Saturday tour to celebrate Detroit's early black architects

Michael H. Hodges
The Detroit News

When architect Nathan Johnson was in eighth grade back in Kansas, a teacher asked what he wanted to be when he grew up. Johnson, now in his 90s, said he wanted to be an artist.

"And she said, 'Nathan, artists aren't appreciated until after they're dead,'" Johnson recalled at his Detroit home Monday. "Why don't you become an architect instead?"

Nathan Johnson, now in his 90s, was one of the first black architects in Detroit, and master architect on the People Mover project.

And so he did, eventually becoming one of Detroit's early, pioneering African-American architects, designing projects ranging from Eastland Center in Harper Woods to Bethel A.M.E. Church in Detroit and the People Mover. 

A tour Saturday, "The Shape of things to Come: Reclaiming the Legacy of Detroit's Black Architects," will celebrate Johnson's mid-century-modern legacy, as well as that of other early black architects in the city like Howard Sims and Harold Varner. 

Art historian Deborah Lubera Kawsky curated Saturday's event for Docomomo_US/Michigan, the local branch of the nonprofit dedicated to highlighting and preserving postwar modernist architecture. 

"Through this event, we hope not only to celebrate the heroic past efforts of black architects like Nathan Johnson," Kawsky said, "but to inspire the next generation of architects." 

Nathan Johnson's original design for Detroit's Bethel A.M.E. Church. Only the right-hand sanctuary with the spire was built.

Even today, black architects comprise just two percent of the profession nationwide. The statistics are worse when you focus on women -- they represent well under one percent, with just 13 African-American women registered as architects in Michigan. 

Johnson arrived in Detroit in 1950, and went to work for the first black architect ever licensed in the state, Donald White at White & Griffin.

"I made $1.98 an hour at White & Griffin," the architect said with a smile. 

Thereafter, Johnson was hired by the Los Angeles-based superstar who invented the modern shopping mall, Victor Gruen, to oversee the design and construction of Eastland Center. 

Johnson went out on his own in 1956, eventually setting up offices on West Grand Boulevard that he filled up with hunting trophies from his African safaris. Johnson couldn't locate 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 -- scattered all across the city of Detroit. 

One of Johnson's most-striking designs was Stanley's Mannia Cafe on Baltimore east of Woodward, designed in the space age "Googie" style popular in the postwar decades. "We didn’t copy anything there -- we wanted to be original," he said.

The building, dilapidated but still standing, has a distinctive spire that acted as both architecture and advertising. 

"You could see the tower from the Boulevard, and they'd come to Stanley's," Johnson said, explaining the source of his design. Narrow spires figure in a number of his projects, including Bethel A.M.E. Church.

Stanley's Mannia Cafe by Nathan Johnson is one of the only examples of "Googie" space-age design in Detroit. The building, now dilapidated, is at John R and Baltimore.

Not surprisingly, Johnson has become a source of inspiration for younger black architects. 

"It's just touching for me to see an African-American architect with a distinctive style," said Saundra Little, a principal at Quinn Evans Architects. "That seems to be rare, since many black architects don't have their own practices."

Little and architect Karen A.D. Burton founded Noir Design Parti, dedicated to documenting the careers of black architects in Michigan. In 2016, the two won a Knight Arts Challenge grant to fund the project. 

"I think Nathan's buildings are great," Burton said. "I didn't really know much about him until Saundra and I started this research. I didn't realize that a lot of buildings I passed every day were his. He seemed," she added, "to be ahead of his time." 

Little and Burton will both speak at Saturday's Docomomo tour, which will start at Bethel A.M.E. Church, and wind up at Second Baptist Church in Greektown. 

For his part, Johnson says that one of his all-time favorite architects was Frank Lloyd Wright.

"He was the greatest," he said with a laugh. "He made it bad for everybody."

'The Shape of Things to Come: Reclaiming the Legacy of Detroit's Black Architects'

Sponsored by Docomomo_US/Michigan 

9:30 a.m. - 2:30 p.m. Saturday 

9:30 a.m. check-in - Bethel A.M.E. Church, 5050 St. Antoine, Detroit 

$20 - Docomomo members, $25 - non-members; tickets available on website 

Students enter free, but are asked to register by emailing

(313) 222-6021

Twitter: @mhodgesartguy