Albert and Julius Kahn

Pioneers in industrial innovation and architecture, brothers Albert and Julius Kahn left their mark on the Detroit skyline.

Albert Kahn was born in 1869 in Prussia before his family emigrated to Detroit in 1890. Kahn had four brothers and two sisters, including his engineer and inventor brother Julius Kahn, who was born Germany in 1874. And while Albert’s name likely has more name recognition, the accomplishments of both brothers are astounding.  

Early Beginnings  

The Kahn Brothers’ father was a rabbi and ran a restaurant, while their mother was a skilled musician and artist. Albert had to work and contribute to the household — he came an office bow and apprentice architect at the John Scott & Company before being fired. He was then hired by another Detroit architect, George Mason — responsible for the iconic Masonic Temple.

Albert received no formal education but gleaned his knowledge from mentors like Mason. Albert was beginning a successful career in architecture and providing the funding for his younger brother, Julius, to attend the University of Michigan and receive a degree in Civil Engineering.

Julius moved to New York to work as a draftsman –making the technical plans for architects and working as an engineer for the US Navy and Army Corps of Engineers. He also spent time in Japan working on the plans for iron and sulfur mines. But eventually, Julius would return to Detroit.

Brothers in Innovation  


Julius returned to Detroit in 1903, joining his brother Albert at his firm — Albert Kahn Associates, which was founded in 1895. Together the Kahn brothers were not average architects and engineers. They collaborated to invent a new style of construction – the Kahn System.

The Kahn System used steel to reinforce concrete beams, addressing the primary concern of the existing method of concrete reinforcement in construction – slippage of the steel within the hardened concrete, which created weak points in the structure.

Julius developed the Kahn Bar that had rounded edges, causing less slippage. And in 1903, he patented the design. Julius would go on to patent 75 more inventions in his lifetime, including improved concrete and steel designs.

Julius started his own company focusing on his reinforced concrete and steel designs. Trussed Concrete Steel Company, Tuscon Laboratories, and the United Steel Company were all headed by Julius.


Photo: c. 1911, from the Detroit Historical Society collection. The envelope is postmarked February 1, 1911, and shows the letterhead of the Trussed Steel Company of Detroit, Michigan. The letterhead text is black and the paper is yellowed.

The brothers worked together to establish the architectural firm Albert Kahn Associates in 1895, and in 1903 the Packard Motor Car Company's factory was the first building constructed by the firm using the Kahn System.

Buildings using the Kahn System can be found around Detroit and in more than 134 cities worldwide. Albert Kahn Associates celebrated its 100th anniversary in 2020, and the brothers’ innovation remains key to architecture and design principles today. 

Photo: c. 1931, from the Detroit Historical Society collectionBlack and white photograph of Albert Kahn standing behind a table, with his hands spread on his architecture plans. 

At the Detroit Historical Museum

The story of the Kahn Brothers is always on display in the Detroit Historical Museum’s Gallery of Innovation. And, in April 2022, in the Museum’s Robert and Mary Ann Bury Community Gallery, the Albert Kahn Legacy Foundation will host a new exhibition, Albert Kahn: Innovation & Influence on 20th Century Architecture.