Albert Kahn’s talents with building design didn’t end with architecture.
Kahn’s influence on industrial design is well-documented across the nation, to say nothing of Michigan alone. Many of us are most familiar with his design of the Packard Automotive Plant in 1903, and the Lodge House at the Packard Proving Grounds in 1926. (Interested in the nitty-gritty details of Kahn’s work for Packard? We’ve got a lengthy blog post about it! Check it out here.)
With so many Kahn-built structures on site, one assumes there’s nothing we don’t know about their design or development. And that might be true for some PPG fans! For the rest of us, little storied surprises are lurking in historical corners, waiting to be discovered. Recently, an article in Michigan History magazine unearthed a little-known fact about Kahn’s architectural team, and some revolutionary designs a certain individual brought to the drafting table.
(Shockingly, it wasn’t Albert Kahn.)
Enter Ernest Wilby.
Like Kahn, Wilby was born abroad, hailing from Yorkshire, England. He frequently traveled throughout North America during the 20th Century, working as a draftsman and designer for multiple architectural firms in Canada and the United States. He finally reached Detroit in 1902, and remained in Michigan until his death in 1957 (Historic Detroit, 2021).
(image courtesy of Historic Detroit)
Wilby worked with Kahn’s architectural firm from 1903 to 1918, serving as the chief designer. During that time, he assisted in the design and construction supervision of several buildings across the state. Some of these include the University of Michigan’s Hill Auditorium, completed in 1913; and the Highland Park Ford Plant in 1907 (Historic Detroit, 2021). Wilby made an exceptional contribution to factory design while working on this latter project. It reduced maintenance and construction costs during the building process, and improved working conditions in buildings where his designs were implemented.
Wilby’s contribution? Windows.
In 1907, Wilby was at the helm of Kahn’s design department when Kahn was commissioned to construct the Highland Park Ford Plant for the Ford Motor Company. At the time, factories and plants featured heavy double-hung windows that were difficult to open and clean. Wilby nixed this feature by creating a brand-new design, which was quite the revelation:
While the Highland Park plant was being planned, Wilby had the brilliant idea of replacing the cantankerous, double-hung windows used on nearly all buildings at the time with steel-sash framework filled with identically sized glass panes. Movable sections built into the sash assembly provided ventilation. That innovation lowered the cost of construction, increased the amount of daylight available to illuminate the work area, and reduced maintenance costs. It was such an improvement that it was copied worldwide, resulting in nearly every early twentieth-century factory having an identical appearance.(Scott, 2021, p.21)
Sound familiar? It should – you’ll see them on our site! As cited, this window design’s proliferation affected factory architecture throughout the rest of the century, including the buildings at the Packard Proving Grounds (but of course!). The Repair Garage features these windows (and has since its construction in 1929).
We take good care of our windows, too – in each and every building!
Preserving our historical assets is a group effort. Case in point: a window was damaged in the front corner of the Lodge House earlier this year. Right after it broke, volunteers Rick Mayer and Alan David sprung into action to get the opening secured with plywood. A few months later when the replacement glass arrived, Bruce Blevins, Bruce Webster, Larry Telles, and Rick Mayer worked to get it secured back into place. The Lodge House is back in great shape thanks to these efforts. Go team!
Historic Detroit. (n.d.). Ernest Wilby. https://historicdetroit.org/architects/ernest-wilby.
Smith, M.G. (2021). Built to last: Albert Kahn’s architectural legacy. Michigan History, November/December 2021, 18-23.