Nathan Johnson, Modernist Black Architect from Detroit, Dies at 96

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Nathan Johnson, Modernist Black Architect from Detroit, Dies at 96

Nathan Johnson, a forward-thinking modernist black architect who designed some of Detroit’s most iconic structures — 1960s churches — with sculptural brio and futuristic lines, died on November 5 at his home in Detroit . He was 96 years old.

His granddaughter Asia Johnson confirmed the death but gave no reason.

When Detroit’s storied New Bethel Baptist Church, a center of the civil rights movement, was forced to make way for a freeway from its home in the early ’60s, and for a time its congregation was forced to make way for a freeway. Had to relocate to the theatre, its leadership turned to Mr. Johnson to design a new church. (Such extensive urban renewal efforts stunned many Black neighborhoods, and were called “negro removal” by many Black Detroiters.)

Mr Johnson’s massive concrete and glass structure, with a spire that evoked the factory roots of the Motor City – or Empire State Building – cost half a million dollars in 1963. When it opened in March of that year, 2,000 members marched through the theater. new church; Its pastor, Clarence Lavon Franklin, otherwise known as CL, told The Detroit Free Press that it was like a “journey from valley to mountain”.

And when the reverend’s daughter, Aretha Franklin, once the star choir soloist of New Bethel Baptist, died in 2018, thousands lined up to see her body. This was the second stop of the “Queen of the Soul” before her funeral, also in Detroit, at the Greater Grace Temple.

By 1963, Mr. Johnson had already designed several striking black churches in Detroit: boldly modern structures with floating glass ceilings and thatched roofs resembling ships in cramped urban spaces. His work was a sign of progress and dynamism for members of the black community, who until then often worshiped in meat markets and grocery stores. (New Bethel Baptist once lived in the former bowling alley.)

When the congregation at Bethel AME, which included records executive Berry Gordy and his family, needed new excavations for its swelling membership, he turned to Mr. Johnson for what would be the church’s fourth or fifth home since 1841. When it opened in 1974, the Mr Johnson-designed church was a low, circular building with a center spire with a metal spire – it recalls both African structures and a spaceship.

“In Detroit we say there’s a church on every corner,” Ken Coleman, a journalist who often writes about African American life in Detroit, said in an interview, “but Johnson created some more iconic ones. “

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Detroit’s Second Baptist Church, the city’s oldest black church, which in an earlier incarnation was a stop on the Underground Railroad, was another venerable congregation that reached Mr. Johnson. He needed to expand his brick Gothic Revival building to add an education center.

This was a culturally significant contract: in 1839, Second Baptist opened the first school for black children in Detroit.

Mr Johnson’s Brutalist addition, built in 1968, spoke of his aesthetic taste at the time, but it was also a slight concession to the bank that funded the church to expand. In a very specific exchange, Mr. Coleman said, the bank instructed Mr. Johnson to make something that was not too ecclesiastical, because lenders were convinced that the church would not be able to pay its debts and the bank had Will foreclose and resell the structure.

Mr. Johnson would go on to design 30 or 40 churches, said Detroit architect Saundra Little, who, along with architectural designer Karen Burton, is the founder of the Noir Design Party, an organization that compiles the history of Detroit’s black architects. Including Mr. Johnson.

His church, Ms Little said, was part of his work, which included public housing, single-family residential functions and residential towers, premises and dormitories for churches and schools, and the city’s People Mover Station, an elevated transit. System built in the 1980s.

His work includes, notably, Stanley’s Mania Cafe, a ’70s Chinese restaurant and favorite hot spot of Motown stars and the city’s first Black mayor, Coleman Young (the building houses a ’90s-era house and rap music). As was life after life) nightclub). With soaring concrete buttresses and high-rise entrances like the spire of a church, the building is a Detroit example of what became known as Googie architecture. The style, which began in Los Angeles, and is named for architect John Lautner’s design for the Googies coffee shop there, is reminiscent of the futuristic cartoon “The Jetsons” with exaggerated lines.

“Johnson was always pushing the envelope structurally and stylistically,” Ms Little said in an interview. “He loved testing the limits.”

Nathan Johnson was born on April 9, 1925, in Harrington, Kan., a city with a population of over 4,000 at the time. He was the youngest of four children of Ida and Brooks Johnson, who worked for the railroad as a boiler washer and boilermaker helper.

Nathan had a talent for art, and in the eighth grade a teacher pushed him to architecture. “Architects are appreciated when they are alive and artists are appreciated when they die,” he recalled.

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In 1950, after earning a bachelor’s degree in architecture from Kansas State University, he worked for a long time in Detroit as a draftsman for Donald White and Francis Griffin, the only black architectural firm in the city. He later worked for Austrian expatriate Viktor Gruen, whose firm designed several shopping malls across the country before opening his own firm in 1956, mostly working in his community, which he called “the little things”. .

“He ran the Midwest version of Jim Crow,” Jamon Jordan, Detroit’s official historian, said in an interview. “Blacks can vote and earn a decent wage, but if a white firm or wealthy white client is asking for an architect, what they don’t want to see is a black designer.”

It was not until the weak days of the civil rights movement, when a rising black middle class gained political control in the late ’60s and onwards – Mr Young took office in 1974 – that Mr Johnson took over large commercial and government Started winning contracts in his city

Debra Davis, an architect working for Mr Johnson’s firm in the late ’80s, described a friendly and generous boss who wore crisply tailored double-breasted suits and drove a “fleet of gray luxury cars”.

“Johnson is the quintessential Detroit success story,” said Mr. Coleman, “who happens to be African American.”

Mr. Johnson married Ruth Gardenhauer in 1952; He died in 2005. In addition to his granddaughter, Asia, Mr. Johnson is survived by his partner, Yvonne Schell; a daughter, Joy Johnson; a son, Shaheed Abdullah Shabaz Muhajid; three stepchildren, Debbie Shell, Mark Bellinger and Odys Bellinger; four more grandchildren; and three step-grandchildren.

When The Detroit Free Press wrote a profile of Mr Johnson in 1963, he declared his commitment to modernity and his extreme distaste for embellishments and pastiche – “unscrupulous copies of the past”, as he put it.

He particularly disliked colonial architecture. “We are not living a colonial life, we are not using colonial material and we do not believe in colonialism either,” he said. “Why Should We Design a Colonial Church?”

“I compare a building to an organism, such as the human body,” he said. “It’s beautiful because it works.”

Susan C. BeacheoContributed to research.

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