Emil Lorch was born in Detroit of German-American parentage on July 21, 1870. He attended schools in Detroit, including the Detroit Museum of Art School, then went to work for the city's architectural offices. He next studied at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, 1890-1892, then returned to Detroit where he worked and was active in art and museum circles, especially the Detroit School of Art where he taught from 1895 to 1898. He studied in Paris, 1898-1899, and then went to Chicago as general assistant to the director of the Chicago Art Institute, 1899-1901. He was also secretary of the Chicago School of Architecture.
Lorch next attended Harvard University, 1901-1903, where he obtained his M.A. degree in architecture. From 1903 to 1906 he was assistant professor of architecture at Drexel Institute in Philadelphia. In the fall of 1906 he came to the University of Michigan to establish a department of architecture in the College of Engineering. Under his leadership, the department in 1931 was re-established as a separate College of Architecture within the university with Lorch appointed as its first dean.
Lorch was both a teacher and a practicing architect. He designed the Architecture Building at the University of Michigan, the Belle Isle Bridge in Detroit, and the residence of Alex Dow in Barton Hills. He was also professionally involved. Lorch served on the Committee on Education of the American Institute of Architects and was active in the Association of Collegiate Schools of Architecture and the Michigan Society of Architects. During his career, Lorch corresponded with all the leading figures in academic architectural education, including Roy Jones, Warren P. Laird., and J. B. Robinson. He also was a leading figure in the movement for licensing architects in Michigan, 1915-1917, and served nationally in this movement through the 1930s via the A.I.A.'s Committee on Registration.
After his retirement from the university in July 1940, Lorch devoted himself almost entirely to preserving Michigan's historic buildings. This interest had been fired originally by the Historic American Buildings Survey of the 1930s on whose advisory committee he served and whose records (Midwest District) form a part of this collection. He was active in the restoration projects of Mackinac Island and other early Michigan forts; and he cataloged and collected information and pictures about hundreds of historic and contemporary Michigan structures.
Lorch died June 20, 1963.