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The Architects: Mason-Rice & the Legend of Albert Kahn

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kahn.jpgAlbert Kahn (1869-1942) has been hailed as the architect of the modern industrial era. His portfolio is phenomenal: Kahn built more than 1,000 buildings for Ford, including the River Rouge complex and the Model T factory, and hundreds for General Motors- the entire automotive industry used his services. He also designed and built numerous office spaces, including the Fisher Building and General Motors Building.

He was responsible not only for almost all of the major industrial plants of the Big Three and other auto manufacturers in the US, but also for aviation industry plants, hospitals, banks, commercial buildings, public buildings, temples, libraries, clubs and over one hundred beautiful mansions.

What is lesser known about Albert Kahn is the role he played in the design and construction of many of Walkerville's finest buildings. In Walkerville, the young man made his mark that would lead to a shining career as one of the greatest architects of the 20th century.

Much of the urban planning in Walkerville flowed out of Hiram Walker's desire to emulate Britain's Garden Cities. The "Garden Plan", as it has become known separated industry from residential areas by streetscape design.

Initially, Detroit architects Mason & Rice, who were heavily influenced by the style known as "Richardson Romanesque", delivered much of the work. Created and popularized by Boston architect Henry Hobson Richardson (1838-1886), this style is characterized by low-slung arched entrances, dark masonry and detailed brickwork. Examples of this style can be seen on Devonshire Road north of Wyandotte toward the river, once considered the main street in Walkerville.

As the tender age of 23, Kahn apprenticed with Mason & Rice, and won a scholarship to study in Europe. Kahn's experiences in Europe proved valuable to Mason & Rice, and the young draftsman was assigned to help design and build the new Hiram headquartersthumb.jpgWalker & Sons Main Office Building- a masterpiece that remains a showpiece on Riverside Drive. Kahn is responsible for the splendid interior of this great edifice, particularly the lavish fireplaces and panelling in the offices. The dark, cozy Sample Room, the inner sanctum in the building, was inspired by sketches he had done in Nuremberg.

Upon completion of the new headquarters, the young architect's career took a fast track. In 1896, he joined forces with George Nettleton and Alexander Trowbride. In 1899, he founded his own firm, Kahn & Associates. This company celebrated its 100th anniversary last year and is still considered a leader in industrial plant design.

Walker's heirs continued their patriarch's hands-on tradition, and Kahn played a pivotal role. Edward Chandler Walker and his wife Mary Griffen directed the Garden Plan after Hiram died in 1899. To fund the development of lands between Wyandotte and Richmond Streets, they sold the Lake Erie and Detroit River Railway to Pere Marquette Railways for $2,870,000.

The interrupted street pattern reduced traffic, creating a park-like setting, especially heading south to St-Mary's Church- a landscaped "island"- and the Walkers used this feature to promote as fine a neighbourhood as existed in North America. Since lots were sold only to those who could build homes of at least 3,500 square feet, the character of the neighbourhood was assured.

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In Walkerville and Detroit's Indian Village (almost directly across the river in Detroit's near east side), Kahn embraced the Arts and Crafts Movement, a philosophy of design founded around 1850. Emphasizing handmade architecture in an era when factory mass-production was taking hold, every Kahn designed home expresses the movement's influence. Kahn believed that historic period styles were best suited to homes and public institutions, while factories should be utilitarian, brightly illuminated and devoid of ornament. Kahn's most famous Detroit home may be the Edsel Ford estate on Lake Shore Drive in Grosse Pointe Shores. The palatial English cottage-style mansion overlooking Lake St. Clair is now used as a show house for local events. The gardens include an exquisite walk-in playhouse made for Josephine Ford. And in Walkerville, it is Willistead that showcases Kahn's architectural genius.

Under the direction of Edward Chandler Walker, Kahn's commissions in Walkerville flourished, and his influence can be seen in many buildings. Kahn is responsible for many of the finer structures that remain in Walkerville, including The Town Hall, The Bank of Commerce, The Strathcona Block, the row houses on Monmouth Road and many of the finer private residences.willistead.jpg

Willistead Manor is the epitome of Edwardian elegance, combining stone walls and half-timbered wall areas under a grouping of picturesque medieval roofs and chimneys.

While Kahn's influence in Walkerville is evident, it is also possible to tour many of his works across the river. Readers may be familiar with many of Kahn's buildings, including the Conservatory and Casino on Belle Isle, The Cranbrook House in Bloomfield Hills, Temple Beth-El in Detroit, The Detroit Free Press Building, Hill Auditorium In Ann Arbor, and many fine homes in Grosse Pointe such as the magnificent Edsel Ford House.

Kahn designed or closely supervised every building he built. Much of his legacy can easily be appreciated by the fortunate residents and friends of Walkerville.

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