Ford House dives in to restoration of historic lagoon, pool, landscapes
Posted: January 19, 2021
Ford House dives in to restoration of historic lagoon, pool, landscapes
(2021) -- Ford House, the historic estate of Edsel and Eleanor Ford, is embarking on its largest and most extensive restoration project.
The project launched this winter and will restore the estate’s swimming pool, lagoon and surrounding landscape on the southeast corner of the property to the original vision of the Fords, renowned landscape architect Jens Jensen and Detroit architect Albert Kahn when they designed the estate in the late 1920s.
The endeavor, which is slated to take about a year and a half, is an important part of Ford House’s stewardship of the estate as a National Historic Landmark. The estate received this prestigious designation from the federal government in part because of the creative design collaboration between Jensen, the Fords and Kahn.
Over time, the pool and lagoon area has been altered with additional rocks, paving materials, trees and shrubs that were not part of the original design. In addition, Ford House must make vital repairs to the iconic swimming pool, which has developed irreparable leaks in the 93 years since its installation.
When the restoration project is complete, visitors will be able to see the pool, lagoon, landscape and views of Lake St. Clair as Edsel and Eleanor Ford and their children did when the estate was their home in the 1920s and 1930s. The restoration is expected to be completed in mid-2022.
The beauty and style of Jensen’s design helps to illustrate the story of Edsel and Eleanor’s appreciation for art, design and nature. It also holds its own significance as a historical treasure in the world of landscape architecture.
Ford House’s National Historic Landmark designation highlights the estate’s 87-acre grounds as one of the best remaining intact examples of Jensen’s landscape design. Jensen transformed the land, applying a Naturalistic approach and Prairie Style principles, with an emphasis on Midwest-native plant life. As a result, the landscapes appear natural, but actually bring together the gardens, sky, water and the historic buildings in a series of carefully-composed vistas. This includes the lagoon and inground swimming pool, which was designed in the 1920s through a collaboration among Jensen, Kahn and the Fords and features a then-uncommon curvy shape, intended to blend more organically into Jensen’s surrounding scenery.
“As stewards of a National Historic Landmark, we are proud to protect, preserve and restore the physical fabric of this estate, including Jensen’s masterwork on the grounds,” Ford House President and CEO Mark Heppner remarked. “Part of our mission here at Ford House is to provide an authentic and educational experience to the public. We have a responsibility to repair and strengthen the pool and lagoon, and we’re excited to turn back the clock, enabling our visitors to experience this section of the grounds in its authentic and original glory.”
Jensen designed the lagoon and the area around it to emulate a northern Michigan natural landscape. The area’s taller trees were native to northern Michigan and were paired with flowering trees. A grassy shoreline around the lagoon made it sunny, open and relatively accessible on foot. Multiple vantage points around the pool and lagoon afforded expansive vistas of Lake St. Clair.
In its current state, the character of this corner of the estate has been altered in a way that neither the Fords nor the designers would recognize. The deliberately orchestrated views are now obscured by overgrowth and added rocks, trees and shrubs which do not match Jensen’s approach. With these added trees blocking the sunlight, the Fords’ flowering trees eventually withered and were removed. The root systems of some of these additions are also threatening the structural integrity of the pool and other historical structures and pathways.
The new project seeks to right these changes. The project will apply new technologies to implement significant rehabilitation of the swimming pool’s structural integrity, plumbing and mechanical systems. The lagoon will be dredged, pipes will be replaced, and the grassy perimeter will be restored. Organic and plant matter will be manicured or removed to reveal original stone paths, stepping stones and rock outcroppings. The project will also involve selectively thinning the landscape to restore the intended sightlines.
“Jensen’s landscape architecture was truly a work of art. He made each decision with several meticulous considerations, like the path the sun would travel at certain times of day, what size each species of tree and plant would grow to be, and how each element would work together with Kahn’s architecture to create a beautiful view,” Ford House Director of Landscapes Karl Koto explained. “With the way the area has been modified over the years, we are completely missing out on those incredible creations.”
Determining how to approach the restoration, Ford House’s researchers referenced Jensen’s original plans, architectural drawings, archival photographs, family films and other historical documents. The need for this project was identified through an in-depth historic landscape management plan created in 2015.
“My landscape team and I have an exciting challenge to bring Jensen’s work back to life. We are dedicated to using the utmost intentionality as we determine which plants and materials can remain and which need to be added back to this woodland gardenscape,” Koto said. “Our goal is to be as meticulous as Jensen was.”
The Ford House landscape and gardening staff boasts an array of specialties, including landscape architects, master gardeners, horticulturists, a woodland specialist and a rosarian. Ford House is working with architecture firm Albert Kahn Associates on the project and will also engage other contracted specialists.
“Restoration projects like this are part of the magic of caring for a wonderful historic property like Ford House. Because of our efforts to preserve and restore, visitors will be able to see the past with their own eyes. When you see the sun sparkling on the water of the pool, you can picture the Ford children spending happy afternoons playing there,” Heppner said. “We want generations to come and wander this part of the estate and bask in its beauty and marvel at how the Fords, Kahn and Jensen created what’s really a masterpiece in water, stone and plants.”
Other restoration and preservation projects Ford House has completed in recent years have included replacing deteriorating roofing materials to protect the structure of the historic home in 2018; the restoration of the vegetable garden alongside the Play House in 2018; and the installation of thousands of plants in a restoration of woodland areas near the west wall of the estate in 2019.
In spring 2021, Ford House will complete its largest expansion ever, opening a newly constructed Visitor Center and Administration Building. The addition of these buildings will remove 98% of staff offices and operations from Ford House’s historic structures, allowing dozens of rooms to be restored and eventually added to public tours.
About Ford House
Ford House is located at 1100 Lake Shore Road in Grosse Pointe Shores. The historic lakeside estate was the family home of Edsel Ford – Henry and Clara Ford’s only child – where he lived with his wife Eleanor and their children beginning in 1928. Since 1978, Ford House has welcomed hundreds of thousands of visitors to share in Eleanor Ford’s vision of preserving the estate for future generations to enjoy through interpretive tours, family activities, lectures, exhibits, and gardens and grounds events. Ford House was named a National Historic Landmark in 2017, a prestigious honor from the Secretary of the Interior or Federal government. For more information, visit fordhouse.org or call 313-884-4222. Connect with Ford House on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.