Edsel and Eleanor Ford House

This week, as part of an internship I took part in this fall, I was able to attend a private tour of the Edsel and Eleanor Ford House in  Grosse Point Shores (also the reason I visited the GM Heritage Center). Although I’ve lived in the Metro Detroit area all my life, I’d never been to this particular historic site so I was thrilled for the chance to visit it. Our tour took us through the public areas of the house, through some of the storage areas, and to the garage, which has a display about automobiles owned by the Fords. Due to rainy weather, we weren’t able to explore the grounds (designed by the famous Jens Jensen), so a return visit might be in order in the future!

Edsel was the only child of Henry and Clara Ford, born in 1893. He married Eleanor Lowthian Clay, niece to J.L. Hudson,  in 1916. Eleanor fit in well with the family, Clara once claiming that she and Henry “could not love Edsel’s wife more if we had picked her out ourselves.” Edsel and Eleanor had four children, Henry II, Benson, Josephine and William Clay. The couple were very philanthropic and loved art, collecting many paintings by famous artists and even commissioning the well-known Detroit Industry mural  by Diego Rivera at the Detroit Institute of Arts (DIA).

Edsel grew up around his father’s car company and became involved at an early age. Unlike his father, who valued functionality above all else, Edsel thought that cars could be beautiful as well. Edsel’s influence is seen in the more graceful Model A, the successor to the popular Model T. He became president of Ford and continued to grow the company, buying the Lincoln Motor Company and founding the Mercury division. However, his work was cut short by his death in 1943. Only 49, he was outlived by his father by four years. Despite his great work, his name is often associated with the Edsel car, an unpopular Ford car that debuted 14 years after his death.

Eleanor continued living in the home after Edsel’s death. She died in 1976, and left her home to be used as a “benefit to the public,” which is how it became a historic house museum. The house itself is beautiful. It is situated on Gawkler’s Point, on the shore of Lake St. Clair in Grosse Pointe Shores, a suburb northeast of Detroit. Designed by Albert Kahn in 1929, it is styled after villages in the Cotswold region of England. Many features of the house are imported from England, including wood paneling in many of the rooms and the stone roof. As in most historic homes, the rooms are set up to show how it would have looked when the Ford family was in residence. A number of painting grace the walls, some originals, other reproductions as the originals were donated to the DIA.

My absolute favorite parts of the house were the so-called “modern rooms.” Most of the house is designed and decorated in a very formal and elegant British style, but in the 1930s Edsel hired Walter Teague to redesign four rooms, the boys’ bedrooms and one downstairs room, in a modern, streamlined style. These rooms include features such as leather wall panels, built-in radios and indirect lighting. They rooms are such a departure from the rest of the house it is almost jarring to walk into them, but I like that it shows that the Fords kept up with modern trends and that the home reflects their evolving tastes. Too often, historic houses focus so much on portraying one era that they forget that people tend to update their homes little by little, so no real home truly reflects just one point in time.

We also visited the garage, which contained some amazing old cars and a new interactive exhibit. Unfortunately, as the museum is closed on the day my tour visited, we couldn’t play around on the interactives. Something for next time I suppose! Something else I plan to check out next time is the iPhone tour app created by the Ford House so you can see videos and learn more about the house as your travel around it.

I wasn’t able to take any pictures this time (dark house+crappy cell phone camera=useless photographs), but the website has tons of great images and information about the house. Definitely check out the pictures of the modern room, and visit the house if you get a chance!

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