It was a crisp, sunny day when we left Detroit and headed over to nearby Grosse Pointe Shores to visit historic Ford House—the former home of Edsel and Eleanor Ford. We drove through a run-down part of Detroit marked by some of the finest street art (graffiti) I’ve ever seen. The Detroit River ran along the east side of the road then emptied into Lake St. Clair. If you haven’t been to Michigan, many of our lakes tend to resemble a sea—you can’t see land on the other side; Lake St. Clair is one of those kinds of lakes. The tony area where Ford House is located featured lake-side mansions, ritzy boutiques, and cozy coffee shops and cafes. The windy day caused waves to crash against the shore that lined the main thoroughfare—Lake Shore Drive. Ernest Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea crept into my mind…actually it was George Costanza from Seinfeld whose voice I heard, “The sea was angry that day, my friends.”
I was so deep in thought that I almost missed the gated tower that formed the entrance to the grounds of the Ford House estate. With its sandstone exterior and arched imposing doors, the “Gate Lodge” transported me back to the Middle Ages. I expected to have to cross a moat at any moment. A man came to the side of our car and asked our names (reservations required but guided tours are easy to reserve) and then directed us on our way. The house tour includes access to the main home, outer buildings, grounds, gardens, and visitor’s center. A shuttle takes visitors around the campus or you can walk. I approached Ford House and was smitten with its English Cotswold Cottage-style exterior. The mossy roof with stone shingles (split and laid by English artisans!) and the ivy-covered walls create a homey exterior. One feels that they have stumbled upon an English village in Michigan.
Our docent met us at the stately door. She sounded British, which fit right in with my initial impression of the home’s style. Although not even a century old (construction began in 1926), the mansion has an Old World feel. Our guide explained that the Fords literally brought the old world over to the new by transporting architectural elements and entire walls, windows, ceilings, doors, and fireplaces from European estates. Our guide’s admiration for Edsel and Eleanor Ford showed in her respectful tone when describing their love of art and family. The tour was a delight—not just to see the inside of this grand mansion, but to hear stories about the children who grew up there, the servants who worked there, the influential people who visited, and the couple who conceptualized the home’s design and collected its furnishings. Most everyone has heard of Henry Ford, but fewer people are familiar with his philanthropic son and daughter-in-law, Edsel and Eleanor. Both of whom also had a great eye for art!
Edsel and Eleanor served on the Arts Commission of the Detroit Institute of Arts (DIA). Their passion for the arts is evident in every square inch of their 60-room home. They were great patrons and endowed many of the great works of art found in Detroit’s renowned institute. Eleanor bequeathed their home to the public in her will so that all would enjoy her home’s architecture and furnishings. Although many of the original paintings now hang in the DIA, exacting replicas were commissioned so that the home’s interior retains its original feel.
Architect Albert Kahn, Eleanor, and Edsel traveled to England for inspiration for the home. Many more trips across the pond were made to acquire art, artifacts, and architectural implements for the home. Entering the main hall, one is struck by how welcoming it is—rare for a mansion of this size and a public space so grand. The plastered ceilings in the main hall give the room a homey feel and are a hallmark of the home; each features a different motif. A wrought iron glass door leads to a loggia that looks upon the lake giving the Gothic room an open feeling and one connected to nature. The staircase (circa 1600) was taken from Lyveden Manor in Northamptonshire, England. Another interesting aspect of the home is the fact that many rooms feature architectural details taken from grand estates.
Off the main hall is the drawing room. Its blue-green paneling, hand-cut crystal chandelier, Louis XV and XVI furniture, and Impressionist paintings cast a decidedly French effect. Little Asian artifacts around the room pose charming contrasts. Throughout the house one finds pieces that don’t fit the theme of the room making each area’s design one of personal taste. I reveled in the variety—18th century Queen Anne armchairs, 16th century Italian Renaissance paintings, Oriental rugs, and 17th century English silk needlepoint tapestries were not far from one another. You get the sense that Eleanor Ford surrounded herself with objects she found beautiful; for that reason, the house—even though it has museum-quality pieces—doesn’t feel like a museum. It feels like a home. The Fords weren’t exhibiting art to impress others, they designed their home to please themselves and surround their family with beauty.
The stone-walled “Cloister” connects the drawing room to the gallery (the biggest room in the house). The plastered, barrel vault ceiling of the gallery features Tudor rose and French fleur-de-lis motifs. The 16th century wood paneling and colossal stone chimneypiece came from Wollaston Hall in England. I found the stained glass coat of arms in the leaded windows particularly charming. Each room is sublime though! It would take years to fully appreciate all of the little design touches that grace each space. So immersed in uncovering each room’s treasures, I often didn’t even hear our guide. Like a kid in a toy store, I wanted to touch everything. But I didn’t, because that would have been wrong.
I learned a lot about the Ford family through their home. I got the sense that there was a lot of love in that home…and also a lot of life. The house and its grounds weren’t just for show—they were for use, to be enjoyed. Jens Jensen, the famed landscape architect, designed the outdoor spaces so that they seemed natural using trees and plants indigenous to the Midwest. But he also designed them to be functional—a places where kids could play and entertain friends. Josephine, the only daughter, had a Tudor-style playhouse that was an exact replica of a real house (just scaled down). It had a working kitchen, bathroom, living room, and bedroom. A recreation room in the basement gave the children a place to have fun. Even with all this grandeur surrounding them, I got the impression that the Ford’s took care not to spoil their children. At many points in time two of the boys shared a bedroom. All four of the children were expected to dress for dinner. Since many, if not all, lived with their parents until marriage, they must have found it a nice place to live.
As I drove out the impressive gate which hours before I had found so imposing, I found myself feeling as if I would have liked Edsel and Eleanor Ford had I the privilege to know them. I had expected to see a grand mansion—and was not disappointed—but hadn’t anticipated how much my estimation of the couple would grow. I have visited the Detroit Institute of Art countless times, but never knew to what degree I owe the family a debt of gratitude for endowing the art that I and millions of others appreciate on a yearly basis. Thanks to my tour of Ford House, I now know the art and the family just a little better.