Ford House aiming at spring 2021 grand opening for new buildings

By: K. Michelle Moran | Grosse Pointe Times | Published October 27, 2020

 Edsel and Eleanor Ford House President and CEO Mark Heppner — standing outside of the new visitor center, which was 75% complete at press time — leads a media tour of the new buildings Oct. 19.

Edsel and Eleanor Ford House President and CEO Mark Heppner — standing outside of the new visitor center, which was 75% complete at press time — leads a media tour of the new buildings Oct. 19.

Photo by K. Michelle Moran

 Holding a prototype stuffed toy Moss — based on the Edsel and Eleanor Ford House’s beloved goose-chasing border collie — Ford House President and  CEO Mark Heppner and Kevin Shultis, project  manager with SmithGroup, discuss the  new gift shop during a media tour.

Holding a prototype stuffed toy Moss — based on the Edsel and Eleanor Ford House’s beloved goose-chasing border collie — Ford House President and CEO Mark Heppner and Kevin Shultis, project manager with SmithGroup, discuss the new gift shop during a media tour.

Photo by K. Michelle Moran

GROSSE POINTE SHORES — They may not have gotten completed as soon as originally expected, but officials with the Edsel and Eleanor Ford House in Grosse Pointe Shores said a new visitor center and administration building will be worth the wait.

A sneak peek at the buildings currently under construction took place for the media Oct. 19. Ford House officials are hoping to host grand opening events in spring 2021.

The 40,000-square-foot visitor center and 17,000-square-foot administration building — both two-story structures situated on the north end of the 87-acre estate — are the first new construction on the property in more than 25 years and will allow for better preservation of the historic buildings, along with enhancements for visitors and new educational initiatives with local schools. Ground was broken on the project in 2017. At press time, the visitor center was 75% finished.

“We’re really, really excited,” Ford House President and CEO Mark Heppner said. “This has been a project that’s been going on for quite some time. … For Ford House, it’s transformation. It will forever change what we are and what we do.”

Construction halted during the COVID-19 statewide shutdown in March. There are more than 30 contractors working on the buildings.

“We got all of the contractors to come back after the (governor’s) executive order (ended),” owners’ representative Wesley Lawrence said. “Thankfully, we were able to get right back to work.”

Circa 2013, the Detroit-based SmithGroup was hired to create a master plan for the entire campus. Kevin Shultis, project manager with SmithGroup, said the northern portion of the property was identified as an area that could house future development. Ford House administrators have long worked in offices carved out of spaces in the historic home, so the forthcoming administration building was conceived to move them out “to eliminate the pressure staff was putting on the house by using it in a daily fashion.”

When they saw that the existing, single-story activities center “was insufficient to meet (Ford House) needs,” a new visitor center was added to the mix, Shultis explained.

“It really will augment the visitor experience from the moment you enter the property,” Shultis said. “The buildings really are a contemporary expression of the house. That was the intent of Mrs. (Eleanor) Ford, that we not try and replicate the house.”

The new buildings are designed in the Cotswold style, with features such as slate roofs and limestone exteriors, Shultis said.

The old visitor center was about 17,000 square feet, Heppner said.

Permanent exhibition space will introduce visitors to the Ford family and include old photos and family film footage, along with a digital scrapbook and digital drafting board. Visitors will be able to come up with their own digital landscape designs, as well, and email those to themselves, Heppner said.

“We want to push this idea of being creative, being a creator,” he said of these new features, which reflect the Ford family’s interest in the arts and design.

When the visitor center opens next year, people will be able to see three vehicles in the Ford House collection — a 1932 Ford Speedster, 1934 Ford Speedster and 1939 Lincoln Continental prototype, all designed by Edsel Ford and being shown together for the first time, Heppner said. He said the cars will likely be on display for about two years.

The Ford House visitor center will have its first dedicated education space, with classrooms that can be used for schoolchildren and adult programs alike, Heppner said.

The Teague Gallery — named for Walter Dorwin Teague, a midcentury modern industrial designer hired to design four rooms inside the Ford House — will offer community exhibitions. Heppner said the first one will focus on the College for Creative Studies.

Protecting the natural environment has long been a practice at Ford House, and green initiatives are at the fore with the new development. Heppner said tables at the new visitor center restaurant, The Continental, will feature tabletops made using reclaimed wood from trees that had to be cut down to make way for the new buildings. Larger than the old restaurant, the Cotswold Café, The Continental will seat approximately 80 inside and another 40 outside into an area with an outdoor fireplace, he said. Shultis said a private dining room that seats about 20 has walls that open up so it can flow outside.

Heppner said The Continental will serve meals on china, but for more casual events outside, they plan to use recyclable plates and cups.

“It’s really forced us to (do) everything differently,” Heppner said about the environmental vision that has accompanied the new buildings.

The Speedster, a grab-and-go restaurant for those who’d like to get a sandwich or beverage while they enjoy the grounds, will be part of the visitor center, as well — as will a gift shop offering many Michigan-made products, Heppner said. One of the expected highlights of what’s being called The Shop is a small stuffed toy replica of Moss, the Ford House’s resident goose-herding border collie; the toy mirrors Moss’ coloration and markings.

Bird-friendly glass has been used on the new buildings to prevent collisions and deaths; the wooded lakefront estate is in the middle of an important migratory flyway and is used as a stopover for countless species.

Bioswales and other vegetation in the parking lot and near Bird Island will filter the majority of storm water runoff before it flows back into Lake St. Clair. Hidden solar panels and photovoltaic cells on the new buildings will collect solar energy for use in these structures. The administration building is designed to range from energy net-zero to net-positive, meaning it will create as much, or more, energy than it needs to operate.

Shultis said they expect the administration building to produce about 15% more energy than it needs. Any net-positive energy will be used to power the visitor center. Although the visitor center won’t be LEED certified, it’s being built according to LEED Gold standards, Shultis said.

“When you have this view,” Shultis said, pointing to Lake St. Clair, “it’s pretty hard not to appreciate Mother Nature and want to (protect that).”

Even the gardens around the new buildings will focus on what’s best for the environment.

“Most of the plantings out here are native selections,” said Karl Koto, director of landscapes and project manager.

To encourage people to bring their own reusable water bottles, Heppner said there will be hydration stations where they can refill those bottles.

The second floor of the visitor center offers spaces that can be rented for corporate and private events, with floor-to-ceiling windows and a balcony that overlooks Lake St. Clair. Clare Pfeiffer, director of communications and engagement at Ford House, said these spaces offer a chance to “do more storytelling about the (Ford) family. It’s not just come and rent (the space) and leave.”

Heppner said they’ve chosen April 10, 2021, as the grand opening.

“We know things can happen,” Heppner said. “We’re in the middle of a pandemic. But we have to put a line in the sand.”

He said they want to be “a good steward of the environment and a good partner with the community” as they move into this new stage in Ford House history.

“This has been an amazing process,” Heppner said of a project that began under his predecessor, the late Ford House President and CEO Kathleen Mullins. “But this is really just the beginning.”

For more information about the Ford House and its programs, visit www.fordhouse.org.