Albert Kahn is Detroit’s best-known and most prolific architect. In the early 20th century, Kahn built Detroit into a mecca of automotive production and modern architecture, designing the most important car factories of the time.
Born in Rhaunen, Germany (Prussia) in 1869, Khan’s family moved to Detroit in 1881 when he was 11. He began drafting and designing buildings in his teens while working at the architectural firm of Mason and Rice. In 1890, he won the American Architect and Building News scholarship to study in Europe. Shortly after his return, he was made chief designer at Mason & Rice at the age of 22. In 1895, Kahn and his brother Julius founded the architectural firm Albert Kahn Associates, which celebrated its 125th anniversary in 2020.
The brothers began developing a new construction technique which utilized reinforced concrete instead of wood for walls, roofs, and support beams. This practice made buildings less susceptible to fire and allowed for large cavities of unobstructed space. Kahn and his company were hired by Packard President Henry Joy to design Packard’s new Detroit factory. When the Packard Automotive Plant was completed in 1905, it became the first reinforced concrete automobile factory in the world. The construction of the Packard Plant attracted the attention of Henry Ford, who hired Kahn to design Ford Motor Company’s Highland Park plant in 1908. Kahn was also hired by Ford in 1917 to design the colossal River Rouge Complex in Dearborn, Michigan. Upon its completion, the River Rouge Complex became the largest manufacturing facility in the U.S. In addition to domestic auto factories, Kahn also designed numerous buildings in and around the city of Detroit, including much of Detroit’s Indian Village, the Cranbrook House, the Edsel and Eleanor Ford House, the Dearborn Inn, and the Fisher Building. Kahn also designed many buildings on the campus of the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, such as Burton Memorial Tower, Hill Auditorium, Hatcher Library, and the William L. Clements Library.
Kahn was a leader in his profession, a frequent lecturer, founding craftsman of the Detroit Society of Arts and Crafts in 1906, and a member of the Detroit Arts Commission created in 1918. He married Ernestine Krolik in 1896, and they had four children together.
In 1937, Albert Kahn Associates was responsible for nearly 20 percent of all the architect-designed factories in the U.S. In total, Kahn received over 1,000 commissions from Henry Ford and hundreds more from other automakers. His final project was the Willow Run Bomber Plant in Ypsilanti, MI, where Ford Motor Company mass-produced the B-24 Liberator bomber planes during WWII. More than 60 Albert Kahn buildings have been listed on the National Register of Historic Places.