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Life of Albert Kahn

  • The Life of Albert Kahn

“We took him on as an office boy and nine months later started him on tracing and drafting. I have never known anyone with such enormous capacity for concentration and application to study. Every spare moment of the day, Albert spent reading our collection of architectural books. In fact, he was often fond of saying that his early education in architecture was obtained in the library of Mason and Rice.”


The Successful Immigrant


Learn More About Albert Kahn

Albert Kahn, circa 1930s (Albert Kahn Associates photo)

Albert and his wife Ernestine standing in front of St. Mark’s Basilica in Venice, circa 1921. (Albert Kahn Associates photo)

Albert Kahn was born in 1869 near Frankfurt in Rhaunen, Germany. His father Joseph was trained as a rabbi; his mother Rosalie had a talent for the visual arts and music. His parents and siblings immigrated to the United States in 1881, settling in Detroit. As a Jewish-German immigrant, life was not easy for the large family. The oldest of eight, Albert left school in the seventh grade to work and help support his family. He used his earnings as an architect to pay for his four younger brothers to attend college and become architects or engineers.

Albert went to public school and, as a teenager, got a job at the architectural firm of Mason and Rice. In 1891 at age 22, he won a Rotch Traveling Fellowship, to study abroad in Europe, where he toured Germany, France, Italy, and Belgium. An accomplished sketch artist, Albert filled his notebooks with beautiful renderings of Europe’s classic buildings.

Above: This is the drafting room of Architecture firm Mason and Rice, July 30, 1888. Nineteen-year-old Albert Kahn is nearest the camera. (Burton Historical Collection, Detroit Public Library photo); The Kahn family, 1888. Albert is on the far right; brother Julius is in the doorway in the back row. His parents, Joseph and Rosalie, are seated in the middle. (Albert Kahn)


Above: Albert’s sketch titled Poitiers, after a city in France, completed during his European trip in 1891. (Albert Kahn Associates photo) Above Left: Albert Kahn, circa 1920s (Albert Kahn Associates photo).

Albert’s personal qualities helped him build one of the outstanding and successful architecture and engineering firms in the United States. Industrious to his core, he often left the dinner table to continue work in his office. But his daughter, Rosalie, also recalled decades later that her father took joy in baseball and sat rapt and open-mouthed listening to classical music.


Above: The former Temple Beth El on Woodward Avenue in Detroit was designed by Albert Kahn and George D. Mason and completed in 1903 (Library of Congress photo). On the right is a stained glass window from the Albert Kahn designed 1922 Temple Beth El synagogue. Below: Albert Kahn seated at his desk in the Marquette building, 1921 (Detroit News photo).

Kahn worked until his death in 1942. Many of his working papers and some family papers, as well as records of Albert Kahn Associates, Inc. are at the Bentley Historical Library at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor. His personal working library, the Albert Kahn Library Collection, is housed at Lawrence Technological University in Southfield, Michigan. The Archives of American Art at the Smithsonian holds additional family correspondences and other materials.


Albert Kahn:
Additional Resources

Select Bibliography


Arnold, Amy and Brian Conway. Michigan Modern: Design that Shaped America. Kaysville, UT: Gibbs Smith, 2016.

Bucci, Fredrico. Albert Kahn, Architect of Ford. New York, New York: Princeton Architectural Press, 1993.

Ferry, W. Hawkins. The Legacy of Albert Kahn. Detroit, Michigan: Wayne State University Press, 1987.

Hodges, Michael. Building the Modern World: Albert Kahn in Detroit. Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 2018.

Hyde, Charles K. Arsenal of Democracy: The Automobile Industry in World War II. Detroit, Michigan: Wayne State University Press, 2013.

Smith, Michael G., Designing Detroit, Wirt Rowland and the Rise of Modern American Architecture. Detroit, Michigan: Wayne State University Press, 2017.

Smith, Terry. Making the Modern: Industry, Art, and Design in America. Chicago, IL: The University of Chicago Press, 1993.

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