Historic Detroit

Albert Kahn Building

It’s only fitting that the so-called architect of Detroit would have a building bearing his name.

An anchor of the New Center business district, the Albert Kahn Building offers a rich history behind its Art Deco facade. From its industrialist patrons and world famous architect, to the many prominent businesses that have occupied its floors, the edifice encapsulates the era that vaulted Detroit into international prominence.

‘Spirit and Enterprise’

The Fisher brothers – who funded the construction of both the New Center Building and its next-door neighbor the Fisher Building – epitomize the incredible manufacturing wealth that flooded Detroit in the first decades of the 20th century.

The seven siblings – Fred, Charles, William, Lawrence, Edward, Alfred and Howard Fisher – were natives of Norwalk, Ohio, and came from a family of wagon builders. Charles and Fred, the eldest of the brothers, moved to Detroit in 1905 and founded Fisher Closed Body Co. Unlike the many area companies that were still manufacturing hand-built, lightweight frames based on older designs for horse-drawn carriages, Fisher Closed Body Co. mass-produced specially designed frames strong enough to withstand the weight and vibrations of increasingly powerful automobile engines.

As the company grew, Charles and Fred talked their younger brothers into joining them, and by 1910, all seven were involved in the Detroit business. By 1913, the brothers were the sole body dealers for Ford, Cadillac, Buick, Studebaker and several smaller automobile companies. In 1919, General Motors acquired 60 percent of Fisher Closed Body Co. for $27.6 million (about $368 million today, when adjusted for inflation) with a contract stipulating that the automaker would purchase all Fisher bodies at full price plus a 17 percent increase. This deal multiplied the brothers’ already substantial fortunes, and when General Motors purchased the remaining 40 percent of the company in 1925 – for $208 million ($2.5 billion today) – the Fishers became some of the wealthiest men in the city.

Beginning in the late 1920s, the brothers invested this wealth in the development of the New Center area, first by subsidizing the construction of the General Motors Building, and then by building the 28-story Fisher Building. The Albert Kahn Building – which would open as the New Center Building – would be their third undertaking in New Center and the first of a series of smaller office buildings that the brothers intended to construct during the 1930s.

‘A building with a purpose’

Though nowhere near the scale of its towering neighbors, Detroiters expressed particular enthusiasm when plans for the New Center Building hit the newspapers in September 1930. Though the prosperous city had suffered less in the economic collapse of 1929 than many of its eastern counterparts, the Great Depression had caused a near standstill in major architectural projects. Many of the construction workers who, in the booming 1920s had barely been able to keep up with the demand for their skills, faced a greatly diminished workload in the early 1930s. To prove their commitment to Detroit and its people, the Fisher Brothers accelerated plans for an annex to the Fisher Building.

In June 1931, the Detroit News wrote an article on the building bearing the headline, “A building with a purpose.”

The brothers publicized the construction of the New Center Building by stating that “we feel that by taking this course it will serve as an incentive to others to proceed with normal expansion and thus assist in solving the unemployment problem. We want further to give a practical demonstration of our continued and steadily growing faith in the future of Detroit.” The Fishers’ announcement, and word of the many jobs that the building would create, spread quickly. Upon hearing the news, Detroit Mayor Frank Murphy declared, “I cannot say how pleased I am to learn of this project,” according to a September 1930 Free Press article. “I trust indeed this splendid effort … will inspire others of our industrialists and builders.”

Modern American

To design the New Center Building, the Fisher brothers turned to Albert Kahn, who was already a superstar in the field of commercial and industrial architecture. Kahn, a Prussian immigrant to Detroit, opened his firm in 1895 and quickly gained a reputation for his factory designs, which utilized reinforced concrete instead of wooden structural support. The firm grew quickly, and soon Kahn’s firm was the preferred factory designer for Detroit’s many automobile manufacturers. By 1930, Kahn was already well-known to the Fisher family, having designed both the Fisher Closed Body factory on Piquette Street, the Fisher Building and Cadillac Place.

Unlike many of Detroit’s contemporary office buildings, Kahn did not intend the New Center Building as an innovative architectural showpiece. Instead, the architect designed the structure to echo the opulence of the nearby Fisher Building, which was considered an artistic masterpiece and was promoted as the most beautiful commercial building in the world. On the New Center Building, elements such as the granite and bluestone cladding, the decorative metal grille over the main entrance, and the projecting medallions above the third floor windows created a visual link to the Fisher Building. The Detroit Free Press picked up on this relationship early on, praising Kahn’s initial renderings of the New Center Building in that 1930 article as “comfortable to the design of the present Fisher Building.”

Though the architect intended some components of what is now the Albert Kahn Building to reference the Fisher Building, other aspects of the design insured that the edifice would not overshadow its neighbor. This objective found its most direct expression in the smaller stature of the Albert Kahn Building, which rises only 10 stories. In contrast to the Fisher Building’s numerous setbacks, which produce a staggered and vaguely Gothic exterior, the New Center Building features only a central mass framed by two slightly lower wings.

When compared to the diverse fenestration of the Fisher Building, the New Center Building also received a far more basic window arrangement. The ground floor contains shop windows set in molded metal surrounds. The mezzanine level features smaller display windows framed by narrow panes. On floors above, Kahn arranged slightly recessed bands of simple, double-hung windows, which terminate in a banded rib to form a cornice reminiscent of medieval crenellations. Only on the top two stories of the building’s central mass did Kahn embellish the otherwise basic openings with double height, flat-arch windows.

Upon entering the Albert Kahn Building, the basic ornamental treatment cedes to a series of extravagant public spaces. In the lobby, the building’s exterior stone banding transforms into strips of contrasting marble on the floors and fluorescent lights on a fluted ceiling to produce an energetic and streamlined aesthetic. On one side of the lobby, a stairwell leads to an underground concourse linking the Albert Kahn Building to the Fisher Building. This space features diamond-pattern terrazzo floors and subway tile walls. The stylish design of the lobby and concourse contrasts strongly, however, with the upper floors of the Albert Kahn Building. Originally, these spaces were left open and fitted only with bathrooms, trash chutes and stairwells. This system enabled renters to configure the interior to suit their specific needs, a feature that made the building eminently more attractive to potential tenants.

To Kahn, the New Center Building and the Fisher Building together represented an architectural style that he called “Modern American” and described as “the external expression of the structural steel elements of the building and the emphasis of the vertical structural members, also the setting back of the upper stories.” Though Kahn may have coined the term “Modern American,” the forms that he employed echoed national trends in skyscraper design. The setbacks and stylized Gothic elements of the Fisher Building, for example, drew heavily on Cass Gilbert’s 1913 design for Woolworth Building in New York City, as well as Raymond Hood’s 1922 Chicago Tribune Headquarters. Hood’s slightly later Daily News Building in New York, as well as a volley of other late 1920s streamlined office buildings set the precedent for the New Center Building. In the years after the New Center Building opened, this process of visually simplification and structural expression would reach new heights with the International Style.

Shops within a store

While the New Center Building may have been relatively modest in its architecture, it drew some of Detroit’s most prestigious businesses. Not least among these was Albert Kahn himself, who moved his architectural practice in the building. The firm continues to occupy several floors to this day. Another early tenant of the building was G&R McMillan Co. grocers, who had been serving Detroit since 1849. Though Kahn’s offices and McMillan grocers anchored the New Center Building in its first years of operation, the edifice is perhaps best known as the site of Detroit’s Saks Fifth Avenue department store. Saks opened its Detroit branch in the fall of 1940 and quickly became one of the most popular upscale vendors in the city. Whereas most Saks stores were arranged as a single space with counters for each department, the New Center Building store featured separate, uniquely decorated rooms divided by section through which a customer could wander. This plan, known as “shops within a store” was meant to “eliminate sales-counter atmosphere, substituting instead the feeling of a quiet, spacious house,” the New York Times reported in March 1940. The 60,000-square-foot store, which also contained a lunchroom and beauty salon, occupied the bottom three floors of the New Center Building. Among the many services that the department store offered were couture salon managers. These individuals traveled to designers’ showrooms in New York to specially select clothes for clients. The Saks Fifth Avenue remained in the New Center Building until 1980.

An uncertain future

The Fisher brothers intended the New Center Building to be the first in a series of similar structures that would continue to buoy the growth of the New Center business district. Though these additions never realized, New Center remained highly successful and prestigious through the first half of the 20th century. As Midtown and parts of downtown Detroit began to flag in the 1950s, New Center remained dynamic. In large measure, this survival hinged on the presence of the General Motors headquarters. The 1961 reopening of the Fisher Theatre as a live performance venue brought even greater vibrancy to the area.

A 1966 Detroit News Pictorial Magazine article described New Center as “a financial and professional Greenwich Village,” where “the dwellers are artists of finance and writers of multi-million dollar contracts – well-dressed beatniks of the buck.” The New Center Building profited from this commerce and remained almost fully occupied through the 1960s. In the following decades, New Center continued to accommodate many of the city’s largest companies, even as the surrounding neighborhoods slowly emptied.

This steady occupancy also put New Center on the forefront of Detroit’s historic preservation movement. The New Center Building and the Fisher Building were placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1980, within 10 years of the city’s first register listings. Over the next several years, the building underwent several alterations, including a second-floor skywalk and attached parking garage, connected to the construction of One New Center. In 1988, the New Center Building was renamed for its architect and longtime tenant, Albert Kahn. In 2001, the Albert Kahn Building and Fisher Building were sold to the Southfield-based Farbman Group for $31 million dollars. At the time of the sale, the Albert Kahn Building was 92% occupied. By the spring of 2014, occupancy had fallen to around 50%. Currently, the Farbman Group is in mortgage default on both the Albert Kahn Building and the Fisher Building.