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A Prominent American Home

The Edsel & Eleanor Ford House displays a deep respect for the past combined with an embracing of modern elements.


Meandering down a country road toward what appears to be a group of English cottages might give first-time visitors to the Edsel & Eleanor Ford House a mistaken impression. At first glance, the lakeside estate in Grosse Pointe Shores, Michigan, seems quaint, casual and unplanned.

In reality, every detail of the 60-room mansion and the 35 hectares of gardens, which make up the Lake St. Clair estate, was meticulously designed by Edsel and Eleanor Clay Ford before the family moved in on Christmas 1929. Closer scrutiny of this prominent American family estate reveals a consistent trait—a deep respect for the past coupled with an embracing of modern innovations.

Edsel had already succeeded his father, Henry Ford, as the president of Ford Motor Company in 1919, when he traveled to England with his wife, Eleanor, and architect, Albert Kahn. The goal was to plan a home for his family, which included three sons and a daughter. “They fell in love with the slate roofs, leaded glass windows and vine-covered exteriors of the Cotswolds village cottages,” says Ann Loshaw, vice president for education and visitor experience at the Historic Ford Estates.

A tour of the Ford House reveals an interesting juxtaposition of antiquities with modern elements. Interior fittings were repurposed from medieval and 17th-century English manor houses and retrofitted for the Ford home. A stone chimneypiece and 17th-century oak paneling from a country estate in Northamptonshire county in East Midlands, England, were fitted to the walls of the library, creating an intimate family setting for Eleanor’s favorite room. Stained glass window medallions from the 15th and 16th centuries, as well as large squares of the recessed carved wood paneling dismantled from an Elizabethan mansion, were brought over from England during the construction of the Ford House.

In the 1930’s, the Fords hired industrial designer Walter Dorwin Teague to redesign four rooms in the house, known as the Modern Rooms. These featured a new indirect lighting method, leather and wood grained walls, and a Steinway piano built to match the wood and style of the rooms. The Fords also worked with Teague to redesign bedrooms for their sons, with built-in radios and added brass and copper wall sconces in the Art Déco style. “People do think it looks like the 1950’s,” notes Loshaw, citing them as evidence of the Fords’ progressive taste.

Jens Jensen, renowned for his naturalistic landscapes, designed the estate’s grounds in the 1920’s to transform the former farmland into a meadow of native plants and trees. “Jensen constructed a peninsula called Bird Island at Gaulker Point on the lake to encourage native wildlife along the migration route of birds going north in the spring,” says Loshaw. “Those native plants act as natural filters, and clean water continues to drain back into Lake St. Clair to this day.”

The Fords acquired works by artists Pierre-Auguste Renoir, Edgar Degas, Hans Holbein the Younger, Fra Angelico, Vincent van Gogh and Sir Joshua Reynolds, among others, for their home. Much of their collection was bequeathed to the Detroit Institute of Art by Eleanor at her death in 1976, and high-quality reproductions now hang on the walls of the Ford House. The Fords also commissioned Diego Rivera to paint his famous “Detroit Industry Murals” for the Detroit Institute of Art, “and fought to keep the murals in their original form regardless of their political interpretation,” says Loshaw, referring to the destruction of Rivera’s “Man at the Crossroads” mural at New York City’s Rockefeller Center by Nelson Rockefeller because of its controversial political content.

The Edsel & Eleanor Ford House is listed with the U.S. National Register of Historic Places. Its designation as a National Historic Landmark is pending.

A lovely respite from the world, the Ford estate serves as a venue for the Detroit Symphony Orchestra, as well as educational and local culinary events. Visitors can take guided house tours, roam around the grounds and gardens, enjoy a delicious meal at the Cotswold Cafe or have a picnic outdoors. The playhouse built by the Fords for their daughter, Josephine, and exhibits in the garage and cottage are other attractions. The cost of admission and tours range from $5 (Rs. 330 approximately) to $15 (Rs. 1,000 approximately) for adults. There are discounted rates for children and seniors. Tours are offered from Tuesday to Sunday, and tickets are sold on a first come, first served basis at the Visitors Center on the day of the tour.

 

Hillary Hoppock is a freelance writer, former newspaper publisher and reporter based in Orinda, California.