albert Kahn Associates Inc. last year.

“We received so many inquiries about Albert Kahn’s archives,” explains Pfannes. “So many people are enthusiastic about Albert Kahn. We didn’t want it to be a corporate foundation. We have to be supported by the community. “

Around the same time, several Detroiters interested in history and architecture were discussing recognition for Kahn’s achievements. Levi Smith from Troy, a board member of Kahn Legacy, said he had visited the Henry Ford Museum and Greenfield Village many times over the years and found that there was no Jewish representation there. This oversight was particularly noticeable as Kahn designed the Ford plant, where the Model T was built, and the Ford River Rouge Complex, among many other Ford projects.

Hill Auditorium, University of Michigan Michael G. Smith

“I started talking to people and we put a group together,” he said with the initial goal of recognizing Kahn at Henry Ford. In addition to serving on the board of directors of the Kahn Legacy Foundation, Smith is also the chairman of the museums and exhibits committee. The rebirth of Detroit and the renovation of some of Kahn’s buildings in Detroit also made this particularly topical.

Eventually, those interested in preserving Kahn’s legacy got together and created a not-for-profit organization last year – the Albert Kahn Legacy Foundation. Its aim is to collect, preserve and display the public materials of his life so that “researchers, students, historians and the general public can know and appreciate how his designs and ideas changed industrial America and made Detroit the manufacturing capital of the United States have states in the first half of the 20th century. “

Ford Motor Company assembly plant in Hochland Park. It was built in 1910 and was nicknamed the “Crystal Palace”. Albert Kahn Associates

Pop-up exhibition

The Legacy Foundation wants to provide a space for storing archives and plans to create traveling exhibitions and offer educational programs. Your first attempt is a “pop-up” exhibition that introduces Albert Kahn and his achievements and which was designed by Eric Keller, a volunteer. (Some pictures from the popup exhibition are included in this article.)

Volunteer board members are considering possible exhibition venues – museums or libraries in Detroit and Ann Arbor, and buildings designed by Kahn. However, you can wait until the restrictions on the COVID pandemic are relaxed and allow more pedestrian traffic in public buildings.

Kahn at his desk, 1940. Albert Kahn Associated Inc.

In the long term, the board is examining the feasibility of creating an Albert Kahn Museum. “Ideally, we want something permanent,” says Pfannes, “but there are now pop-ups. We need to raise money for a museum feasibility study. We’re working on a partnership with the Fisher Building, the Argonaut Building, and the Urban League (headquartered in Kahn’s family home) – all designed by Kahn. “

“He’s part of the Detroit Community, the Jewish community. We have so much history, but people don’t realize it, ”said Barbara Cohn, board member of the Kahn Legacy Foundation and co-author of the Detroit Public Library – An American Classic. The foundation hopes to attract paying members (from USD 25) as a financial base. Members receive discounts for events such as educational programs. A bike tour of Albert Kahn’s buildings in Detroit is planned for the end of this year.

The Fisher Building, the “largest art object” in Detroit. Michael G Smith

Albert Kahn and Henry Ford

One of the ironies in Kahn’s career is that his most prominent client was Henry Ford, an automotive pioneer known for publicly expressing anti-Semitism in his newspaper, The Dearborn Independent. The newspaper published numerous articles about a conspiracy by Jewish bankers and Jews to instigate World War I. Eventually, a Jewish businessman sued Henry Ford for defamation, there were protests of its content by several organizations, and the newspaper was shut down.

“Ford had no animus towards Jewish people,” says Michael G. Smith, a historian. Ford’s anti-Semitism was based on an experience with bankers when he was looking for a loan, Smith says. They wanted more control of the company than Ford was ready to deliver. The bankers happened to be Jews, and from that encounter Ford began to support a conspiracy theory about Jewish bankers and businessmen.

After all, Kahn would no longer meet with Ford and send someone else in his place.
Why should Ford seek a Jewish architect for its factories? It was basically thanks to Kahn’s ability to fulfill Ford’s ideas. “They had a lot of respect for one another,” says Smith.

The factories in the late 19th and early 20th centuries were multi-story, dark, airless buildings that were prone to fire. Ford wanted a factory that could house its new assembly line instead of having to build and move cars between levels of a building. Kahn was able to design a one-story factory with plenty of natural light, more floor space, and better ventilation.

This resulted in part from the development of an improved reinforced concrete by his brother Julius that was stronger and required fewer support columns. Window walls provided much better lighting than other factories of the time.

This type of construction provided workers with a safer and more comfortable environment and improved productivity. Kahn’s company was also known for its efficiency and willingness to adapt to customer needs.

More information about the Albert Kahn Legacy Foundation can be found at


Dusty Kennedy