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Sat, 05.22.1926

Nathan Johnson, Architect born

Nathan Johnson

*The birth of Nathan Johnson is celebrated on this date in 1926. He was a Black architect.

Born in Herington, Kansas, he came to Detroit to work as a draftsman for White and Griffin before forming his firm in 1956. He pursued an adventurous modern style in church architecture with some of Detroit's most historic black faith communities. 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 new home of the New Bethel Baptist Church 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. In the 1980s, under Mayor Coleman Young, Johnson was allowed to design all of downtown's People Mover stations, an opportunity that he shared by subcontracting several stations to African American peers Aubrey Agee, Roger Margerum, and Sims and Varner.

In 1989, Nathan Johnson & Associates sued Smith, Hinchman & Grylls unsuccessfully over his reduced role in the Veterans Administration Hospital project. Nathan Johnson & Associates had anywhere from two to 40 employees during its long practice, which wound down around 2000. He achieved success locally as a modernist architect for his contribution to Modern architecture in the Detroit area. Nathan Johnson passed away in November 2021 at age 96.

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