Albert Kahn

Forest Park may lack magnificent houses by Frank Lloyd Wright, but it is home to a building designed by another great American architect. The massive structure now known as the Forest Park Mall was planned by Albert Kahn, the country’s foremost industrial architect. It began life as the Amertorp torpedo plant and was Kahn’s last great project. During World War II, Amertorp was the main supplier of torpedoes to the U.S. Navy.

The plant’s designer was born in Prussia in 1869. Kahn’s father, Joseph, was a rabbi and his mother, Rosalie, an artist and musician. Kahn’s family immigrated to Detroit in 1880, when he was 11. He grew to become the man who turned Detroit into the Motor City. He gave the city its identity. In fact, Motown Records was housed in a Kahn-designed building.

Kahn founded his architectural firm in 1895. He and his brother, Julius, devised a new kind of construction, using reinforced concrete instead of wooden supports. His factories had a sleek, modern look and featured huge flowing floor spaces. He designed his first auto plant for Packard in 1903.

Henry Ford liked the plant’s design so much, he hired Kahn to build his first modern plant in Highland Park, Michigan. Thus began an unlikely partnership between a notorious anti-Semite and a German Jew. The Ford plant opened in 1909. It’s where the automaker developed the assembly line to crank out Model T’s. Kahn later designed the enormous River Rouge plant. It was a half-mile long; the largest manufacturing plant in the U.S., employing 120,000 workers. Kahn went on to complete over 1,000 commissions from Ford and the other auto builders. 

Kahn employed 600 workers at his firm and they became responsible for designing 20 percent of the factories in the U.S. But Kahn’s talent wasn’t limited to auto plants and factories. He designed the Fisher Building, an Art Deco treasure that graces the Detroit skyline, along with headquarters for Detroit’s three daily newspapers. Kahn could also draw up plans for more genteel structures like the Belle Isle Aquarium and Conservatory. During his career, he planned more than 400 buildings in Detroit.

Besides the numerous utilitarian structures he worked on, Kahn designed many of the neoclassical buildings that dot the University of Michigan campus in Ann Arbor. However, Kahn had little awareness that he was creating beautiful structures. 

“Architecture is 90 percent business,” he used to say, “and 10 percent art.” 

Banks, hospitals, private residences, Kahn had a wide palette. He designed one of the country’s first pre-fabricated houses, as well as Edsel Ford’s mansion. Today, 60 of Kahn’s buildings are listed on the National Register of Historic Places. 

But his work was not limited to the U.S. He opened an office in Moscow, where his brother, Moritz, oversaw the construction of 500 plants and factories, including Russia’s first tractor plant in Stalingrad. As World War II approached, Kahn turned his talents to creating America’s Arsenal of Democracy. His projects included a tank factory in Detroit and the Willow Run Bomber Plant in Ypsilanti. 

Like his counterparts back in Germany, Kahn was busy designing buildings to manufacture deadly weapons on an unthinkable scale. He received the commission to design the Amertorp plant in 1941. That year, he earned the eighth-highest salary in the U.S., $486,936, on which he paid 72% in taxes. It was a time when many manufacturers were turning away from making household goods to help in the war effort. 

American Can Company formed the Amertorp Corporation and was awarded the contract to build the torpedo plant on the former site of the Harlem Golf Club. The plans included constructing seven brick houses for the naval officers who would oversee construction and operation of the plant. Ground was broken on Feb. 19, 1942. The plant would cost almost $17 million to build and had a capacity to manufacture 14 torpedoes a day. Its walls were 6-feet thick and it was further protected by guard towers on each corner. 

The plant was commissioned on Oct. 28, 1942, its first torpedo sharing the reviewing stand with top Navy brass. During the war, this munitions giant would turn out 9,000 torpedoes. Navy pilots praised their performance. The flags of Japanese ships sunk by Amertorp’s torpedoes were displayed at the plant. 

At its peak, the plant employed 10,000 workers, many of them women. After the war, it continued to crank out weapons for the Korean War and Vietnam War. It produced 146,000 rockets and five million artillery fuses for these two conflicts. 

The plant was decommissioned in 1971 and converted into a 360,000-square-foot shopping mall. There is still a small section of the original plant left. It’s the last trace of Kahn’s vision for protecting America during World War II. 

He was 69 years old when he designed Amertorp. He died on Dec. 8, 1942, less than two months after the plant was completed.

John Rice is a columnist/novelist who has seen his family thrive in Forest Park. He has published two books set in the village: The Ghost of Cleopatra and The Doll with the Sad Face.