Nathan Johnson, Modernist Architect of Black Churches, Dies at 96
He opened his practice in Detroit in the 1950s, and his first commissions were to usher many of the city’s historic Black churches into the 20th century.,
Nathan Johnson, a forward-thinking modernist Black architect who designed some of Detroit’s most iconic structures — 1960s-era churches — with sculptural brio and futuristic lines, died on Nov. 5 at his home in Detroit. He was 96.
His granddaughter Asia Johnson confirmed the death but did not specify a cause.
When Detroit’s storied New Bethel Baptist Church, a hub for the civil rights movement, was forced out of its home in the early ’60s 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 sweeping urban renewal efforts razed many Black neighborhoods, and were called “Negro removal” by many Black Detroiters.)
Mr. Johnson’s massive concrete and glass structure, with a spire that evoked the motor city’s factory roots — or the Empire State Building — cost half a million dollars in 1963. When it opened in March of that year, 2,000 members marched from the theater to the new church; its pastor, Clarence LaVaughn Franklin, otherwise known as C.L., told The Detroit Free Press that it was like a trip “from the valley to the mountain.”
By 1963, Mr. Johnson had designed a number of striking Black churches in Detroit: boldly modern structures with floating glass ceilings and jutting peaked roofs like the prows of ships, all on tight urban sites. His work was a sign of progress and mobility for members of the Black community, who had till then often worshiped in meat markets and grocery stores. (New Bethel Baptist had once been in a former bowling alley.)
When the congregation of Bethel A.M.E., which included the record executive Berry Gordy and his family, needed new digs for its swelling membership, it, too, turned to Mr. Johnson for what would be the church’s fourth or fifth home since 1841. When it opened in 1974, the church Mr. Johnson designed was a low, circular building with a center peak topped with a metal spire, recalling both African structures and a spaceship.
“In Detroit we say there’s a church on every corner,” Ken Coleman, a journalist who writes about African American life in Detroit, said in an interview, “but Johnson created some of the more iconic ones.”
The Second Baptist Church of Detroit, the city’s oldest Black church, which in an earlier 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 brick Gothic Revival building so that it could add an education center.
It was a culturally significant contract: In 1839, Second Baptist had opened the first school for Black children in Detroit.
Mr. Johnson’s Brutalist addition, built in 1968, spoke to his aesthetic taste at the time, but it was also a slight concession to the bank that had lent the church the money to expand. In an all too typical exchange, Mr. Coleman said, the bank directed Mr. Johnson to build something that didn’t look too ecclesiastical, as the lenders were convinced that the church wouldn’t be able to pay its debt and the bank would have to foreclose and resell the structure.
Mr. Johnson would go on to design 30 or 40 churches, said Saundra Little, a Detroit architect, who with Karen Burton, an architectural designer, founded Noir Design Parti, an organization that is compiling histories of Detroit’s Black architects, including Mr. Johnson.
His churches, Ms. Little added, were just a fraction of his body of work, which included public housing, single-family residential work and residential towers, campuses and dorms for churches and schools, and the city’s People Mover stations, an elevated transit system built in the 1980s.
His oeuvre notably includes Stanley’s Mannia Cafe, a 1970s-era Chinese restaurant and hot spot favored by Motown stars and Coleman Young, the city’s first Black mayor. (The building had an afterlife in the ’90s as a house and rap music nightclub.)
With flying concrete buttresses and a peaked entry that soars like a church spire, the building is a Detroit example of what’s known as Googie architecture. The style, which began in Los Angeles and is named for the architect John Lautner’s design for Googies coffee shop there, features flourishes reminiscent of the futuristic cartoon “The Jetsons,” along with exaggerated lines.
“Johnson was always pushing the envelope structurally and stylistically,” Ms. Little said in an interview. “He liked to test the limits.”
Nathan Johnson was born on April 9, 1925, in Herington, Kan., a town of just over 4,000 at the time. He was the youngest of four children of Ida and Brooks Johnson. His father worked for the railroad as a boiler washer and boilermaker helper.
Nathan had a talent for art, and in the eighth grade a teacher pushed him toward architecture. “Architects are appreciated while they’re living and artists are appreciated when they’re dead,” he recalled her saying.
In 1950, after earning a bachelor’s degree in architecture from Kansas State University, he took a job in Detroit working as a draftsman for Donald White and Francis Griffin, for a long period the only Black architectural firm in the city. He later worked for Victor Gruen, the Austrian emigre whose firm designed scores of shopping malls across the country, before opening his own firm in 1956, working mostly in his community on what he called “the small stuff.”
“He ran into the Midwest version of Jim Crow,” Jamon Jordan, Detroit’s official historian, said in an interview. “Blacks can vote and earn a good wage, but if a white firm or a wealthy white client is asking for an architect, what they don’t want to see is a Black designer.”
It wasn’t until the waning days of the civil rights movement, when a rising Black middle class gained political control in the late 1960s and beyond — Mr. Young took office in 1974 — that Mr. Johnson began to win large commercial and government contracts in his city.
Debra Davis, an architect who worked for his firm in the late ’80s, described Mr. Johnson as an affable and generous boss who dressed in crisply tailored gray double-breasted suits and drove a “fleet of gray luxury cars.”
“Johnson is the quintessential Detroit success story,” Mr. Coleman said, “who happens to be African American.”
Mr. Johnson married Ruth Gardenhire in 1952; she died in 2005. In addition to his granddaughter, Asia, he is survived by 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 — “dishonest copies of the past,” as he put it.
He particularly disliked colonial architecture. “We’re not living a colonial life, we’re not using 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, such as the human body,” he added. “It’s beautiful because it works.”
Susan C. Beachycontributed research.