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creative:impact - Michael Hodges knows how to write a story

"Building the Modern World: Albert Kahn in Detroit" by Michael Hodges
Wayne State University Press
"Building the Modern World: Albert Kahn in Detroit" by Michael Hodges

Creative industries in Washtenaw County add hundreds of millions of dollars to the local economy. In the weeks and months to come, 89.1 WEMU's David Fair and co-host Deb Polich, the President and CEO of Creative Washtenaw, explore the myriad of contributors that make up the creative sector in Washtenaw County.

Deb Polich
David Fair
89.1 WEMU
Deb Polich, president and CEO of Creative Washtenaw, at the WEMU studio.


Michael Hodges
Michael Hodges
Michael Hodges

Michael H. Hodges was the fine-arts writer for The Detroit News from 1991 until his retirement in 2021 – 30 years to the day. He’s currently writing for the online Detroit Art Review. Before landing in Detroit, Hodges was a feature writer at the New York Post, and a general-assignment reporter at the Caracas Daily Journal in Venezuela.

"Building the Modern World: Albert Kahn in Detroit" is Hodges' second book from Wayne State University Press on local architecture and was named a Notable Book for 2019 by the Library of Michigan. It also took First Place in Biography from the Midwest Book Awards. Hodges blames his architectural obsessions on the picturesque Rochester Hills dairy farm where he grew up, and the six years he spent as a student at what we used to call the Cranbrook School for Boys.


Michael Hodges Facebook Page

"Building the Modern World: Albert Kahn in Detroit" by Michael Hodges"

"Michigan's Historic Railroad Stations" by Michael Hodges

Detroit Historical Society Exhibit: "Albert Kahn: Innovation and Influence on 20th Century Architecture"

"Albert Kahn: Stories of Innovation" Lecture and Book Launch


Deb Polich: Welcome to creative:impact on 89 one WEMU. Thanks for tuning in on Tuesdays to meet creative guests rooted in Washtenaw County and explore how their creative businesses, products, programs, and services impact and add to our local quality of life, place, and economy. I'm Deb Polich, president and CEO of Creative Washtenaw and your host for creative:impact. Ann Arborite Michael Hodges spent his career as the fine arts writer at The Detroit News, where he was from 1991 until his retirement in 2021, 30 years to the day. No doubt, his research and storytelling skills positioned him well to extend his career as an author. "Michigan's Historic Railroads and Stations" and "Building the Modern World: Albert Kahn in Detroit" are two of his titles. Michael, welcome to creative:impact.

Michael Hodges: Thank you, Deb. Delighted to be here.

Deb Polich: Yeah, we're happy to have this conversation. So, you know, you've retired from The Detroit News, but you're certainly not retired.

Michael Hodges: Not entirely. I'm still doing art reviews for the online Detroit Art Review and also some freelance journalism here and there.

Deb Polich: Oh, that's great. Well, we're going to absolutely get into your books in a minute, but I'd like to start with your career covering the fine arts in Detroit. It's been about a year since you left the paper, and with some time for reflection, is there anything that you remember most or cherish most at the News?

The Detroit News Building
Michael Hodges
The Detroit News Building

Michael Hodges: You know, I was given the fine arts beat in 2007 after our marvelous former art critic, Joy Colby--

Deb Polich: Oh, sure.

Michael Hodges: --had retired. And, at the time, I was told I would probably get it. And I said, "I have no background in art history. I think this would be a dumb move." And they said, "Well, that's fine, but you're still going to get it." It was the most fun I've ever had in my career. Starting from a relatively low knowledge base just meant that everything I learned was cool and fun. I adored covering the Detroit Institute of Arts in particular. I came to love that institution in ways that kind of surprised me.

Deb Polich: So, can I ask you to name some names? Is there a story or a person or two that particularly impacted or wowed you?

Michael Hodges: Oh, golly. You know, I always really enjoyed speaking with Salvador Salort-Pons, the director of the DIA. I thought he was just a cool, really interesting guy. I also really, really admired Graham Beal, the previous DIA director, the one who renovated the museum and did the big reinstallation and reinterpretation that made it basically the most user-friendly, encyclopedic art museum in the United States.

Deb Polich: You know, and it's also--and I don't know that we always take appreciation from the fact that the DIA really is one of the best museums in the entire world.

Michael Hodges: It is. And one of the unexpected advantages of the bankruptcy that we went through in 2013 or so, when, you know, worldwide, everyone learned that the Detroit Institute of Arts might have to sell off its astonishing collection, and people were floored worldwide to discover what is in the DIA. It's not a huge collection, but it is of supremely high quality.

Deb Polich: And it attracts people from all over the world. And we go down often to see all the shows that are there. It's really a wonderful resource for our community.

Michael Hodges: Yeah.

Deb Polich: This is 89 one WEMU. creative:impact is continuing. And I'm Deb Polich. My guest is journalist and author Michael Hodges. We're talking about his 30-year career covering fine arts for The Detroit News and his side career as an author. Michael, historic architecture is the plumb line in your books: "Michigan Historic Railroad Stations" and "Building the Modern World: Albert Kahn of Detroit." How or where did your interest in historic architecture begin?

Michael Hodges: I always kind of blame it on the dairy farm I grew up on.

Deb Polich: A dairy farm?

Michael Hodges: Yeah, my dad and grandfather were dairy farmers, and the constellation of barns and chicken coop and two little houses that constituted our farm just had this profound sense of place to them. And then, I ended up going to what we used to call the Cranbrook School for Boys. And it's hard to spend six years on that campus without getting, like, totally permeated with an enthusiasm for architecture.

Deb Polich: Well, that's quite a juxtaposition between farm architecture and then Cranbrook.

Michael Hodges: Yeah, indeed it is.

Deb Polich: That's interesting that that's what spawned your interest. So, getting to Albert Kahn, isn't the Detroit News building a Kahn building?

Michael Hodges: It is indeed. 1916. And his mentor, George Mason, whom he apprenticed with early in his career, called it the best building he ever did.

Deb Polich: And you spent a lot of time there, so that probably had a little influence on your interest as well.

Michael Hodges: I spent a lot of time there, for sure.

Deb Polich: You know, though, there are famous architects like Frank Lloyd Wright or Maya Lin. For the most part, most of us don't really know so much about the architect's name, but we're going to know the buildings, right? And Albert Kahn's buildings, both in Detroit and here Ann Arbor, are really icons. What are some of your favorites?

Michael Hodges: Perhaps, my favorite building in Detroit is the Detroit Free Press Building. I know I'm not supposed to say that having been a News guy.

Deb Polich: Traitor.

The Fisher Building
Michael Hodges
The Fisher Building

Michael Hodges: But I just think it's this classic mid-1920s art deco building. I love the Fisher Building.

Deb Polich: Oh, who doesn't?

Michael Hodges: Yeah, indeed. At the University of Michigan, I'm particularly fond of Angell Hall. I love Hill Auditorium, Burton Memorial Tower, which was actually a revised version of a plan that Eliel Saarinen had sketched out in the twenties. And then, Albert Kahn ended up actually building it in the mid-thirties.

Hill Auditorium at the University of Michigan
Michael Hodges
Hill Auditorium at the University of Michigan
Angell Hall at the University of Michigan
Michael Hodges
Angell Hall at the University of Michigan

Deb Polich: Wow. Tell us about your book. Is it a biography, or does it document his work?

Michael Hodges: Both. It's an illustrated biography. I only do books on architecture, so I can take the pictures and the publisher is obliged to use them. And it's a full biography. I did sort of a deep dive into Albert's life and work and tried to basically just account in a way that would be fun and enjoyable to read, why he's important, and why we should give a heck about him.

Deb Polich: So, besides word count, is there a discernible difference between the way you approach a newspaper story versus a book, like, about Albert Kahn?

Michael Hodges: The wonderful thing about a book is that, to a large extent you--I mean, I had deadlines, but I ended up with each of my books coming in a year after the initial projected deadline. It's so hard to predict how long a project will take, especially when you're working full-time. What I loved about writing books is you could go back and rewrite and rewrite and rewrite, until it really was good. And the newspaper papering you often don't have that time luxury.

Deb Polich: Yeah. Deadlines in the newspaper business is really a lot different.

Michael Hodges: Much tighter. But you can't tell your editor, you know, a couple of months before the deadline, "Oh, by the way, I need an extra six months."

Deb Polich: Right. Right.

Michael Hodges: It doesn't work.

Deb Polich: Just hold that front page for me.

Michael Hodges: Yeah, right. It's coming.

Deb Polich: Right. Right. So, the Kahn firm, which is actually about 125 years old, is still operating today, and it has a worldwide clientele.

Michael Hodges: Yes.

Deb Polich: There seems to be either a renewed or perhaps a more public facing effort to tell the Kahn story. There's an exhibition at the Detroit Historical Museum right now, and then, which, by the way, includes a Lego replica of the Fisher Building.

Michael Hodges: Which is great.

Deb Polich:120,000 pieces of Lego.

Michael Hodges: It's like eight feet tall.

Deb Polich: Yeah, and it weighs 300 pounds. Amazing. And then, you're on a panel coming up here pretty quick on June 12th that launches another book that includes 12 authors. And it's "Albert Kahn: Stories of Innovation." So why now? Why is this resurging or newly found interest in Detroit's most famous architect happening now?

Packard Plant
Michael Hodges
Packard Plant

Michael Hodges: I think it has something to do with Detroit's kind of flabbergasting revival and the fact that a lot of young kids have moved into the city of Detroit, who are really enthusiastic about its buildings and architecture. And Kahn had simply been overlooked for decades. In recent years, Claire Zimmermann, a professor of architecture and art history at the University of Michigan, has been doing groundbreaking work on Albert Kahn, and there has begun to gather momentum an argument that's rooted in scholarship that Albert Kahn's early auto factories for Packard and Henry Ford inspired European modernists early in the 20th Century, like Walter Gropius and, like, Bousier, and played a significant role in helping to inspire what we now consider modern architecture.

Deb Polich: Well, Michael, thank you so much for putting this in perspective for us and Albert Kahn in particular. And we'll look forward to your next book. And thanks for being on the show.

Michael Hodges: Thanks a million. This was fun.

Deb Polich: Yeah. I enjoyed it myself. That's Michael Hodges, architectural enthusiast, author, and former fine arts journalist at The Detroit News. We've been talking about his career and his book, "Building the Modern World," about Albert Kahn in Detroit. Find out more about Michael and his books at WEMU dot org. I'm Deb Polich, president and CEO of Creative Washtenaw, and your host for creative:impact. I invite you to join me again next Tuesday to meet another creative Washtenaw guest on this, your community NPR radio station, 89 one WEMU and WEMU HD one Ypsilanti.

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Polich hosts the weekly segment creative:impact, which features creative people, jobs and businesses in the greater Ann Arbor area.
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