Nathan Johnson, modernist architect of black churches, dies at 96

Nathan Johnson, an avant-garde modernist black architect who designed some of Detroit’s most iconic structures – churches of the 1960s –...


Nathan Johnson, an avant-garde modernist black architect who designed some of Detroit’s most iconic structures – churches of the 1960s – with sculptural flair and futuristic lines, passed away on November 5 at his home in Detroit. He was 96 years old.

His granddaughter Asia Johnson confirmed the death but did not specify the cause.

When Detroit’s legendary New Bethel Baptist Church, the hub of the civil rights movement, was forced to leave its home in the early 1960s to make way for a freeway and had to move its congregation for a time to a theater, its leadership turned to Mr Johnson to design a new church. (Such urban renewal efforts razed many black neighborhoods and were called “Abduction of negroes” by many Black Detroiters.)

Mr Johnson’s massive concrete-and-glass structure, with a spire that evoked the roots of the city’s automobile factory – or the Empire State Building – cost half a million dollars in 1963. When it was built opening in March of the same year, 2,000 members marched from the theater to the new church; his pastor, Clarence LaVaughn Franklin, otherwise known as CL, told the Detroit Free Press that it was like a journey “from the valley to the mountain”.

And when the Reverend’s daughter, Aretha Franklin, once the star soloist of the New Bethel Baptist Choir, died in 2018, thousands of people lined up for a vision of her body there. It was the second stop for the “Queen of Soul” before her funeral at the Greater Grace Temple, also in Detroit.

By 1963, Mr Johnson had designed a number of striking black churches in Detroit: boldly modern structures with floating glass ceilings and peaked roofs protruding like the prows of ships, all on narrow urban sites. His work was a sign of progress and mobility for members of the black community, who until then had often worshiped in meat markets and grocery stores. (New Bethel Baptist had been at an old bowling alley before.)

When the Bethel AME congregation, which included Archives Director Berry Gordy and his family, needed further excavations for their growing membership, they also turned to Mr Johnson for what would be the fourth or fifth. home of the church since 1841. When it opened in 1974, the church designed by Mr. Johnson was a low circular building with a central peak topped by a metal spire, reminiscent of both African structures and a spaceship .

“In Detroit, we say there is a church on every corner,” said Ken Coleman, a reporter who writes about African American life in Detroit, in an interview, “but Johnson has created some of the most emblematic “.

Detroit’s Second Baptist Church, the city’s oldest black church, which in a previous incarnation had been a stop on the Underground Railroad, was another venerable congregation that reached out to Mr Johnson. The church sought to expand its neo-Gothic brick building to add an education center.

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

Mr Johnson’s brutalist addition, built in 1968, was a testament to his aesthetic taste at the time, but it was also a slight concession to the bank that had loaned the church money to expand. In an overly typical exchange, Mr Coleman said, the bank asked Mr Johnson to build something that didn’t look too ecclesiastical, as lenders were convinced the church would not be able to pay its debt and that the bank must seize and resell the structure.

Mr Johnson would go on to design 30 or 40 churches, said saundra petite, an architect from Detroit, who with Karen Burton, an architectural designer, founded Black Party Design, an organization that compiles the stories of black architects in Detroit, including Mr Johnson.

Her churches, Ms. Little added, made up only a fraction of her work, which included social housing, single-family residential work and residential towers, campuses and dormitories for churches and schools, and People Mover stations. from the city, an elevated public transport system. system built in the 80s.

His work includes in particular Stanley’s Mannia Café, a 1970s Chinese restaurant and hot spot popular with Motown stars and Coleman Young, the city’s first black mayor. (The building had an afterlife in the 90s as a house and rap nightclub.)

With flying concrete buttresses and a pointed entrance that rises like a church spire, the building is a Detroit example of what is called Googie Architecture. The style, which began in Los Angeles and is named after architect John Lautner’s design for the Googies cafe there, features flourishes reminiscent of the futuristic cartoon “The Jetsons,” as well as exaggerated lines.

“Johnson was always pushing the boundaries structurally and stylistically,” Ms. Little said in an interview. “He liked to test the limits.

Nathan Johnson was born April 9, 1925 in Herington, Kan., A town of just over 4,000 people at the time. He was the youngest of Ida and Brooks Johnson’s four children. His father worked for the railroad as a boiler washer and a boilermaker’s helper.

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

In 1950, after graduating with a bachelor’s degree in architecture from Kansas State University, he worked in Detroit as a draftsman for Donald White and Francis Griffin, for a long time the only black architectural firm in the city. He then worked for Victor Gruen, the Austrian emigrant whose company designed dozens of shopping malls across the country, before opening his own business in 1956, working primarily in his community on what he called “The little things”.

“He came across the Midwestern version of Jim Crow,” Jamon Jordan, the official Detroit historian, said in an interview. “Black people can vote and earn a good salary, but if a white company or a rich white client asks for an architect, what they don’t want to see is a black designer. “

It was not until the decline of the civil rights movement, when a rising black middle class took political control in the late 1960s and beyond – Mr. Young took office in 1974 – that Mr. Johnson began winning major commercial and government contracts. in his city.

Debra Davis, an architect who worked for her firm in the late 1980s, described Mr Johnson as a gracious and generous boss who dressed in neatly tailored gray double breasted suits and drove a “fleet of gray luxury cars”.

“Johnson is Detroit’s quintessential achievement,” said Mr. Coleman, “who happens to be African American”.

Mr. Johnson married Ruth Gardenhire in 1952; she died in 2005. Besides his granddaughter, Asia, he is survived by his partner, Yvonne Shell; one daughter, Joy Johnson; one son, Shahied Abdullah Shabazz Muhajid; three stepchildren, Debbie Shell, Mark Bellinger and Odis Bellinger; four other 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 – “dishonest copies of the past”, as he put it.

He particularly hated 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 compare a building to an organism, like the human body,” he added. “It’s beautiful because it works.

Susan C. Beachycontributed research.

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Newsrust - US Top News: Nathan Johnson, modernist architect of black churches, dies at 96
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