As I arrived at the Edsel & Eleanor Ford estate, I was unprepared for the sheer size of the property. Pulling through the main gate lodge, I had to be directed toward the visitor center to receive further instruction for where I would be heading for my tour. After purchasing my ticket (only $12), I was told I could head to the house across the grounds.
Luckily, though the sky over Lake St. Clair looked foreboding, the rain held out until about 5 minutes before I was ready to leave, and I was able to enjoy a wonderful walk across the grounds. The cool breeze from the lake made for a lovely climate to walk along Ford Cove and listen to stories of Edsel’s boats and Eleanor’s walks along Bird Island via the iPod Touch that was provided for a self-guided grounds tour.
Since I was alone for this tour, I plugged in my headphones and listened to the stories of the Fords’ days at the estate as I walked. I was amazed at the expansiveness of the grounds, and at how much had been done to create the Fords’ oasis (Bird Island was nothing but a sandbar before landscape architect Jens Jensen was commissioned by the Fords).
Arriving at the house, it appears large, but does not seem imposing. Despite it’s size (30,000 square feet with sixty rooms), the estate has the unpretentious look of a quaint manor from the Cotswold hills of England. Construction on the home began in 1926, not long after the Fords commissioned Albert Kahn to design their ideal residence.
The first thing I noticed upon entering was how dark it seemed in the house, an attribute that our guide pointed out was simply a style of the times. Also, while the home is expansive, many of the rooms are fairly small; this intentional design element provided the Fords a home that felt cozy and intimate.
Though intimate, the estate is quite grand. The ceilings in many rooms are adorned with plaster fleur de lis details, the walls panelled with ornate linenfold wood from England, there are French wrought crystal chandeliers hanging; the number of intricate details in each room is (at times) overwhelming. This is especially evident on the first floor of the home. Among the rooms we walked through on the first floor were the art gallery, the drawing room, the library, the morning room, the dining room, three different rooms in one larger kitchen area, the flower room, the games room, and Edsel’s study.
Our guide relayed tales of the Fords’ lives in each room as they would have put it to use.
The art gallery, while never utilized for its intended purpose, was the site of many grand occasions, including Henry and Clara Ford’s 50th wedding anniversary party (which drew over 500 attendees to the estate), Josephine Ford’s wedding reception, and Henry Ford II’s 21st pirate-themed birthday party (for which his parents had a pirate ship built and placed in the lagoon on the property).
The library, the most used room in the house, housed over 1,300 books and accommodated the many hours that each of the Fords spent reading. The library also offers a sample of the Fords’ progressive and diverse taste in art, with art in the room ranging from African masks, Ming vases converted into lamps, to more traditional painted works.
In the dining room, the children would converge (with their governess) at 6:30 in the evening for dinner, while the adults would arrive to dine at the main table at 7:30. Once the children reached the age of twelve, they were invited to join the adults at their table, however, they were required to dress up.
In the butler’s kitchen, there is what looks like a switchboard, which corresponded to call buttons around the home (one of which was under the rug by Eleanor’s chair at the head of the table in the dining room). Though the butler’s kitchen retains the 1920s feel of the home, the main room in the kitchen has many 1970s era fixtures from updates made in the time before Eleanor’s death. (Through the large endowment that she left, the house has been able to remain unchanged but preserved for curious voyeurs such as myself.)
In Edsel’s study, we are able to catch a glimpse of his diverse talents: on display is a sculpture he crafted while taking art lessons. Also an avid amateur photographer, Edsel’s (and Eleanor’s) strong creative eye is evident throughout the house.
Walking upstairs, we are afforded a look at the intricate stone roof of the house. Though the house originally cost 3.2 million dollars to build, replacing this stone roof ten years ago cost 3 million dollars alone and took three years to complete. The difference of the times is evident in the cost of the house, and is also noticeable in many facets of the home.
In addition to the lack of light, you may notice such differences as only the boys bathrooms upstairs had showers (ladies only bathed), all rooms locked from the inside (the home was built near the time of the Lindbergh baby incident), and the very presence of a governess’ room speaks to a different era. Despite these variations, the home was very modern for it’s time; several rooms had radios built into tables, scales were built into the floor in several bathrooms, and Eleanor’s flower room had a refrigerator for overnight storage of her beloved flowers to increase longevity.
The Fords were also very forward thinking in the treatment of their staff. Though hours were often long, the staff had ample afternoon breaks, those who lived on site had sizeable quarters, children of the staff often socialized with the Ford children, and Eleanor even offered to have the children’s governess continue to live at the estate after the children were grown. As a result, many employees stayed with the Fords for decades.
As I walked back from the home past the lagoon, the pool, Eleanor’s rose garden, Josephine’s Play House, and the splendor of grounds, it is not difficult to imagine a lively estate bustling with a family who loved to play sports (Josephine had a Tigers pennant hanging in her room amongst her many tennis trophies), enjoy bird watching, and spending time with one another. Take a sunny Sunday afternoon, as I did, and head to the Ford Estate for a wonderful trip back in time.