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Friday, December 3, 2021

Nathan Johnson, black modernist architect from Detroit, dies at age 96

Nathan Johnson, Black’s visionary modernist architect who designed some of Detroit’s most iconic structures – 1960s churches – with sculptural brios and futuristic lines, passed away on November 5 at his Detroit home. He was 96 years old.

His granddaughter Asia Johnson confirmed death, but did not provide a reason.

When the legendary New Bethel Baptist Church in Detroit, the center of the civil rights movement, was forced to leave its home in the early 60s to give way to the freeway and temporarily relocated its parishioners to the theater. Mr. Johnson to design a new church. (This massive urban renewal effort has led to the demolition of many black neighborhoods, and many of Detroit’s blacks have called this “black exile.”)

Mr. Johnson’s massive glass and concrete structure with a spire reminiscent of the factory roots of the automobile city – or the Empire State Building – was worth half a million dollars in 1963. When it opened in March of that year, 2,000 participants marched from the theater to the new church; its pastor, Clarence LaVon Franklin, also known as CL, told the Detroit Free Press it was like traveling “from valley to mountains.”

And when the reverend’s daughter, Aretha Franklin, once the lead singer of the New Bethel Baptist choir, died in 2018, thousands of people lined up to look at her body. This was the second stop of the Soul Queen prior to her funeral at the Temple of the Great Grace, also in Detroit.

By 1963, Mr. Johnson had already designed some of Detroit’s striking black churches: bold modern structures with soaring glass ceilings and jutting gabled roofs like the prows of ships, all in tight urban areas. His work was a sign of progress and mobility for members of the black community, who had previously been worshiped frequently in meat markets and grocery stores. (The new Bethel Baptist was once located in a former bowling alley.)

When Bethel AME, which included Executive Director Berry Gordy and his family, required new excavations for its growing membership, they also approached Mr. Johnson for what would become the church’s fourth or fifth home since 1841. In 1974, the church, designed by Johnson, was a low, circular building with a central peak topped with a metal spire – reminiscent of both African structures and a spaceship.

“In Detroit, we say there is a church on every corner,” said Ken Coleman, a freelance journalist on African American life in Detroit, in an interview, “but Johnson has created some of the most iconic.”

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

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

Mr. Johnson’s Brutalist extension, built in 1968, spoke of his aesthetic taste at the time, but it was also a small concession to a bank that had loaned money to the church to expand. In an all too typical exchange, Mr. Coleman said, the bank instructed Mr. Johnson to build something that didn’t look too churchy, as creditors were convinced the church would not be able to pay off its debt and the bank would have to buy and resell the structure.

Mr Johnson has designed 30-40 churches, said Soundra Little, a Detroit architect who, along with Karen Burton, an architectural designer, is the founder of the Noir Design Parti, an organization that collects the stories of Detroit’s black architects, including Mr Johnson.

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His churches, Ms. Little added, were just a part of his work, which included public housing, single-family dwellings and residential towers, campuses and dormitories for churches and schools, and the city’s People Mover stations, an elevated transportation system built in the 1980s.

His work also includes notably Stanley’s Mannia Cafe, a 70s-era Chinese restaurant and a popular destination beloved by Motown stars and Coleman Young, the city’s first black mayor (in the 90s, the building had an afterlife as house and rap -music. night club). With flying concrete buttresses and a gabled entrance that rises like a church spire, this building is an example of what is known as Guga architecture. The style, which originated in Los Angeles and named after architect John Lautner’s Googies, features colors reminiscent of the futuristic Jetsons cartoon, along with exaggerated lines.

“Johnson has always gone out of the box structurally and stylistically,” Ms. Little said in an interview. “He loved to test the limits.”

Nathan Johnson was born on April 9, 1925 in Herington, Kansas, at the time in a city of just over 4,000. He was the youngest of four children of Ida and Brooks Johnson, who worked as a boiler washer and a boiler attendant on the railroad.

Nathan had a talent for art, and in the eighth grade, his teacher pushed him towards architecture. “Architects are valued as long as they are alive, and artists are valued when they are dead,” he recalled her words.

In 1950, after earning a bachelor’s degree in architecture from the University of Kansas, he took a job in Detroit, working as a draftsman for Donald White and Francis Griffin, for a long time the only black architecture firm in the city. He later worked for Viktor Gruen, an Austrian émigré whose firm designed many shopping malls throughout the country before starting his own firm in 1956, working primarily in his community on what he called “little things.”

“He ran into the Midwest version of Jim Crow,” Detroit official historian Jamon Jordan said in an interview. “Blacks can vote and get a good salary, but if a white firm or a wealthy white client asks for an architect, they don’t want to see a black designer.”

It wasn’t until the waning of the civil rights movement, when a burgeoning black middle class gained political control in the late 1960s and later — Mr. Young took office in 1974 — that Mr. Johnson began to pursue greater commercial and government interests. contracts in your city.

Debra Davis, an architect who worked for Johnson’s firm in the late 1980s, described an affable and generous boss who dressed in tailored gray double-breasted suits and drove a “fleet of gray luxury cars.”

“Johnson is the epitome of Detroit’s success,” said Mr. Coleman, “who turned out to be African American.”

Mr. Johnson married Ruth Gardenshire in 1952; she died in 2005. In addition to Asia’s granddaughter, Mr. Johnson still has his partner, Yvonne Schell; daughter Joy Johnson; son of Shahid Abdullah Shabaz Muhajid; three adopted children, Debbie Schell, Mark Bellinger and Odis Bellinger; four more grandchildren; and three stepchildren.

When the Detroit Free Press wrote a profile of Johnson in 1963, he declared his adherence to modernism and an extreme aversion to ornamentation and stylization – “dishonest copies of the past,” as he put it.

He particularly disliked colonial architecture. “We don’t live a colonial life, we don’t use colonial materials, and we don’t even believe in colonialism,” he said. “Why would we design a colonial church?”

“I compare a building with an organism, for example a human body,” he added. “It’s beautiful because it works.”

Susan S. Beachycontributed to the research.

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