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Nathan Johnson, Detroit modernist black architect, dies aged 96

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

His granddaughter Asia Johnson confirmed the death, but gave no cause.

When the legendary New Bethel Baptist Church in Detroit, a center for the civil rights movement, had to leave its home in the early 1960s to make way for a highway and move its congregation to a theater for a time, its leadership changed. of the church. to mr. Johnson to design a new church. (Such sweeping urban regeneration efforts have razed many black neighborhoods to the ground, and have been called “negro removal” by many black Detroiters.)

Johnson’s massive concrete and glass structure, with a spire reminiscent of the factory roots of the motor city — or the Empire State Building — cost half a million dollars in 1963. When it opened in March of that year, 2,000 members of the theater marched to the new church; his predecessor, Clarence LaVaughn Franklin, also known as CL, told The Detroit Free Press that it was like a journey “from the valley to the mountain.”

And when the pastor’s daughter, Aretha Franklin, once the New Bethel Baptist star performer, died in 2018, thousands lined up to view her body there. It was the Queen of Soul’s second stop for her funeral at the Greater Grace Temple, also in Detroit.

By 1963, Mr. Johnson had already designed a number of striking black churches in Detroit: bold modern structures with soaring glass ceilings and jutting gabled roofs like the bows of ships, all in cramped urban locations. His work was a sign of progress and mobility for members of the black community, who until then often worshiped at meat markets and grocery stores. (New Bethel Baptist had once been to a former bowling alley.)

When the Bethel AME branch, which included record executive Berry Gordy and his family, needed further excavations to support its growing membership, they also turned to Mr. Johnson for what would become the Church’s fourth or fifth home since 1841 . In 1974, the church Mr. Johnson designed was a low, circular building with a central peak topped by a metal spire – it is reminiscent of 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 of the more iconic ones.”

Detroit’s Second Baptist Church, the city’s oldest black church, having been a stop on the Underground Railroad in a previous incarnation, was another venerable congregation that reached out to Mr. Johnson. They had to extend their brick Gothic Revival building to add an educational center to it.

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

Johnson’s brutalist addition, built in 1968, appealed to his aesthetic taste at the time, but it was also a small concession to the bank that lent the church the money to expand. In an all-too-typical exchange, Mr. Coleman, the bank carried Mr. Johnson to build something that didn’t look too ecclesiastical, because the lenders were convinced the church couldn’t pay its debt and the bank to foreclose and sell the structure.

Johnson would go on to design 30 or 40 churches, said Saundra Little, a Detroit architect who, along with Karen Burton, an architectural designer, is the founder of Noir Design Parti, an organization that collects the history of Detroit’s Black architects. including Mr Johnson. johnson.

His churches, Ms. Little added, were only a fraction of his body of work, which includes public housing, single-family homes and tower blocks, campuses and dormitories for churches and schools, and the city’s People Mover stations, an elevated public transportation system built in the the 80’s.

Notably, his body of work also includes Stanley’s Mannia Cafe, a 1970s Chinese restaurant and hot spot favored by Motown stars and Coleman Young, the city’s first black mayor (the building had been demolished in the 1990s). an afterlife as house and rap music nightclub). With flying concrete buttresses and a pointed entrance that soars like a church steeple, the building is a Detroit example of what is known as Googie architecture. The style, which began in Los Angeles and is named after architect John Lautner’s design for the Googies coffee shop there, features flowers reminiscent of the futuristic cartoon ‘The Jetsons’ along with exaggerated lines.

“Johnson has always pushed the boundaries structurally and stylistically,” Ms. Little said in an interview. “He liked to push the boundaries.”

Nathan Johnson was born on April 9, 1925, in Herington, Kansas, then a city of just over 4,000 residents. He was the youngest of four children born to Ida and Brooks Johnson, who worked for the railroad as a boiler washer and boilermaker’s assistant.

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

In 1950, after earning a bachelor’s degree in architecture from Kansas State University, he took a job in Detroit where he worked 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 Victor Gruen, the Austrian expatriate whose company designed dozens of shopping centers across the country, before opening his own company in 1956, working mainly in his community on what he called “the little things.”

“He came across the Midwestern version of Jim Crow,” said Detroit official historian Jamon Jordan in an interview. “Blacks can vote and earn a good wage, 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 days of the civil rights movement, when an emerging black middle class gained political control in the late 1960s and beyond—Mr. Young took office in 1974—Mr. Johnson began to win major commercial and governmental affairs. contracts in his city.

Debra Davis, an architect who worked for Mr. Johnson’s firm in the late 1980s, described an affable and generous boss who dressed in tightly tailored gray 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 Gardenhire in 1952; she passed away in 2005. In addition to his granddaughter, Asia, Mr. Johnson leaves behind his partner, Yvonne Shell; a daughter, Joy Johnson; a son, Shahied Abdullah Shabazz Muhajid; three stepchildren, Debbie Shell, Mark Bellinger and Odis 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 modernism and his extreme distaste for ornamentation and pastiche — “unfair copies of the past,” as he put it.

He especially 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 should we design a colonial church?”

“I liken a building to an organism, like the human body,” he added. “It’s beautiful because it works.”

Susan C. Beachyresearch contributed.

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