Albert Kahn, the architect of the auto industrialists

The Packard plant on East Grand Boulevard helped launch the career of architect Albert Kahn.

Albert Kahn

“I got all the breaks,” Albert Kahn said of his long career as an industrial architect. In 1904, he applied a new building technique that he had learned in Europe–reinforced concrete–to his designs for the new Packard factory on East Grand Boulevard near Mt.Elliot.

In 1904, he applied a new building technique that he had learned in Europe–reinforced concrete–to his designs for the new Packard factory on East Grand Boulevard near Mt.Elliot. This innovative, sturdy, light, clean, spacious, efficient factory so excited and pleased the young automakers who were flocking to Detroit that they all rushed to order his new design. Thus began Kahn’s long, productive career that paralleled the history of the infant auto industry and its capital, Detroit.

Albert Kahn was born in Germany in 1869. His father, a rabbi, brought the family to the United States. As a youth, Albert apprenticed with a Michigan architect, Geroge D. Mason, and won a scholarship to study in Europe. After returning home, he started his own firm in 1895, Nettleton, Kahn and Trowbridge. The firm, now known as Albert Kahn and Associates, celebrated its 100th anniversary last year and is still considered a leader in industrial plant design.

Henry B. Joy hired Kahn to design and build factories for Packard Motor Co. In 1904, after building nine Packard plants, Kahn suggested a new method he had learned in Europe for plant number ten. The building still stands on East Grand Boulevard, its reinforced concrete still sturdy.

Early auto plants were dirty, cramped, dark and inefficient. Kahn’s new method took into account what the workers did and where their materials should be, increasing the efficiency of the work flow.

“Nine-tenths of my success has come because I listened to what people said they wanted and gave it to them,” Kahn said.

Everyone marveled at the new building. Visitors said it was clean, open, airy, bright, handsome, pleasant, comfortable, efficient, healthful, simple, bold, and well-proportioned. Orders from other automakers began to pour in.

The General Motors Building was designed by Kahn.

“The industrialists always want the new plant finished by yesterday, ” he said. “I work fast, but I never hurry.”

Kahn built more than 1,000 buildings for Ford and hundreds for General Motors. All the industry used his services. He also designed and built office spaces, like the Fisher Building and General Motors Building. He built offices for banks and he constructed the Detroit News building at 615 W. Lafayette in 1917. It is still comfortable and was renovated to house both The Detroit News and Free Press.

In 1916, Henry Ford contracted with Kahn to build the Ford Rouge complex in order to build submarine chaser boats for World War I. After the war, the Rouge complex was devoted to building cars and gradually expanded into the world’s largest industrial plant covering 1,100 acres. The complex gave Ford complete control of the manufacturing process, from turning the iron ore into steel to assembling the completed car.

Much impressed, the Russians hired Kahn to build factories for them and train their builders and architects.

Kahn’s ability to work fast was seriously tested in the 1940s when the auto firms switched to war production. He built the huge Willow Run complex quickly and efficiently, turning it into the “Arsenal of Democracy.” For his efforts, Kahn was described as being as important as any general in winning the war.

Kahn also built private homes, like the Edsel Ford estate on Lake Shore Drive in Grosse Pointe Shores. The palatial English cottage-style mansion overlooking Lake St. Clair is now used as a show house for local events. The gardens include an exquisite walk-in playhouse made for Josephine Ford.

The newspaper Booth family hired Kahn to design its home, now known as the Cranbrook House. Kahn’s own home, on Mack at John R in Detroit, now houses the Detroit Urban League.

Other lesser known Kahn Detroit buildings include the Detroit Athletic Club, Police Headquarters, Liggett School, Detroit Golf Club, and original Temple Beth El.

The Ford Rouge complex


(This story was compiled using clip and photo files of the Detroit News.)By Vivian M. Baulch