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Henry Ford Estate - Fair Lane | University of Michigan-Dearborn Archives

Name: Henry Ford Estate - Fair Lane

Historical Note:

The Henry Ford Estate – Fair Lane, was built by Henry and Clara Ford during 1914-1915. The initial designer was Marion Mahoney Griffin, of Von Holst and Fyffe of Chicago, associates of Frank Lloyd Wright, whom Ford had first approached about a design as early as 1909. Unhappy with the progress and the cost of overruns, Ford changed architects, hiring interior designer William Van Tine, of Philadelphia, who ran the costs up even more dramatically. The house cost about $2.5 million, from Ford’s initial expectation of $250,000. Even so, it is not considered especially lavish by auto-baron standards, although the woodwork is much admired.

The grounds were landscaped by the star of the prairie school, Jens Jensen of Chicago. He was associated with the estate from 1916 until 1922, when he resigned after lengthy disagreement with Mrs. Ford as to the character of the landscaping. She was a rose grower of some note, and wanted a large, formal rose garden on the property. Jensen was a proponent of the use of native plants in landscaping. The two could not agree, and Mrs. Ford’s plan to establish the large rose garden in one of his meadows finished their relationship. Mrs. Ford hired Harriette Foote of Boston to design the garden, which took up about three acres, including a pergola and a summer house, as well as a series of ponds. At its height, there were about 11,000 varieties of roses, cutting of which were shipped all over the world. The University was not able to maintain the garden, and the help of the local garden clubs notwithstanding, it fell into ruin during the late 1960’s, and remains so today. The original rose garden, to the south of the residence, was designed as an English Garden, by Ellen in the late 1920’s. Today, this garden is being restored as a rose garden.

The Fords lived on the estate, which originally comprised about 1200 acres, until their deaths in 1947 and 1950 respectively. The heirs sold the property to the Ford Motor Company, which installed the Ford Archives there during 1952-1953. The archives were moved to the Ford Rotunda in 1956, and when the Rotunda burned in 1962, the archives were moved to the Edison Institute, now known as The Henry Ford, where they are housed at the Benson Ford Research Center. In 1956, the house and 200 acres of property were offered to the University of Michigan to establish a campus for the education of engineers and managers in Dearborn. The Regents accepted the property February 10th, 1957, and the deed was transferred October 1st, 1957. The first four buildings were constructed during 1958-1959, and the first classes met in the fall of 1959.

A conference was held May 15th, 1961, to discuss proposed uses of the mansion as it was then called. Arnold Toynbee was among the many eminent participants. There was considerable work done to establish the mansion as a conference center, but nothing came of it. It housed some university offices, and was used by students for classes and relaxation. It housed the student coffee house, “The Hinge”, from 1967 until April 1977. The Pool Restaurant opened in May of 1977 and remained in operation until the summer of 2010.

The home became a National Historic Landmark on May 18th, 1967. The first “Evening at Fair Lane” was held April 18th, 1969. The Biennial Renaissance Literature Conference was held at the mansion from 1974 until 1998.

In December of 2010 the university closed the estate to the public as a change in ownership with the Edsel and Eleanor Ford House is underway. The estate and powerhouse had been open for tours given by volunteer docents, and school visits and tour groups were frequent visitors. The estate was also available for weddings and other private functions, with onsite catering. The university and businesses often held functions at the estate. Local florists decorated opulently at Christmas as numerous holiday events were held. The grounds, about seventy-five acres of which are wooded as part of the universities natural areas and environmental interpretive program, are being restored under the direction of a landscape architect. A curator oversees the care of the house and objects, while the university archivist takes care of the printed material and books. The new ownership will take  effect in December of 2011 and there are plans to restore the estate and grounds. 

There are several short histories of the Henry Ford Estate at Fair Lane, with much of the original documentation about the mansion being held at the Benson Ford Research Center (The Henry Ford). There is also a small archive in the estate itself, primarily for the use of the staff.

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