Detroit black architects focus of Saturday Docomomo tour
When the architect Nathan Johnson was in eighth grade in Kansas, a teacher asked what he wanted to be growing up. Johnson, now in his 90s, said he wanted to be an artist.
“And she said, ‘Nathan, artists aren’t valued until they’re dead,'” Johnson recalled Monday at his Detroit home. “Why don’t you become an architect instead?”
And so he eventually became one of Detroit’s early, pioneering African-American architects, designing projects that ranged from the Eastland Center in Harper Woods to the Bethel AME Church in Detroit and the People Mover.
A Saturday tour, “The Shape of Things To Come: Reclaiming the Legacy of Detroit Black Architects,” will celebrate Johnson’s mid-century modern legacy as well as that of other early black architects in the city such as Howard Sims and Harold Varner .
Art historian Deborah Lubera Kawsky curated the event on Saturday for Docomomo_US / Michigan, the local branch of the nonprofit dedicated to highlighting and preserving post-war modernist architecture.
“We hope that this event will not only celebrate the heroic efforts of black architects like Nathan Johnson in the past,” said Kawsky, “but also inspire the next generation of architects.”
Even today, black architects make up only two percent of the profession nationwide. The statistics are worse when you focus on women – they make up well under one percent, only 13 African American women are registered as architects in Michigan.
Johnson came to Detroit in 1950 and worked for the first black architect ever to be licensed in the state, Donald White at White & Griffin.
“I made $ 1.98 an hour at White & Griffin,” said the architect with a smile.
Afterward, Johnson was hired by the Los Angeles-based superstar who invented the modern day mall Victor Gruen to oversee the design and construction of the Eastland Center.
Johnson went out alone in 1956 and eventually set up offices on West Grand Boulevard, which he filled with hunting trophies from his African safaris. Johnson couldn’t find downtown in those years, he explained, “because I was black.”
The architect’s portfolio is filled with modernist work – houses, churches, apartment buildings, and restaurants – that are scattered across the city of Detroit.
One of Johnson’s most eye-catching designs was Stanley’s Mannia Cafe in Baltimore, east of Woodward, in the space age googie style popular in the post-war decades. “We didn’t copy anything there – we wanted to be original,” he said.
The rundown but still standing building has a distinctive tower that served as both architecture and advertising.
“They could see the tower from the boulevard and they had come to Stanley,” Johnson explained the source of his design. Narrow towers can be seen in some of his projects, including the Bethel AME Church.
Unsurprisingly, Johnson has become a source of inspiration for younger black architects.
“It’s just touching to see an African American architect with a distinctive style,” said Saundra Little, director at Quinn Evans Architects. “That seems rare as many black architects don’t have their own practices.”
The little architect Karen AD Burton founded Noir Design Parti to document the careers of black architects in Michigan. In 2016, the two won a Knight Arts Challenge scholarship to fund the project.
“I think Nathan’s building is great,” said Burton. “I didn’t really know much about him until Saundra and I started this research. I didn’t know that many of the buildings I passed every day were his. He seemed ahead of his time,” she added. “”
Little and Burton will both be speaking on Saturday’s Docomomo tour that starts at Bethel AME Church and ends at Second Baptist Church in Greektown.
For his part, Johnson says one of his favorite architects of all time was Frank Lloyd Wright.
“He was the greatest,” he said with a laugh. “He made it bad for everyone.”
“The Shape of Things To Come: Reclaiming the Legacy of Detroit’s Black Architects”
Funded by Docomomo_US / Michigan
Saturday 9:30 a.m. – 2:30 p.m.
9:30 am check-in – Bethel AME Church, 5050 St. Antoine, Detroit
$ 20 – Docomomo members, $ 25 – non-members; Tickets available on the website
Students have free entry, but are asked to register by emailing [email protected]