A legacy in architecture: How Mike Kirk shaped the face of Dearborn (and the world)

Take a drive down Michigan Avenue and it’s easy to spot some of the biggest developments to occur in Dearborn these past several years.


Ford Land’s Wagner Place, a mixed-use development that spans two blocks of west downtown Dearborn, rebuilding parts of the streetwall while preserving and redeveloping the historic Wagner Hotel building.


Ford’s Garage, a popular new restaurant that celebrates Dearborn’s car culture.


John D. Dingell Transit Center, the train station that services the Amtrak passenger rail service and SMART buses.


City Hall Artspace Lofts, a redevelopment of Dearborn’s historic city hall buildings into 53 live-work spaces for artists and their families.


Dearborn Chamber of Commerce. Dearborn Administrative Center. Veterans Park. The MaryAnn Wright Animal Adoption and Education Center.


It’s an impressive list and testament to the development wave sweeping through Dearborn’s Michigan Avenue corridor.


It’s also a testament to Mike Kirk, long-time Dearborn resident, and Principal at Neumann/Smith Architecture. Kirk has had his hand in each of these projects and many, many more, from Dearborn to Detroit, and throughout the region, country, and the rest of the world.


In fact, the only continent Kirk doesn’t have a development in is Antarctica. Yet.

Kirk’s buildings incorporate the old with the new. He believes in preservation yet doesn’t let sentimentality get in the way of progress, utilizing as many sustainable and green building techniques as a project allows.

Mike Kirk. Photo by Doug Coombe.


“When I look at a building, I try and think about it as a series of experiences the way somebody did back when they put it together. I think that’s what makes cities interesting and buildings interesting. It’s all those little quirks and experiences juxtaposed, and especially when putting new stuff next to old stuff,” Kirk says.


“I’ve looked at it sometimes as a kind of jazz. I played a little music back in my day and it’s kind of like putting a lot of different riffs together to make it work.”


Now 66, Kirk doesn’t show any signs of slowing down, nor a desire to. He says that he wants to work at least until 70, but the exciting projects keep rolling in. Neumann/Smith has worked on more than 50 of Dan Gilbert’s redevelopment projects in downtown Detroit alone.


A long-time preservationist--Kirk worked on campaigns to save dozens of historic buildings in downtown Detroit, as well as other cities--he’s now involved in fixing the buildings that for decades he and his colleagues were told weren’t fixable.


“My college degree was half preservation and half passive solar design. People said I was schizophrenic and I said, ‘No, it’s all about resource conservation.’ In trying to save and reuse buildings, I think, frankly, that’s the biggest way we can conserve energy and contribute to minimizing climate change,” Kirk says.


“Everyone’s all hepped up on what you can do in new construction to save energy but the minute you dig a hole in the ground, you’re using a ton of energy.”


Kirk was born James Michael Kirk in Detroit and moved with his family to Dearborn when he was six years old. Besides a few years spent in Ann Arbor and Detroit for he and his wife’s college years, at the University of Michigan and Wayne State University, respectively, Kirk has been a resident of Dearborn ever since.


His career has found him working for architecture firms large and small, as well as running different iterations of his own firms. He joined Neumann/Smith ten years ago.


For all his awards and accomplishments, Kirk has continued to call Dearborn home. Following college, he inherited his grandmother’s home in east Dearborn and spent a couple of decades there before his family moved to west Dearborn.


“My wife’s friend saw this house that we moved to in west Dearborn and it turns out I’m living three blocks from the house I grew up in. It’s astounding,” Kirk says. “I just say life happens.”


The same reasons Kirk gives for staying in Dearborn are the same he believes will continue to drive development throughout the city. Cultural diversity, a wealth of restaurants, ease of access and transportation options, two downtowns, quality housing stock; all of these and more will attract the region’s young and creative population, he says.


As chair of Dearborn’s Economic Vitality Committee, Kirk is working to help bridge the city’s east and west downtowns. He’d like to see improved transit options between the two downtowns, something that would further attract younger generations to the city, he says. Small-scale apartment buildings and student housing near the colleges would be boons to development, as well.


“I think Dearborn historically has been kind of under the radar. Things developed along Woodward in Birmingham and then in Royal Oak and then Ferndale,” Kirk says.


“Dearborn has always been seen as more of a blue-collar community, especially with the Rouge plant. But that’s one of the things I love about the place. It’s a little bit gritty, but with comfortable residential neighborhoods, great parks and greenways.”


And, lest we forget, much of Mike Kirk’s award-winning work, too.


Read more articles by MJ Galbraith.

MJ Galbraith is a writer and musician living in Detroit. Follow him on Twitter @mikegalbraith.
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