Famed architect Albert Kahn and his firm designed over 400 buildings that still exist throughout southeast Michigan and thousands more around the world, but step out of Michigan and many don’t recognize his name.
A local group of Kahn fans wants to change that. The Albert Kahn Legacy Foundation, a nonprofit created two years ago by a group of passionate volunteers, is working to give Kahn the recognition they say he deserves, perhaps even with a museum that will one day be dedicated to him. But for now, there’s a new exhibit at the Detroit Historical Museum that tells Kahn’s remarkable story of growing from immigrant to prolific architect of factories and commercial buildings around the world.
“A lot of people only know a small part – only a small part – of Albert. They have no idea how big,” said Heidi Pfannes, vice president and director of business development at Albert Kahn. Associates and a member of the Legacy Foundation, the nonprofit group established in 2020 works to preserve and cultivate Kahn’s legacy.
“Albert Kahn: Innovation and Influences on 20th Century Architecture,” on display in the Robert and Mary Ann Bury Community Gallery at the historic museum through early July, features photos, architectural drawings, maps, and even replicas in Lego of some of Kahn’s works. A replica of the Fisher building comprises 120,000 parts and weighs over 300 pounds.
The Lego models, which also include the Russel Industrial Center and the Ford Piquette factory and were created by local Lego extraordinaire Jim Garrett, show how Kahn’s factory designs have evolved over time, from the construction of concrete factories, a method developed by his brother Julius. There are also wooden models of Kahn’s work.
“I hope that when people leave here, they understand not only who Albert was, but also what Detroit was about – the importance of Detroit to the world,” said board member Michael G. Smith. administration of the Legacy Foundation, which is working on a book about Kahn’s brother, Julius. “Detroit was the leading center of innovation for architecture in the early 20th century, both in design and in structure.”
Most architects looked down on factory design, thinking they didn’t matter, Pfannes said, but not Kahn.
Those contracts were lucrative, Smith said, and “he cared about the process. He cared about the people who worked in those factories,” Pfannes said. “There was much more to Albert than beautiful design. He was also an enduring architect.”
The reality is that most people don’t know how prolific Kahn, the eldest son of German-born Jewish immigrants, was – even his own company, Albert Kahn Associates, now located on the 18th and 19th floors of the Fisher.
Pfannes said she recently received a call from Midway Atoll, a group of three islands in the Pacific Ocean near Hawaii. Midway Atoll has 50 Kahn-designed buildings, some of which they want to restore for their fish and game division.
“We had no idea,” Pfannes said. “A lot of these buildings were listed because it was during the war (WWII).”
Kahn, the eldest of eight children, never went to college but apprenticed with Mason and Rice. He founded his own architectural firm in Detroit in 1895. His firm’s name appears on many of the city’s most iconic buildings, including the Belle Isle Aquarium and the Packard Factory. Albert Kahn Associates has designed 44,000 buildings around the world, including hundreds of factories in Russia. There is a Kahn building on every continent except Antarctica, Pfannes said.
“He was one of those American success stories that came as young immigrants with his parents and siblings with very little formal education,” said Aimee Ergas, archivist and board member of the Albert Kahn. Legacy Foundation. “And just by his talent and his ability to work with people, he probably became the most prominent architect of the 20th century, at least in the United States. His story is incredible.”
A map on a wall in the ‘Albert Kahn’ exhibit identifies 14 buildings that were either significant or tell a story of Kahn’s career, including a house he designed in 1900 as a struggling architect and later the Detroit Athletic Club. One of Kahn’s favorite buildings his company designed, according to Smith: the old Detroit News Building on Lafayette which was built in 1917.
Pfannes and the rest of the Albert Kahn Legacy Foundation hope the exhibit at the Detroit Historical Museum this summer is just the beginning.
“We hope this can go down the road to other communities,” Pfannes said.
‘Albert Kahn: Innovation and Influences on 20th Century Architecture’
Inside the Robert and Mary Ann Bury Community Gallery at the Detroit Historical Museum through July 3.