I spent the early portion of last week in Nashville where the highlight was a dinner with my lovely niece who is a sophomore at Vanderbilt. On Thursday afternoon I flew up to Detroit and Theresa joined me on Friday evening. Thursday and Friday were the Midwest grey that I remember so well and there were some snow flurries on Friday. While the weekend was cold, Saturday and Sunday were sunny and virtually cloud free.
I left Detroit forty years ago and have since only returned for short visits. The last several decades have not been kind to the city. In the past 60 years, Detroit has lost 1.1 million residents while the metro area has grown by over 1 million. At just over 700,000 people, the city’s population and tax base are too small for the infrastructure that needs to be supported. The latest news is that the city is on the verge of bankruptcy.
It is impossible to visit Detroit without seeing the signs of urban decay — burnt out building, abandoned factories and warehouses, and deserted downtown office towers and retail space. The former wealth and prosperity, however, are still evident in the grand homes in the Boston-Edison district; in the grandeur of Detroit’s pre-Depression Art Deco, Neo-Classical, Neo-Gothic, and Neo-Renaissance architecture; and in the Grosse Pointe estates.
The Boston-Edison district is a neighborhood in the heart of Detroit that is nine blocks long and four blocks wide, running from Woodward Avenue on the east to Linwood Avenue on the west and from Boston Avenue on the north to Edison Avenue on the south.
In the first quarter of the 20th century, over 900 homes were built in this area including spectacular mansions for Detroit’s leading industrialists and businessmen. Indeed, the list of former residents is a virtual Who’s Who of Detroit’s most prominent citizens. Henry Ford spent nearly $500,000 to build an Italian Renaissance home here in 1908. Ford was soon joined by other executives from Ford Motor Company as well as by James Couzens (a former mayor and U.S. Senator), Walter Briggs (former owner of the Detroit Tigers), S.S. Kresge (founder of the five and dime stores that later became K-Mart), Benjamin Siegal (a local retailer of women’s clothing), and Charles Fisher (co-founder and president of Fisher Body).
Most of the homes in this neighborhood appear to be well-maintained, although a few could clearly use some work. What is incredible is that most of the grand homes in this community can be bought for under $250,000 today, and many for less than $100,000. I expect that the cost of heating, cooling, and maintaining these homes, however, is quite high.
Eleanor and Edsel Ford Estate
Henry and Clara Ford had only one child, Edsel, who was born in 1893. Edsel married Eleanor Clay, a niece of J.L. Hudson, a major Detroit merchant, in 1916. The Fords had four children: Henry II was born in 1917, Benson in 1919, Josephine in 1923, and William in 1925. Edsel became president of Ford Motor Company in 1919 at age 25, and when he died in 1943 he was succeeded as president by his oldest son, Hank the Deuce, who was then 25 years old.
A quick aside — J. L. Hudson was the founder of Detroit’s premier department store chain. In the 1950s, Hudson’s 25 floor flagship store on Woodward Avenue covered a full city block and had over 2 million square feet of retail space. The chain was acquired by Minneapolis-based Dayton’s in the late 1960s. In 1990, Dayton Hudson acquired Chicago’s Marshall Field’s department stores and in 2000 the Hudson name was replaced by Field’s. In 2006, the chain was acquired by Federated and the Marshall Field stores became Macy’s. As nice as Macy’s may be, I miss the regional department stores (Hudson’s, Marshall Field’s, Jordan Marsh, The Bon Marché, Davison’s, Filene’s, Kauffman’s, etc., etc.) that have been merged out of existence. The homogeneous Macy’s stores simply lack the regional variety, flair, eccentricities, traditions, and charm of the former local retailers.
Anyway, on a snowy Friday afternoon, I headed east to Grosse Pointe, an affluent suburb of Detroit on Lake St. Clair, to tour the Eleanor and Edsel Ford Home. The Ford’s hired Albert Kahn, America’s most famous industrial architect, to design a home for their growing family in 1926. Kahn is often referred to as the “Architect of Detroit” because of the many hundreds of buildings that he designed in the city and state including the Packard Motor Car plant, Ford’s Highland Park plant, and Ford’s massive River Rouge complex. He also designed the Art Deco Fisher Building, the GM Building, Detroit’s police headquarters, the Detroit Athletic Club, both the Detroit News and Detroit Free Press buildings, the Willow Run Bomber Plant, the Detroit Arsenal Tank Plant, and nearly 20 buildings at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor including several fraternity houses.
For Eleanor and Edsel Ford, Kahn designed a 60 room, 20,000 square foot home that is situated on the shore of Lake Saint Clair and oriented toward the east to take advantage of the view and the morning light. The house sits on 88 acres of land and was designed to look like a series of Cotswald cottages. While the exterior was constructed in one year, two additional years were required to complete the interior that contains paneling, fireplaces, and stained glass windows brought over from various parts of England and reconstructed in the house.
The home is furnished primarily with antiques from Europe, however four rooms were designed by Walter Dorwin Teague, a contemporary of Frank Lloyd Wright, in a strikingly modern, Art Deco style. The Ford’s had an extensive art collection and paintings by Cezanne, Renoir, Degas, and Van Gogh hung in the house. Mrs. Ford lived in the house until her death in 1976. While no pictures could be taken in the house, you can see many at: http://www.fordhouse.org/. The estate also has a free iPhone/iPod app that can be downloaded at http://itunes.apple.com/us/app/edsel-eleanor-ford-house/id382823311?mt=8.
In addition to the main house, the grounds contain several outer buildings including a pool house, an eight car garage, and a power plant to provide electricity and heat to the property. The names of the building, however, belie their grandeur. The pool house is no simple cabana but rather a substantial house that contains a kitchen, changing rooms for both men and women, a squash court, and a living room. The garage is part of the gate house that included several apartments for the staff and a cottage that the Fords used as a workshop. The garage contains its own gasoline pump, indoor car wash, and a turntable so cars can drive in and out easily and be parked efficiently.
The Google map below shows an aerial view of the property. The gatehouse and garage are on the left bottom edge of the picture. On the right is the main house. The main body of water is Lake St. Clair but the inlet near the top of the picture is Ford’s Cove in which the Ford’s kept their boats. The man-made peninsula above Ford’s Cove is called Bird Island.
Among the outer buildings is a playhouse that Clara Ford had built for Josephine, her only granddaughter, as a 7th birthday present. Everything in the playhouse is two-thirds scale from the doors to the light switches to the kitchen sink and appliances to the bathroom fixtures. The playhouse has electricity, heat, and running water and it was built in a Tudor style at a cost $15,000, a price at which a very nice regular house could have been constructed in 1930.
Muchas Gracias from warm Cancun!
© 2011 Kurt Brown. All rights reserved.