‘Holiday Belles’ to shine brightly at Ford House

By: K. Michelle Moran | Grosse Pointe Times | Published November 16, 2018

 This historical photo shows, at left, Lynn McNaughton Ford and, at right, Sheila Firestone Ford with their grandmother, Eleanor Clay Ford, center, before a debutante reception for the teens in December 1969 at their grandmother’s Grosse Pointe Shores estate.

This historical photo shows, at left, Lynn McNaughton Ford and, at right, Sheila Firestone Ford with their grandmother, Eleanor Clay Ford, center, before a debutante reception for the teens in December 1969 at their grandmother’s Grosse Pointe Shores estate.

Photo provided by the Edsel and Eleanor Ford House

GROSSE POINTE SHORES — Visitors to the Edsel and Eleanor Ford House have for years enjoyed holiday tours and hearing tales about the home’s original occupants, but this year, they’re in for a new experience as they learn about another generation of the family.

During the “Holiday Belles” house tours, which will take place at the historic house Nov. 23-Jan. 6, visitors will get a glimpse into the celebrations that Eleanor Ford hosted at her home in the 1960s in anticipation of debutante balls for her granddaughters. These weren’t the actual debutante balls — which were thrown later by the girls’ parents — but were nonetheless elegant parties with their own décor themes and for which the teen Fords wore special dresses.

Sheila Ruen, director of visitor experience at Ford House, said these parties — which were held during the holidays, a few days before Christmas — took place about two years before the actual debutante ball for each girl.

Visitors will see how some rooms of the house looked for the receptions of Josephine “Jo” Clay Ford (Ingle) and Martha “Muffy” Park Ford (Morse), who had “winter wonderland” décor for their event in 1966, and Sheila Firestone Ford (Hamp) and Lynn McNaughton Ford (Alandt), who used a “fruit and flowers fantasy” décor theme for their reception in 1969.

To put this exhibition together, Ford House researchers, staff and docents pored over their collections to track down photos, newspaper accounts, oral histories, scrapbooks and other documents that would help them to re-create the appearance of the rooms for the receptions, since the original decorations and the dresses worn by the Ford granddaughters — purchased at legendary couture store Walton Pierce in Grosse Pointe City’s Village shopping district — were no longer available.

This exhibition gives visitors a better sense of the Fords as a family.

“The house and the collections and the story are amazing, but when you see the family in the house, it comes alive in a special way,” Ruen said.

Large digital photos from those parties will be displayed in the rooms in which they were taken.

“It’ll be nice being in the space, seeing the re-created decorations and then seeing the photographs of the family (there),” said Sarah Kornacki, communications and community outreach specialist for the Ford House.

While debutante balls were, at one time, typically a forum for young women of a certain social class to find a suitable husband, that wasn’t the case for the Ford granddaughters.

“I think it was an expectation of their class,” Ruen said. “It was a rite of passage, a celebration of their moving into adulthood.”

Because Eleanor Ford’s taste was understated, some of the more lavish holiday décor that’s been used for house tours in recent years is being replaced by historically accurate decorative touches. There won’t be as many lights outside the house or on the grounds this year either.

“The pleasure of it comes from historical authenticity rather than razzle-dazzle,” Ruen said.

Ford House Director of Material Culture Lisa Worley agreed.

“This is not ‘Winter Wonderland,’” said Worley — referring to the elaborate lighted grounds tours that have been held for the last couple of years but are not being done this year because of construction. “It’s focused on those parties and Eleanor and her children and this house.”

But that doesn’t mean “Holiday Belles” won’t be compelling or dramatic in its own way. For example, the gallery will feature Christmas trees hanging from the ceiling, oversized wreaths and a large bar — re-created for the exhibition by Ford House grounds staff — near the room’s massive fireplace, Worley said.

“(Eleanor Ford) minimally decorated for the holidays, so the decorations for these receptions was more than usual,” Worley said.

In some rooms, period music that would have been performed for these parties will be playing in the background. Bandleader Lester Lanin, who was known for performing at society gatherings, performed at the Ford debutante receptions, Worley said.

Edsel Ford died in 1943 at the age of 49, so “Holiday Belles” provides insights into his wife’s life on the estate after his death. She might have been from a wealthy and well-known family, but Eleanor Ford was like any other proud, doting grandma.

“Eleanor was such a warm and gracious hostess,” Ruen said.

Through the exhibition — which demonstrates her work with florists, decorators and house staff to ready the house for these gatherings — “you get a sense of her vision and creativity,” Ruen added.

The gift shop has been relocated to the garage — where on-site tickets are available — while the new visitor center is under construction. Kornacki encourages visitors to vote on the Trim-a-Wreath entries — created by local schoolchildren — that are inside a tent adjacent to the garage.

The Ford House is located at 1100 Lake Shore Road in Grosse Pointe Shores, between Vernier and Nine Mile roads. Tours are offered from noon to 7:30 p.m. Wednesdays through Saturdays and from noon to 5 p.m. Sundays. Evening tour tickets can be purchased at www.fordhouse.org. Daytime tickets are sold on a first-come, first-served basis only. Tours are free to Ford House members; for nonmembers, tickets cost $12 for adults, $11 for seniors, $8 for children ages 6-12 and free for those ages 5 and younger. For more information, visit the Ford House website or call (313) 884-4222.