Architecture Legends and the Importance of Nathan Johnson (1925 - 2021)

by Karen A.D. Burton with Saundra Little

It was a beautiful sunny evening. Driving, I was nearly home when my phone chimed. It was a number I didn’t recognize. When I answered, the voice of an older gentleman said, “This is Nathan Johnson. I heard you were looking for me.”

I almost had to pull over. Keep it together, I told myself. But I was excited! Nathan Johnson, one of Detroit’s premier architects, was calling me!

Nathan Johnson has rockstar status with us. Saundra and I started our Noir Design Parti project in 2016 to research the history and chronicle the work of Black Architects in Detroit. One of the catalysts was the death of Architect Howard Sims that year, making Nathan Johnson the last living of our then list of nine Trailblazers – the first generation of Black Architects licensed to practice in Michigan. We’d found newspaper articles about Mr. Johnson. We knew of his work, his mastery of the modernist style and a couple of people who worked at his firm, but no one we knew had spoken with him in years. We’d spent at least a year trying to connect with him.

Our first conversation with Mr. Johnson was at his home on August 21, 2017. A total solar eclipse was to occur that same afternoon, but we were more preoccupied with our pending conversation with the architect whose identity had been obscured in the city where his work was so prolific. When we arrived, Mr. Johnson was seated in his living room with a stack of documents at his side. He was 93 years old and prepared to tell his story.

Nathan Johnson with 3 of his projects
He showed us a copy of a 1969 issue of the Michigan Defender in which he had authored an article on the state of Black Architects. Of the 2,235 licensed Architects in Michigan at that time, only 14 were African American – 0.6%. While that number has increased over the years (it’s still only 2.6%), the work and career journeys of the Trailblazers have not been recounted or celebrated alongside legends like Khan, Rowland, Burnham, Saarinen, and Yamasaki – well-known names in the Detroit and national design community. It is Noir Design Parti’s mission to change the narrative, and that is why we wanted to meet with Mr. Johnson. He designed churches, houses, schools, residential towers, and he was Chief Architect for the Detroit People Mover Stations. Still, he seemed invisible in the contemporary architecture community.

I was eager to ask Mr. Johnson if he’d known Harold Ward, my uncle, an architect who practiced in Detroit. He got wide-eyed and exclaimed, “Harold Ward was my best friend! We drove together to take the architecture exam.” I hadn’t really known my uncle; he died when I was a toddler. It warmed my soul to know another Architect who knew him – and to make a connection to my architectural roots.

As we poured over brochures and images Mr. Johnson had for us to review, Saundra recognized a building from her childhood: Dr. Franklin’s office, a place she frequented with her mother. She recalled how, as a child, she stared at the unique window at the corner of the building. It captivated her every time she visited the office, and now she was sitting with the designer. From a child enchanted by an architectural feature to a licensed Architect, she was finding her roots, too.

We continued to discuss Mr. Johnson’s design style. His love for modern architecture came from his internal fight against colonial architecture's history of oppression of Black Americans in the South. He designed over 30 churches in the mid-century modern style across metro Detroit. The Black church's economic strength helped jumpstart his firm, Nathan Johnson and Associates. Congregations worship in his sculptures weekly, but may not be aware of the designer. How many children sit in awe of his spaces, and wonder if they, too, could grow up to design and create a building? The phrase may be cliché, but representation matters.

Indeed, Mr. Johnson’s life and career also embodies the enterprising spirit of Detroit. He moved here in the early 1950’s from Kansas and only worked for two firms before starting his own. He opened his doors on West Grand Boulevard – only a short distance from the Motown houses – because unfair leasing practices of the day kept him from opening an office downtown. That didn’t stop him. He grew his practice to over 40 architects and designers and shared his success with others.

He shared his contract for the People Mover Stations with three other Black-owned firms, when he probably could’ve kept all the work at his own. Members of the National Organization of Minority Architects (NOMA) across the U.S. recount this story and boast about Mr. Johnson’s leadership in elevating other Black architects in the profession.

During our second of three visits with Mr. Johnson, he learned that he was receiving the Gold Medal from the Detroit Chapter of the American Institute of Architects, the highest honor an Architect can receive from the organization. His work was worthy, and this was long overdue – nearly 20 years after he closed his firm. One could write chapters on the impact such a recognition could have made on his practice while he was still open for business. This was reminiscent of the great Paul R. Williams posthumously receiving the AIA National Gold Medal. Recognition can translate into dollars, increasing the work and bottom line of a firm. Recognition can also show a younger generation that they, too, can be successful in the profession.

The Black architecture community showed up in great numbers to celebrate Mr. Johnson receiving the Gold Medal. We were connecting with our architectural roots and confirming that we do belong in this profession. He was being seen; so were we.