The legacy of black architects in Detroit


Drive up Linwood Street, just north of I-94 in Detroit’s Northwest Goldberg neighborhood, and you will find yourself nestled among a collection of grand brick homes, some dilapidated and vacant, others well-maintained, interspersed by quiet, grassy swaths of urban prairie and towering trees.

But continue on past McGraw Avenue and this organic neighborhood texture gives way to a remarkable and unlikely sight: an apparent ziggurat from the future, occupying nearly an entire block. Long, low-slung, and perfectly symmetrical, with cylindrical brick flanks to the east and west and sloping expanses of bluish gray zinc to the north and south that race down at an exhilarating 45-degree angle to a concrete berm below, this looks like it might be the home of the first colony on Mars. It’s actually the former McMichael Middle School, built in 1981, now the Detroit Police Training Academy, designed by Detroit architects Howard Sims and Harold Varner.

Clear across town, in the equally pastoral Jefferson Chalmers neighborhood, follow Kitchener Street from Jefferson Avenue toward the Detroit River and you’ll happen upon a similarly arresting structure, on a smaller scale: the home that Roger Margerum designed for himself in the early 2000s. This extravagant, postmodern ode to the 45 degree angle, clad in black, white, and crimson-painted wood, cuts a fantastic figure on an otherwise sleepy block.

The former McMichael Middle School.

Facade of a white and red house with geometrical squares.

The Roger Margerum House.

What unites these two buildings, and a few dozen others scattered all over the city, is not just the futurism of their forms, but the notable fact that they were designed by black architects.

While black architects have made many notable contributions to Detroit’s built environment, racial and economic barriers have prevented them from greater participation, both historically and in the present.

“They just couldn’t get hired”

African Americans are significantly underrepresented in the profession of architecture. Of the approximately 113,000 architects currently licensed in the United States, only 2 percent are African American.

According to Detroit-born Kimberly Dowdell, a principal in the Chicago-based firm HOK and the current president of the National Organization of Minority Architects (NOMA), the reasons for this are many. For starters, there’s the interrelated problems of network bias and the enormous wealth gap between black and white people in this country. (A 2016 Federal Reserve study estimates the median net worth of white families at $171,000, versus $17,100 for black families.)

“If your network is mostly correlated with your race,” Dowdell says, “it would logically follow that people of color would not have the same access to clients who have the resources to hire an architect to build or redevelop a building.”

Historically, the barriers that prevented black people from achieving success as architects were more explicitly racist and discriminatory.

“The first licensed African-American architects in Detroit were also the first African-American firm owners, because they didn’t have the opportunity to go out and get jobs in traditional firms,” says Saundra Little, a principal at Quinn Evans Architects and the co-founder, with Karen Burton, of Noir Design Parti, an organization that works to document and share the legacy of eight trailblazing black architects in Detroit (including Sims, Varner, and Margerum).

“They just couldn’t get hired.”

There was a nearly 100-year gap between the 1853 founding of Smith, Hinchmann, and Grylls—Detroit’s oldest (white-owned) architecture firm—and the founding of the first black-owned firm, White and Griffin, Architect-Engineer Associates. “That shows how far behind we are,” Little says, “in having the opportunity to participate in the design of the built environment.”

The first trailblazer that Little and Burton highlight is Donald White (born 1908), who in 1932 became the first African American to earn a degree from the University of Michigan’s School of Architecture and who, six years later, became the state of Michigan’s first licensed black architect. His buildings include the Paradise Bowl, a bowling alley in Paradise Valley that was developed by Joe Louis in 1942 and lost to a fire in 1950.

In 1946, White, along with fellow U-M graduate Francis Griffin, founded White and Griffin, a firm that Little calls “a nursery” for the generation of black architects to come. “They gave opportunity and exposure to folks who would later go on to start firms of their own.”

In the ‘40s and ‘50s, faith leaders were often the only members of black communities with the resources to hire architects, so churches necessarily became the most prevalent type of building designed by black architects. One of the buildings designed by Griffin and White in Detroit is the Aijalon Baptist Church (1950) on the city’s old west side. At once stately and understated, it is an example of what Little calls the pair’s “conservative” style.

The next generation

The generation that came up under Griffin and White continued the tradition of church design and, as opportunity expanded, filled their portfolios with schools and residential buildings as well, but no one would call their designs conservative. Coming of age in the era of modernism, with its principled embrace of the new, black architects born in the 1920s and 1930s pursued a progressive vision of the future in Detroit, entwining the legacy of black architecture here with modernism’s bold, forward-looking forms.

Nathan Johnson, born in 1926 in Herington, Kansas (and at 93 years old, the last living trailblazer in Little and Burton’s pantheon), pursued with particular vigor an adventurous modern style in church architecture in his work with some of Detroit’s most historic black faith communities. Johnson came to Detroit to work as a draftsman for White and Griffin before forming his own firm in 1956. By 1963, an article in the Detroit Free Press reported that he “has built or is planning a dozen churches.” Articulating the modernist underpinning of his work, Johnson says in the same article, “We try to be honest. If we want to decorate a church, we let the structure do it instead of applying ornaments.”

Notable examples of his early work include the 1963 transformation of the run-down Oriole Theatre on Linwood Street into the new home of the New Bethel Baptist Church (now largely obscured by successive renovations), and the Brutalist 1968 addition to the Second Baptist Church in Greektown, which manages to be at once strikingly modern and well-integrated into that dense, historic urban neighborhood.

In the 1980s, Johnson was given the opportunity under Mayor Coleman Young to design all of downtown’s People Mover stations, an opportunity that he shared by subcontracting several stations to African American peers Aubrey Agee, Roger Margerum, and Sims and Varner.

People Mover station at Greektown.

The Coleman Young years (1974-94) were a watershed moment for black architects and engineers in Detroit, according to Sharon Madison, a building professional with a background in urban planning, landscape architecture, and program and construction management.

“It was impossible to get jobs in the private sector, and almost as difficult to get work in the public sector, until African-American mayors started to come into place around the country,” she reflects. “This was true in Cleveland, Gary, Indiana, Newark, and Detroit. The work in many of these locations was fueled by a change in the political structure that insisted that they diversify.”

Madison’s family’s Cleveland-based architecture and engineering firm, founded by her uncle, Ohio’s first registered black architect, and her father, a civil, structural, and mechanical engineer, began working in Detroit in the 1960s, but didn’t establish a permanent office here until the 1970s, after Young’s election and the many opportunities that followed.

Madison and Madison’s projects include the 1967 Plymouth Church–funded Medical Center Court apartments in Midtown, a sprawling, low-rise brick complex in an understated, iconically modern style, as well as a new poured concrete home for Plymouth Church itself in 1974. (Situated near East Warren Avenue and I-75, Madison and Madison’s ship-like church is located directly across the street from Nathan Johnson’s stately Bethel AME of the same year.) They were also project managers for the People Mover.

Atrium of the Golightly Technical Center.

The Coleman Young years were a boom time as well for Howard Sims (1933-2016) and Harold Varner (1936-2013), Detroit’s most prominent 20th century black architects. As Sims-Varner and Associates, the pair earned acclaim for adventurous and innovative civic buildings like the 1980 Redford Branch of the Detroit Public Library, noted for its abundant natural light and pre-cast long span structural system, as well as the Golightly Technical Center (1982), an expansive brick educational facility nestled sensitively within its east side landscape and crowned by a soaring, pyramidal atrium.

Later, Sims-Varner executed a variety of higher-impact projects, including the mixed use Millender Center downtown (1985), the $160 million expansion of Cobo Hall in 1988 (which introduced the facility’s distinctive cascading cube facade), and the building that might be considered the grand achievement of black architecture in Detroit, the Charles H. Wright Museum of African-American History (1997).

Millender Center.

TCF Center (formerly Cobo Center).

Present day challenges

Wesley Sims, Howard’s son, is the Chief Financial and Operating Officer of SDG Associates, what Sims-Varner is called today. He recalls that his father was forward-thinking in his designs. “He always wondered, ‘What are buildings going to look like tomorrow? How can design and architecture be done economically, but in a way that ensures everyone benefits from something beautiful, something they can be proud of?’”

Howard Sims founded his company in 1964, and as Detroit’s oldest African-American owned firm, SDG continues to have an impact on Detroit’s built environment, most notably as the architects behind Cobo Hall’s 2010 to 2015 expansion. But in reflecting on the small percentage of developments currently underway in and around downtown executed by minority-owned firms, Wesley Sims acknowledges that black architects continue to face challenges here as private development booms.

“This is a business that is based on relationships and a level of comfort and trust,” he says. “And unfortunately, there can still be a stigma that if you go with a minority contractor or architect, the quality’s not going to be there, that it’s not going to be as good.”

Rainy Hamilton, the 57-year-old co-founder and principal of Hamilton Anderson Associates, currently the largest black-owned firm in Detroit and one of the largest in the nation, echoes Sims’s concerns. After 25 years in business, Hamilton Anderson has had a profoundly transformative impact on Detroit’s landscape. Their portfolio includes dozens of high profile projects including the Detroit School for the Arts (2005), the Wayne County Port Authority building on the riverfront (2011), and ongoing residential developments like City Modern in Brush Park, Elton Park in Corktown, and the new Anthony Wayne Drive Apartments on the campus of Wayne State University.

A row of tall, rectangular buildings with repeating windows on every floor. Each panel has its own color: gray, yellow, blue, and brown. There’s ground floor retail and modest landscaping.

Anthony Wayne Drive Apartments.

And yet, despite these high-profile commissions, Hamilton says can still be a challenge to get his foot in the door.

“When people from the community come up to me and say, ‘Rainy, you’re doing a great job, keep it going,’ I say to them, ‘Continue to pray for me. Pray for us.’ Because it’s still challenging. There is still a stigma that minorities don’t do as good a job as majority firms. And it really is all about relationships and access. I’m a model train lover, and I would love to work on the [redevelopment of the Michigan Central Station]. But I can’t get on the front sidewalk, let alone in the front door. I can’t get access. So it’s still a struggle.”

In addition to Hamilton Anderson and SDG, there are just three or four small, black-owned architecture firms currently operating in Detroit, an 84 percent black city, which raises a potentially uncomfortable question: Has the optimistic, civic-minded legacy of Detroit’s mid-century black architects run aground on the economic and racial realities of 21st century life?

For Saundra Little and Karen Burton of Noir Design Parti, their historical documentation work—including periodic tours of trailblazers’ buildings, as well as a forthcoming website and book—is intended, in part, to inspire young black Detroiters to pursue careers in architecture.

“We have to help the next generations realize how important it is to have people of color involved in designing our cities and buildings,” Little says. “And having them understand this history is key to increasing the number of minorities in the profession.”

A common trait among the trailblazer generation is that most of them were exposed to architecture and encouraged to pursue it early in life (Aubrey Agee and Harold Varner at Cass Tech High School, for instance, and Howard Sims at Northwestern High). Kimberly Dowdell, the director of NOMA, says that she decided to become an architect when she was 11 years old and wondered why no one fixed up the dilapidated Hudson’s store that haunted the city’s skyline. Dowdell says she finds hope for the future, in part, in an effort she is spearheading with NOMA to introduce more young people of color to the profession during K-12 education.

Sharon Madison, reflecting on the legacy of her family and of black architects in general, tells a story about the Reverend Nicholas Hood Jr., the pastor of Plymouth United Church of Christ, who first invited her uncle and father to work in Detroit in the late 1960s, and for whom they built the striking new concrete church in 1972.

“In 1989, when Reverend Hood preached my father’s eulogy,” she recounts, “he talked about the construction of the church, and about how it wasn’t really done. He talked about how they didn’t have enough money to finish it, about how you could see imperfections. ‘Well,’ he said, ‘we are an unfinished people. And so we have an unfinished church.’

“Oftentimes we have to take what we’re given,” she continues, “and make it work.”

Madison emphasizes the “dismal” challenges that aspiring black architects today face nationwide, including the high costs associated with education and licensure, the erosion of opportunity in the public sphere, and the majority-biased hiring practices of majority-owned firms.

Eyeing a new vision of the future, she says that she encourages emerging black architects to consider architecture as one piece of a more holistic career that includes cooperative, community-driven neighborhood development, where resources are pooled to the benefit of all involved.

“I encourage young people to look at the business aspects of the profession, at the community aspects of the profession, and to look at areas where you can actually build your own piece of the pie,” she says. “We’re moving more in the direction of things that we can affect in our own community. In that regard, I think there is a great deal of hope.”