The Trailblazers

Detroit Trailblazer Architects
Generation One

Donald White, Francis Griffin, Harold Ward, Nathan Johnson, Aubrey Agee, Roger Margerum, Quentin Garland, Howard Sims, and Harold Varner.

Detroit's trailblazing Black architects - those who, despite the time period and cultural barriers, had successful careers in architecture and made noteworthy contributions to the design of Detroit, the state of Michigan and the architecture profession.

Donald White

The first trailblazer that Noir Design Parti highlight is Donald White (born 1908), who in 1932 became the first African American to earn a degree from the University of Michigan’s School of Architecture and who, six years later, became the state of Michigan’s first licensed black architect. Among his buildings include the Paradise Bowl, a bowling alley in Paradise Valley that was developed by Joe Louis in 1942 and lost to a fire in 1950.

In 1946, White, along with fellow U-M graduate Francis Griffin, founded White and Griffin, a firm that Little calls “a nursery” for the generation of black architects to come. “They gave opportunity and exposure to folks who would later go on to start firms of their own.”

In the ‘40s and ‘50s, faith leaders were often the only members of black communities with the resources to hire architects, so churches necessarily became the most prevalent type of building designed by black architects. One of the buildings designed by Griffin and White in Detroit is the Aijalon Baptist Church (1950) on the city’s old west side. At once stately and understated, it is an example of what Little calls the pair’s “conservative” style.

Nathan Johnson, born in 1926 in Herington, Kanas (and at 93 years old, the last living trailblazer in Little and Burton’s pantheon), pursued with particular vigor an adventurous modern style in church architecture in his work with some of Detroit’s most historic black faith communities. Johnson came to Detroit to work as a draftsman for White and Griffin before forming his own firm in 1956. By 1963, an article in the Detroit Free Press reported that he “has built or is planning a dozen churches.” Articulating the modernist underpinning of his work, Johnson says in the same article, “We try to be honest. If we want to decorate a church, we let the structure do it instead of applying ornaments.”

Notable examples of his early work include the 1963 transformation of the run-down Oriole Theatre on Linwood Street into the new home of the New Bethel Baptist Church (now largely obscured by successive renovations), and the Brutalist 1968 addition to the Second Baptist Church in Greektown, which manages to be at once strikingly modern and well-integrated into that dense, historic urban neighborhood.