Three and a half years after ground was broken in November 2017, the Edsel and Eleanor Ford House in Grosse Pointe Shores is finally able to welcome the public into its new Visitor Center.
The 40,000-square-foot Visitor Center — one element of the first expansion in the historical estate’s 92-year history — opened to the general public May 26. Along with construction of a 17,000-square-foot administration building, the Visitor Center was part of a project on the north end of the estate designed to better preserve the main house — where administrators formerly had their offices — and enhance the visitor experience while being able to share more Ford family artifacts and insights.
“This was really important for us to be able to tell our story, and why the estate and Edsel and Eleanor Ford and their legacy were important,” Ford House President and CEO Mark Heppner said. “We were able to take these artifacts and technology and marry (them) in a beautiful way.”
The Visitor Center has three exhibition galleries — one of them a permanent display that introduces visitors to the Ford family and their home — plus a sit-down restaurant called the Continental, a grab-and-go restaurant called the Speedster, a larger gift shop, an education wing, and rental spaces for meetings and events. Eleanor Ford’s uncle was J.L. Hudson, so classic favorites from the Hudson restaurants — including the Maurice salad and popovers — will be on the Continental menu.
One of the new touch screen displays allows visitors to tap on family photos and see digitized photos from scrapbooks maintained by the Fords. In the same area, visitors can view some of the actual scrapbooks.
“It’s not technology for the sake of technology,” Ford House Director of Communications and Engagement Clare Pfeiffer said. “It’s telling a story.”
An immersive multimedia display enables visitors to select from family memories and stories, whereupon an actor reads an authentic family letter as home movie footage or photos are projected onto a seasonal 3D diorama of the house. It gives people an intimate look at private family moments, such as Edsel Ford playing in the snow with his children.
“One of the biggest challenges we have as a historic estate is trying to help visitors imagine the family,” Heppner said.
The first rotating exhibition, “Driven by Design,” spotlights three rare vehicles that have never been shown together: the world’s only 1939 Lincoln Continental prototype, the 1943 Ford Model 40 Special Speedster and the 1932 Ford Model 18 Speedster. A second rotating exhibition, “The Future of Movement,” features forward-thinking vehicle designs from College for Creative Studies students. Besides their work in the automotive industry, the Ford family has long been supportive of the arts.
“My grandparents, Eleanor and Edsel, placed such a high value on hospitality, making guests feel welcome in their home. Adding new amenities to the Ford House experience in the form of the Visitor Center extends that hospitality to everyone who visits the estate today,” said Lynn Ford Alandt, chair of the Ford House Board of Trustees, in a press release. “And in the new exhibits, you can hear the family’s stories in a personal way. It’s a lovely celebration of who they were and their legacy.”
As with many construction projects, this one experienced some delays. Initially, Heppner said they were hampered by material shortages, including a lack of steel.
“Until you get the steel, you can’t frame out (the structure),” Heppner explained of the domino effect this created.
Ford House officials had hoped to open the center last spring, but the COVID-19 pandemic quashed those plans and slowed work due to shutdowns and reduced crew capacity once construction could resume.
The project incorporated many environmentally friendly elements, including automatic shades, bioswales and other vegetation in the parking lot to filter stormwater runoff before it flows into Lake St. Clair, hidden solar panels, natural ventilation and bird-safe glass to prevent bird collisions.
That green approach carries over into the gift store.
“A lot of our products are ecofriendly and sustainable,” said Amanda Rutland, the director of visitor experience.
Tabletops for the restaurant, store and staff kitchen were made with reclaimed wood from trees removed for the new buildings. The administration building was designed to meet LEED Platinum standards and be net-positive energy efficient, meaning it will generate more energy than it uses. Some of that extra energy will be used to power the Visitor Center, which was designed to LEED Gold standards.
“I am so excited about what these buildings represent … but the real important thing is the cultural change — being more of service to the community,” Heppner said, noting that Ford House now posts its values and what it’s committed to, and is trying to build more partnerships with its neighbors in Detroit and Macomb County. All of the 87-acre estate property is in Macomb County, and a portion of the land is in St. Clair Shores.
The new Inspiration Garden has trees planted in honor of late Ford House President and CEO Kathleen Mullins — under whose leadership plans for the new buildings began — and late Project Manager Dave Miller, who died while the buildings were under construction. Garden elements acknowledge retired longtime Ford House Board Chair Edsel B. Ford II and Paul and Lynn Alandt as well; Paul Alandt was the first president at Ford House, Heppner said.
“It was a way of honoring people who were key to the estate,” Heppner said.
At press time, the Ford House was still requiring masks for indoor activities. Also because of COVID-19, Pfeiffer said house tours are self-guided. They want guests to feel safe and comfortable.
“We want people to know that we are a welcoming place,” Pfeiffer said.
Special events, including outdoor concerts, an adult painting club, story times and crafts for children, and outdoor games for adults are among the activities planned this summer. Visitors are also welcome to stroll the grounds and see Bird Island.
The Ford House is located at 1100 Lake Shore Road in Grosse Pointe Shores. For more information about the Ford House and its programs, visit www.fordhouse.org or call (313) 884-4222.
Luci Creative provided exhibit design services in partnership with Ford House, SmithGroup, Frank Rewold and Son Inc., Ravenswood Studio, Inc., Richard Lewis Media Group, and Creative Technology on the updated Visitor Center to Edsel & Eleanor Ford House.