The success of Ford Motor Company brought a stream of uninvited callers to the doors of Henry and Clara Ford's Edison Avenue Detroit mansion. Reporters, salesmen, and job seekers deprived the family of the privacy they desired. They soon wished to build a new home, one removed from the rapidly expanding city, where they could satisfy their love of nature, gardening, and birdwatching in particular. Never comfortable with the boisterous lifestyle of Detroit society, the Fords abandoned plans to follow the migration of the city's wealthy to the eastern suburbs, and instead chose their hometown of Dearborn, about two miles from the farm where Mr. Ford was born. The world-famous automaker had been buying property in the area for several years. So in 1913, work began on what would be the couple's final home: Fair Lane.
Fair Lane would be a private place, close enough to Mr. Ford's business interests, but sufficiently secluded so that upon arriving home he could tinker with new ideas in his private laboratory, surrounded by acres of woods filled with the birds and wildlife he cherished. Between 500 and 800 masons, woodcarvers, and artisans worked year-round to complete the estate as quickly as possible.
Reflecting the Fords' love for nature, the residence was built of rough-hewn Ohio limestone to harmonize with the surrounding countryside. The goal was to make the house appear to be a natural part of the land. The grounds, designed by noted landscape architect Jens Jensen, were transformed from farmland into a natural, native landscape.
Fair Lane is neither the largest nor the most opulent house of it's era. Mr. Ford was proud of his simple tastes and felt no need to flaunt his substantial wealth. He cautioned the architects against building lavishly; the residence's total cost was not to exceed $250,000. Despite this directive, at the time of completion the building cost was $1,875,000. Interior decorating cost was an additional $175,000, with property development and landscaping adding another $370,000 to the final bill. By January 1916, the Fords were completely settled into their new home. The estate was named Fair Lane after the area in County Cork, Ireland where Mr. Ford's ancestors lived.
During the Fords' residency, the 1,300 acres of Fair Lane bustled with activity. In addition to the residence and it's powerhouse, the estate included a summer house, man-made lake, staff cottages, gatehouse, root cellar, vegetable garden, 1,000-plant peony garden, 10,000-plant rose garden, a "Santa's Workshop" for Christmas celebrations, maple sugar shack, a working farm for the Ford grandchildren built to their size, agricultural research facilities, and 500 birdhouses to satisfy Mr. Ford's interest in ornithology.
Because the Fords designed Fair Lane to be so private and self-contained, it is uncertain how large a staff was retained to run the estate. About a half-dozen people worked in the residence and technicians, stokers, and electricians were always on duty in the estate's powerhouse. A considerably larger staff was needed to maintain the extensive gardens of Fair Lane. Up to 25 men tended the grounds on a seasonal basis, but exact numbers are difficult to determine due to Mr. Ford's practice of augmenting the staff with people temporarily pulled from his assembly lines.
Henry Ford enjoyed Fair Lane for over 30 years until his death in 1947. When Mrs. Ford died 3 years later, her grandchildren commissioned Parke-Bernet Galleries of New York to conduct an auction of the home's furnishings; other sales occurred to disperse less valuable furnishings.
In 1952, Ford Motor Company purchase the estate from the heirs and, after renovating parts of the interior, established it's corporate archives in the residence. Ford Archives stayed until 1957, when the company donated the residence, powerhouse, 202 acres, and $6.5 million to the University of Michigan for the creation of a Dearborn campus. In 1963 a local group, the "Women of Fair Lane," persuaded University officials to allow tours of the home, which continued until Ford Motor Company and the University of Michigan began using some of the rooms for administrative purposes. The Henry Ford Estate was designated a National Historic Landmark in 1966. Public tours of the historic home were re-introduced in the 1970s. Since then a small staff, generous contributors, and approximately 250 volunteers continue the process of rebuilding the estate and reviving it's former splendor.
Reprinted with permission from the booklet entitled "Henry Ford Estate - National Historic Landmark."
The Beginning of the Tour
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