As part of a plan developed in 2012 to restore, reconstruct and rehabilitate the historic Edsel & Eleanor Ford House, the long-awaited public opening of the estate’s new visitor center and administration building is just around the corner.
Construction is complete; landscaping and signage are near completion. City and health department inspections have yet to be fulfilled.
“We are anxious to do business and get going,” Ford House CEO and President Mark Heppner said. “One thing that makes this project a pleasure is my board of directors, the Ford family. I put pressure on myself and the staff, but it’s nice that the family is saying the buildings are ready when they’re ready. We want to make sure when we open the doors we have our best foot forward.”
The project — the addition of a 40,000-square-foot visitor center and 17,000-square-foot administration building — marks the largest new construction on the estate in more than 90 years. Construction broke ground in 2017.
An anticipated opening date in early April has been pushed until the end of May. Ford House Director of Communication and Engagement Clare Pfeiffer recommended watching Ford House’s website for a firm date in coming weeks.
“Until we have the certificate of occupancy, we can’t physically move in,” Heppner said, “into the gift shop, into our offices. We’re vicariously living through just walking over there.”
Heppner said he expects physical relocation to take up to two weeks, once final approval is granted.
Ford House also will unveil a newly designed Tribute Garden, as well as a Kitchen Garden that sits outside the restaurant and a third yet-to-be-named garden.
“There are many people who were important to his project who are no longer with us,” Heppner said. “One of them is Kathleen Mullins, who had this vision. … The (third) garden will be a space where they’re recognized, but also a place to sit and enjoy the landscape.”
The updated landscape is just the start of what visitors can expect when they finally make their way past the Ford House front gates. Heppner said guests will notice an immediate difference, from a traditional feel to something more contemporary with the addition of road lights and signage. A larger parking area also will greet guests, as will electric vehicle charging stations that are free for use by the public.
Of course, guests will be struck by the buildings, Heppner said, not just their size but also the materials used and quality of the work. Detroit-based SmithGroup designed the new buildings to reflect and complement the Albert Kahn-designed historical buildings, featuring a Cotswold style with a contemporary vernacular.
“They’ll see that sympathetic approach to the historic core,” Heppner said. “That will continue as they walk into the lobby.”
The immense lobby was inspired by the main hall of the main house and includes a fireplace.
“It’s all new and all beautiful,” Heppner said, “but it also feels intimate. What I love about the lobby is it’s the heart of the institution. From there, all the arteries go off in different directions — the gift shop, the restaurant, the exhibitions.”
Each area of the visitor center has been thoughtfully named:
“The restaurant is a beautiful place to dine on Ford Cove and Lake St. Clair,” Pfeiffer said. “We’ll have rental space for family and corporate functions, classrooms that are multifunctional spaces to engage the community. … When people come to Ford House, they’ll have more ways to experience it.”
Changes to the visitor center are meant to put the focus on storytelling, Heppner said, from the merchandise in the gift shop to items on the menu. A big focus will be on the audio-visual experience, “The Ford Family Story.”
“We’re telling relevant stories of the family,” he added. “Everybody knows the name ‘Ford,’ but not who’s who. … We’re excited to be able to put out a consistent, compelling story in an engaging way. Guests will walk away with a better understanding.”
The lobby also will feature a bronze map of the property from 1944-45, which will “allow people for the first time to imagine what it looked like historically, but also get a sense of their bearings,” Heppner said.
Those bearings will help guests as they embark on never-before-offered self-guided tours. Guided tours will return when gathering guidelines allow.
With the addition of the administration building, staff will be removed from the historic house into their own space. As such, the historic house will eventually be restored to its former glory and more spaces there will become part of public tours. Ford House hired a director of historic preservation in January for next steps.
“All of this is about the visitor,” Heppner said. “By doing all this, it allows us to open up more areas of the estate to tell engaging and exciting stories.”
Also, the estate has begun restoring the property’s swimming pool, lagoon and surrounding landscape on the southeast corner to its original state. When the restoration project is complete, visitors will be able to see the area just as the Ford family did when the estate was their home in the 1920s and 1930s. The restoration is expected to be completed in mid-2022.
The restoration of Ford Cove and the development of a new interpretive master plan also are underway.
Ford House plans to celebrate its opening weekend with a member preview, before hosting a ribbon-cutting event and opening to the public.
“We’ll have educational activities,” Pfeiffer said. “The house will be open for tours. The restaurant and quick-pick area will be open. It’ll be more about opening the doors and giving people an opportunity to come through, like an open house.
“We hope in the fall to have the bigger events we love to have,” she added. “Watch our website for dates and to reserve tickets for our opening activities. It’s all coming very soon.”
And while there’s more work to be done, Heppner said for now the team is going to step back and “be mindful of the moment.”
“We want to stop and celebrate,” he said. “We’re not going to go from this great milestone … to the next big thing. It’s important to get used to the buildings, grow into the buildings. We want to take time for celebration with the community and internally.
“I would encourage our stakeholders, repeat users, new users … to come back and give us an opportunity,” Heppner added. “I guarantee they’re not going to be sorry, whether they just come to the restaurant or to a corporate event or baby shower. We have such great organizations and associations in our community, but nothing like this.”
Luci Creative is providing 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.