Writer tells of life, work of architect Albert Kahn
Correction: This story has been updated to correct the date Michael Hodges will speak at the Northville District Library.
History buffs know that Detroit was the Arsenal of Democracy during World War II, with automotive plants reconfigured to produce jeeps, bombers and tanks for the military.
Detroit architect Albert Kahn designed many of those plants, although he died in 1942, so he never saw what the Arsenal of Democracy helped achieve. But few know that Kahn and his company also built tractor factories in the former Soviet Union, plants, that, converted to war production, helped win the war.
Kahn’s life and times are chronicled in Michael Hodges’ lavishly illustrated new book, “Building the Modern World: Albert Kahn in Detroit” (Painted Turtle/Wayne State University Press).
“He actually built the industrial spine of the Soviet Union,” said author Hodges, who is the fine arts writer and critic for The Detroit News.
Hodges is one of four authors who will speak and sign books May 21 at the 92nd Metro Detroit Book & Author Luncheon. He will be joined by: Jessica Knoll (“The Favorite Sister”), Tiya Miles (“The Dawn of Detroit: A Chronicle of Slavery and Freedom in the City of the Straits”) and Dani Shapiro (“Hourglass”).
Between Kahn’s work in Russia and his Detroit plants, it’s hard to overstate his importance in the war effort. His Willow Run plant, built without windows so it could stay dark and run a stealth 24-hour-a-day operation, produced 650 B-24 bombers a month by the end of 1944.
“There’s some famous British general who said that the war was won in Detroit,” Hodges said. “That’s Kahn!”
Whether you explore Woodward Avenue, venture downtown or go into the upscale auto baron neighborhoods, you can’t miss Kahn’s work.
His commercial buildings include the Fisher Building, poised serenely at the end of Second Avenue, and the nearby 1920 General Motors Building (not, of course, its current location in the Renaissance Center), as well as the renovated Argonaut (formerly the General Motors Research Lab), now the A. Alfred Taubman Center for Design Education.
His other downtown structures include Temple Beth El, which looms over Woodward; the Detroit Athletic Club; the Kales Building; and the two historic newspaper buildings on Lafayette: The Detroit News and Detroit Free Press (the old Detroit Times was also his, but it is long gone).
Kahn’s own home, an expansive brick edifice on Mack, is now occupied by the Detroit Urban League — and the National Theater and Grinnell’s building are undergoing renovation.
On Belle Isle, the storied Aquarium and the Anna Scripps Whitcomb Conservatory, built in 1904, are both Kahn designs.
Born in Germany, Kahn was 12 when he and his family moved to Detroit in 1881 from Luxembourg. He learned architecture as an apprentice, working for Detroit architects such as George Mason until he could strike off on his own.
He was active until his death in 1942. By then, he had revolutionized factory design with his “daylight,” many-windowed plants, neo-classical newspaper headquarters, private homes and academic buildings at the University of Michigan.
Hodges knew Kahn had designed many of the Detroit plants that helped win the war, but he was intrigued by the lesser-known Soviet connection.
“The Kahns built those (tractor) factories, and they all go over to war production. Sure, somebody else would have done it — probably. But Albert Kahn is the guy who did it,” Hodges said.
Kahn’s firm had been approached to do the work in the Soviet Union in the 1920s, and although initially reluctant, he signed the contract and sent his brother and several employees to Russia to oversee construction. The Russians sent personnel over to Detroit as well, to learn the Kahns’ methods. Sadly, during Stalin’s reign of terror in the 1930s, virtually all the Russians who collaborated with the Kahns were sent to concentration camps as possible traitors, where they perished.
Hodges’ goal was to write the Kahn book for a more general reader, as an alternative to the more academic works about Kahn already published. Just as with his previous book, “Michigan’s Historic Railroad Stations” (Wayne State University Press), he was thrilled to be able to take photographs.
“Photography is the only reason I do these books, it’s the fun part,” Hodges said. “Photography to me is ecstatic if you get good light and what not.”
After two and a half years of research — apart from his day job— Hodges uncovered new information, and he tries to right some wrongs.
One wrong is the persistent view, perpetuated in many books about Diego Rivera, that the Mexican muralist was unfairly treated by Kahn.
Kahn isn’t given enough credit for befriending Rivera and touting his work to corporate sponsors, Hodges asserted.
Rivera’s “Detroit Industry” murals were commissioned by Edsel Ford for the Detroit Institute of Arts’ inner courtyard and depicted workers at the Ford Rouge Plant. While Kahn had some minor reservations about some details of the work, he was the first to publicly defend Rivera in the face of fierce, citywide outrage when the murals were first unveiled — not Edsel Ford, whose defense came shortly after Kahn’s.
The murals, now universally acknowledged as the crown jewel of the DIA, were bashed as vulgar and “Communist,” as late as the 1950s.
But it is Kahn’s reputation as the hatchet man who fired Rivera from a job creating a mural for General Motors’ building at the Chicago World’s Fair that is most damaging. The incident happened after Rivera, an avowed Communist, enraged the Rockefeller family when he included the face of Vladimir Lenin in the mural he did for Rockefeller Center in New York City. He hadn’t told his billionaire sponsors about that in advance.
The ensuing brouhaha convinced General Motors to cancel its Rivera order, and they made Kahn, the building’s architect, break the news.
“GM made (Kahn) send the telegram firing Rivera,” Hodges said. It led to Kahn being depicted as the hatchet man, but Hodges pointed out in his book that there was a solid friendship between Rivera and his wife, Freda Kahlo, and the Kahns. The book includes a photo of the Mexican artists with Kahn’s wife, Ernestine, and son, Edgar Kahn, in the garden of his summer home in what is now West Bloomfield.
Some of the stories Hodges uncovers give a humorous, human dimension to otherwise distant, historical figures. At the lowest point of the Depression, Kahn asked for a break on the rent that Detroit News publisher (and Kahn friend) George Booth was charging him for some buildings. Booth exploded in rage, sending Kahn a testy, high-handed letter asking why the architect didn’t offer to pay more rent during the years of prosperity.
“Yeah, (Booth) comes off as, ‘Oh, I’m a patrician,’ ” Hodges said, with a laugh. “No, you’re not. You came from the working class and you married well (to Ellen Scripps, daughter of Detroit News founder James Scripps). It’s an interesting reflection, though, of Kahn willing to risk a friendship to get a monetary advantage during the Depression.”
What is striking, reading about Kahn and his times, is the feeling of optimism and expansion in Detroit, which was no less than the Silicon Valley of the early 20th century.
Kahn’s life and career really does illustrate the building of the modern world, as Hodges’ book title reflects.
“One reason you can argue that Kahn is the transition into modern architecture is that Kahn designed for Henry Ford. That gave his designs a sexiness and incredible exposure,” Hodges said. “It’s because Ford was the genius rescuing the world right up until about 1920. And Ford Motor used pictures of their (Kahn-designed) factories in advertising in the ’20s because it suggested modernity, back when smokestacks belching smoke was seen as good.”
Susan Whitall is a longtime contributor to the Detroit News. You can reach her at susanwhitall.com
About the event
Metro Detroit Book and Author Society Author Luncheon
11 a.m. Book sale room opens, followed by luncheon at noon.
Participating authors, who will be available to sign books:
Michael Hodges, ‘Building the Modern World: Albert Kahn in Detroit.’
Jessica Knoll, ‘The Favorite Sister’: Knoll has written a thriller about two sisters competing in a reality show competition; only one will survive, but which one? Knoll’s novel “Luckiest Girl Alive” was the bestselling debut novel of 2015.
Tiya Miles, ‘The Dawn of Detroit: A Chronicle of Slavery and Freedom in the City of the Straits’: Miles, a historian at the University of Michigan, has written a fascinating account of slavery in a multiracial, multi-ethnic Detroit in the earliest years of its settlement. When the French still controlled Detroit in the 18th century, slavery was connected with the fur trade and many of the enslaved were Native Americans, along with blacks. Miles tells the stories of many of the enslaved, and gives a startlingly different view of the origins of Detroit.
Dani Shapiro, ‘Hourglass’: Shapiro is the author of five novels, as well as the memoirs “Slow Motion” and “Devotion.” Her first two memoirs were of youthful transgressions and challenges; her latest, “Hourglass,” is, as NPR described it, “less an account of catastrophe than it is a clear-eyed inspection of the slow cracks certain to develop in a long marriage.”
Michael Hodges speaking engagements, book signings
7 p.m. May 2: Northville District Library
6:30 p.m. May 10: Berman Center for the Performing Arts, Jewish Community Center of Metro Detroit