Tradition with a Twist

Lisa E. Worley Furniture & Decorative Arts

Fig. 1. In 1926 Edsel (1893–1943) and Eleanor Ford (1896–1976) broke ground on the Ford House at Gaukler Pointe in Grosse Pointe Shores, Michigan, overlooking Lake St. Clair. Now open to the public, the house was designed by Albert Kahn (1869–1942), the surrounding landscape by Jens Jensen (1860–1951). All photographs courtesy of the Ford House, Grosse Pointe Shores, Michigan.
Fig. 2. The front entrance epitomizes the Tudor style that the Fords admired.

Eleanor and Edsel Ford designed their estate at Gaukler Pointe in Grosse Pointe Shores, Michigan, to reflect their public roles as well as their private values—grand and gracious, a stately mansion inspired by cozy cottages. Both Eleanor and Edsel were raised in Detroit in families with similar interests and a strong sense of social responsibility. The only child of Clara and Henry Ford, founder of the Ford Motor Company, Edsel was born in 1893—the same year Henry made his first gasoline engine. From riding in his father’s experimental Quadricycle as a toddler to driving his own Ford Model N by age twelve, Edsel grew up with the automobile industry.

Edsel attended an all-boys school, where he was assistant editor of the yearbook and a sprinter on the six-man track team. He met Eleanor at Detroit’s Strasburg School of Dancing, while taking lessons. While he courted Eleanor, he spent time in the factory learning the family business. As Ford Motor Company’s secretary, and later its president, Edsel was known as an even-tempered executive—always a gentleman.

Born in 1896, Eleanor attended an all-girls school where she focused on academics, athletics, and community service. After her father died when she was twelve years old, she moved with her mother and sister into the art-filled home of her uncle Joseph L. Hudson, owner of Detroit’s premier department store.

Fig. 3. Wrought-iron doors by Philadelphia metalsmith Samuel Yellin (1884–1940) open from the main hall onto a screened porch, or loggia, and to gorgeous views of Lake St. Clair. Yellin, who was inspired by the gates of Gothic cathedrals, also designed fine grillwork gates for the Detroit Institute of Arts.
Fig. 4. The paneling in the morning room came from an eighteenth-century house in London’s Spitalfields neighborhood. The oak herringbone parquet floor, present throughout the house, is covered with a large late nineteenth–century Kerman carpet. A copy of Vincent van Gogh’s Portrait of Postman Roulin (1888), the original purchased by Eleanor and Edsel in 1935 and now in the Detroit Institute of Arts, hangs above the fireplace.
Fig. 5. Like many in their economic class, the Fords purchased architectural elements, furniture, and decorative and fine arts from places around the globe. The seventeenth-century oak main stairway is from Lyveden House in Northamptonshire, England.

Announcing their engagement in 1916, Eleanor told reporters that she and Edsel were going to live simply. While the world marveled at this union of great and wealthy families, the wedding itself was “remarkable, because of its simplicity.”1 Four children arrived in quick succession. Henry II and Benson were born just two years apart in 1917 and 1919. The only girl, Josephine, arrived four years later. The baby of the family, William, came two years after that.

Fig. 9. Among the objects on the library shelves is this twelfth-century Rakka bowl from Syria.

The Fords routinely spent weekends with their children at Haven Hill, their country estate outside Detroit; summers were passed at their estate Skylands in Seal Harbor, Maine (now owned by Martha Stewart); and winter holidays were spent on board their yacht Onika, anchored in Hobe Sound, Florida. They traveled throughout the US and Europe, yet always returned to their family home on the shore of Lake St. Clair.

By the mid-1800s, Gaukler Pointe and the surrounding area were known for apple, cherry, and pear orchards. The bucolic setting drew the attention of wealthy Detroiters, whose estates and summer cottages intermingled with the farms. Clara and Henry Ford purchased the land at Gaukler Pointe in 1911. Edsel bought the property from his parents in 1925. The younger Fords already had a home in Detroit but sought the privacy and beauty Gaukler Pointe could provide them. While they couldn’t completely escape public scrutiny, Gaukler Pointe enabled them to create a private sanctuary for their family. The Fords broke ground on their new home in 1926 and the family moved in in 1928.

Fig. 6. The family ate most meals in the formal dining room, with its wide view of the lake. The paneling is from the eighteenth-century Pine Room of the Clock House (sometimes called Treaty House) in Upminster, England. In the corner is a Georgian cupboard with black lacquer and gold chinoiserie decoration. The Queen Anne–style table is composed of freestanding sections, not leaves, and can accommodate up to twenty-six people when fully extended. When Eleanor and Edsel dined alone, they sat next to each other facing the fireplace and their c. 1820 portrait of Mrs. Irvine J. Boswell by Sir Henry Raeburn (1756–1823) (now on loan from the Detroit Institute of Arts).
Fig. 7. The so-called Modern Room looks dramatically different from the other first-floor rooms. It was originally a playroom, but in 1936, as the children grew older, the Fords hired industrial designer Walter Dorwin Teague (1883–1960) to update it. He created the streamlined, aerodynamic elements, indirect lighting, and use of contrasting textures. Two walls are covered in leather panels that match the banquette and sofa; another is paneled in Bubinga wood, which is repeated in other furniture in the room, including the custom Steinway piano.
Fig. 8. The Fords used the library as their family room; sometimes staff moved tables in so the family could eat meals in front of the fire. The seventeenth-century oak paneling and carved Caen stone chimneypiece came from Deene Park in Northamptonshire. The shelves hold hundreds of books covering the Fords’ favorite subjects—art, history, and gardening—as well as beautifully bound sets of classic novels by Charles Dickens, William Makepeace Thackeray, and others, all interspersed with numerous small art objects.
Fig. 10. Edsel Ford used his study as a retreat from his Ford Motor Company office. A favorite activity was photography, and the door to a personal darkroom (now a public restroom) was camouflaged in the sixteenth-century paneling purchased from Heronden Hall in Kent, England.
Fig. 12. This Louis XV kingwood and tulipwood marquetry table from around 1730 to the 1760s is attributed to French cabinetmaker Charles Topino (1742–1803).

To design their mansion they selected architect Albert Kahn, whose practice covered both industrial buildings, such as the Ford River Rouge complex, and residences. The Fords were particularly enamored of the Tudor revival style, and they had sent Kahn to England in 1925 to study the architecture of the Cotswold region. Kahn observed: “Many of the larger houses were nothing more than the original building, to which additions had been built during the years of its existence, resulting in that peculiar, rambling appearance.”2 The following year, the Fords visited the area themselves. When they returned, they pored over architecture books, making notes and folding down page corners to mark what they liked. Building on what Eleanor and Edsel knew they wanted, Kahn cleverly adapted a medieval architectural style for a modern family’s needs.

For the landscape, the Fords chose Jens Jensen. While working for Chicago’s West Park Commission, Jensen came to be known for his use of native species in landscapes. He worked with nature’s palette and could easily imagine, he said, a “tree in its full beauty a hundred years hence.”3

The main residence of the Ford estate sits on the eastern edge of the Gaukler Pointe property. Its location takes advantage of the views of Lake St. Clair and the surrounding landscapes created by Jensen. Kahn designed the house to seem as if it had been constructed over a long period. It’s composed of sections in varying sizes and rooflines, which helps reduce the building’s visual massiveness (Fig. 1).

Fig. 11. The drawing room is the most formal room in the house. Here the Fords greeted guests attending parties and dinners, including their daughter Josephine’s 1943 wedding reception. Originally, the room was distinctly English in style, but in 1955 Eleanor hired designer Polly Jessup (1899–1988) to redecorate it to better showcase her eighteenth-century French furniture.
Fig. 13. The gallery is the largest room in the house—about fifteen hundred square feet. Here the family held events like anniversary celebrations, birthday concerts, debutant receptions, and holiday parties. The dominant feature is the expansive barrel-vaulted ceiling with plaster strapwork incorporating designs combining the English Tudor rose and the French fleur-de-lis—a detail inspired by the early seventeenth-century Forde House in Devon, England. The early sixteenth-century oak linenfold paneling and the Goth-ic hooded chimneypiece are from Wollaston Hall in Worcestershire, England.
Fig. 14. At the top of the stairs on the second floor is a replica of a portrait of Edsel Ford painted by Diego Rivera (1886–1957) in 1932 and now in the Detroit Institute of Arts. That same year Edsel commissioned Rivera to paint the Detroit Industry Murals at the DIA. The ceiling decoration again incorporates the English Tudor rose and the French fleur-de-lis.

The footprint of the main residence forms a C-shape, with north and south wings constructed perpendicular to the main block. Most of the building is two-and-a-half stories—only the south wing has one. The lake-facing side of the house features a loggia with arched openings and a terrace. The gable roofs are covered with stone shingles salvaged from English buildings and supplemented with quarried stone from England. The massive chimneys, bay windows, decorative downspouts, and leaded-glass windows all add to the exterior’s picturesque quality. Structurally, Kahn constructed it using up-to-date technology: reinforced concrete framing, partition walls of hollow-clay tile, and floors faced with four-inch-thick Briar Hill sandstone.

The residence has sixty rooms. The first floor contains primarily the public rooms, while bedrooms for family and guests are on the second. The third floor houses storage space; an infirmary with kitchen, bedroom, and bathroom; and a playroom. The basement contains a former wine vault, storage, and additional service areas. The north wing housed two floors of spaces for staff, including offices, kitchens, dining areas, and bathrooms.

The interior finishes complement the exterior design. Public rooms are finished with carved paneling, stone and wood fireplace mantels, stained-glass windows, ornamental plaster, and decorative light fixtures. Several feature authentic architectural elements removed from centuries-old English buildings and transported to Michigan by the Fords and Kahn (Figs. 4–6, 8, 10, 13).

Figs. 15, 16. Edsel and Eleanor’s suite includes this bedroom and sitting room, as well as a dressing room and bath. After Edsel’s death Eleanor worked with Florida-based Polly Jessup to redesign the entire suite. More so than any other in the house, the sitting room reflects Eleanor’s personal taste, with its fine furnishings, personal mementos, and beautiful paintings. Above the sofa she hung Anemones, painted by Henri Matisse (1869–1954) in 1922; to the right of the fireplace hangs Fleurs dans un Vase Bleu (Flowers in a Blue Vase) by Odilon Redon (1840–1916), c. 1900 .
Fig. 17. Teague designed this bedroom for Edsel and Eleanor’s eldest son, Henry Ford II (1917–1987), about 1936, with streamlined, built-in furniture and metal accents. The bed seems almost an afterthought.

Like many of us do, the Fords updated spaces in their home as time passed. In the 1930s, Edsel hired industrial designer Walter Dorwin Teague to redecorate four rooms. Teague created rich and original designs in a sleek, modern style known today as the Machine Age aesthetic (Figs. 7, 17). Later, in the 1950s, after Edsel’s death, Eleanor hired friend and interior decorator Polly Jessup to design spaces that reflected her taste and highlighted her collection of fine art and antique furniture (Figs. 11, 15, 16). On her death, Eleanor gave seven paintings and a large French tapestry to the Detroit Institute of Arts, which the Fords supported for decades. (Reproduction paintings and a large wool rug are now in their place at the Ford House.) A DIA bulletin in 1977 reported that Edsel and Eleanor were “among the most generous patrons and farsighted leaders that the museum has ever had” and that during her later years, Eleanor “contributed substantial sums toward the art collections with the view of making them the finest possible in a broad range of fields.”4

The estate remained a private residence until Eleanor’s death in 1976. Her will expressed her wish that the house be preserved for public use, to enrich the lives of future generations. In 1978 the Ford House opened for tours, and in 2016 the United States government designated the estate a National Historic Landmark.

Today, the Ford House remains a reflection of what the family did best—live life to its fullest— capturing what was, and continuing Eleanor and Edsel’s passions to realize what could be.

1 “Mrs. Edsel Ford and Her Attendants,” Detroit Free Press, November 5, 1916, p. 50.

2 George H. Allen, “Edsel Ford Selects a Cotswold House,” House and Garden, vol. 61, no. 2 (February 1932), p. 76.

3 Jens Jensen to Edsel Bryant Ford, July 21, 1926, Benson Ford Research Center, The Henry Ford, Dearborn, Michigan.

4 Lee Hills, Stanford C. Stoddard, and Norman B. Weston, “Report of the Arts Commission and the Founders Society,” Bulletin of the Detroit Institute of Arts, vol. 56, no. 1 (1977), pp. 5–6.

LISA E. WORLEY is Director of Material Culture for the Ford House.