An Albert Kahn museum? Nonprofit pushes to cement architect's legacy

Maureen Feighan
The Detroit News

Renowned architect Albert Kahn and his firm designed more than 400 buildings that still stand all over southeast Michigan and thousands more around the world, but step outside Michigan and many don't recognize his name.

A local nonprofit wants to change that. The Albert Kahn Legacy Foundation,  started two years ago by a passionate group of volunteers, is working to give Kahn the recognition they say he deserves, possibly even with a museum dedicated to him one day. But for now, there's a new exhibition at the Detroit Historical Museum that tells Kahn's remarkable story, rising from immigrant to prolific architect of factories and commercial buildings all over the globe. 

"A lot of people only know a little part — only a little part — of Albert. They have no idea of the magnitude," said Heidi Pfannes, vice president and director of business development for Albert Kahn Associates and part of the Legacy Foundation, the nonprofit group started in 2020 that's working to preserve and cultivate Kahn's legacy.

A Lego replica of one of Kahn's biggest achievements in Detroit, the Fisher Building, was created by local Lego expert Jim Garrett. It has 120,000 pieces and weighs more than 300 pounds.

"Albert Kahn: Innovation and Influences on 20th Century Architecture," displayed in the Historical Museum's Robert and Mary Ann Bury Community Gallery until early July, features photos, architectural drawings, maps, even Lego replicas of some of Kahn's work. A replica of the Fisher Building features 120,000 pieces and weighs more than 300 pounds.

The Lego models, which also include the Russel Industrial Center and Ford Piquette Plant and were created by local Lego extraordinaire Jim Garrett, show how Kahn's factory designs evolved over time from mill construction to reinforced concrete, a method his brother Julius developed. There are also some wood models of Kahn's work.

"Hopefully when people leave here they're going to have not just an understanding of who Albert was but what Detroit was — the importance of Detroit to the world," said Michael G. Smith, a Legacy Foundation board member, who is working on a book about Kahn's brother, Julius. "Detroit was the leading innovation center for architecture in the early 20th century, both in design and in structure."

Eric Keller, left, and Aimee Ergas are both members of the Albert Kahn Legacy Foundation, a nonprofit working to honor the famed industrial designer's life, innovations, and influence. Keller, a graphic designer, created most of the exhibit's signage.

Most architects looked down at designing factories, believing they didn't matter, said Pfannes, but not Kahn.

Those contracts were lucrative, Smith said, and "he cared about process. He cared about people that worked in these factories," said Pfannes. "There was a lot more to Albert than just beautiful design. He also was a sustainable architect."

The reality is most people aren't aware of how prolific Kahn, the oldest son of German-born Jewish immigrants, was — even his own firm, Albert Kahn Associates, now located on the 18th and 19th floors of the Fisher.

Pfannes said she got a call recently from the Midway Atoll, a group of three islands in the Pacific Ocean near Hawaii. The Midway Atoll has 50 buildings designed by Kahn, some of which they want to restore for their fish and game division.

"We had no idea," said Pfannes. "Many of these buildings were classified because it was during the war (World War II)."

Blueprints and architectural drawings are part of the new exhibit, "Albert Kahn: Innovation and Influences on 20th Century Architecture," at the Detroit Historical Museum.

Kahn, the oldest of eight kids, never went to college but became an apprentice at Mason and Rice. He started his own architectural firm in Detroit in 1895. His firm's name is on many of the city's most iconic buildings, including Belle Isle Aquarium and the Packard Plant. Albert Kahn Associates designed 44,000 buildings across the globe, including hundreds of factories in Russia. There is a Kahn building on every continent except Antarctica, said Pfannes.

"He was one of those American success stories who came as a young immigrant with his parents and siblings with very little formal education," said Aimee Ergas, an archivist and a member of the Albert Kahn Legacy Foundation's board. "And just his talent and his ability to work with people, he became the most prominent architect probably of the 20th century, at least in the United States. His story is amazing."

A map on one wall of the "Albert Kahn" exhibit pinpoints 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 that his firm designed, according to Smith: the former Detroit News building on Lafayette that was built in 1917. 

The exhibit tells Kahn's story through photos, video clips, maps and text panels, as well as both wood and Lego architectural models. There are also some of Kahn's hand-drawn architectural sketches and artifacts from Kahn's office.

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're hoping that this can go on the road to other communities," said Pfannes.

'Albert Kahn: Innovation and Influences on 20th Century Architecture'

Inside the Robert and Mary Ann Bury Community Gallery at the Detroit Historical Museum until July 3.

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