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New visitor center, administrative building planned for Ford House property

By: K. Michelle Moran | Grosse Pointe Times | Published January 17, 2017


GROSSE POINTE SHORES — Construction likely will soon be starting at the Edsel and Eleanor Ford House in Grosse Pointe Shores.

But this project doesn’t involve the historic mansion, garage, cottage or playhouse. Instead, it’s about the buildings that support its functions as a museum and community resource.

During a Jan. 10 Grosse Pointe Shores Planning Commission meeting, Ford House officials outlined their plans for a new visitor center — to replace the existing activities building — as well as an administration building for Ford House staff. This project will mark the biggest new construction project since the home itself was built in 1929, and the first major structural alteration since the addition of the activities building roughly 25 years ago. The Ford House is located at 1100 Lake Shore Road and sits on Lake St. Clair.

“First and foremost … this is about stewardship and preservation,” said Ford House President Kathleen Mullins.

She said that having staffers using portions of the house for their offices leads to “enormous wear and tear on the house” — much more than having visitors come in for tours. And because they’ve lacked the room for special exhibitions, they’ve often ended up hosting those inside the garage and the south cottage.

Being able to hold exhibitions in the visitor center will enable Ford House officials to “help us make the historic core much more authentic,” Mullins said. For example, she said they have a number of vintage vehicles they’d like to be able to display in the garage.

The new buildings and parking lot will occupy the same spot where the single-story activities building and its parking lot are located now, but because the new buildings will both be two stories, they’ll take up roughly the same footprint, Ford House officials said. The new visitor center is going to be roughly 40,000 square feet, while the administrative building will be approximately 17,000 square feet.

The visitor center will offer an education wing with two classrooms; an area for special exhibitions; a larger Cotswold Café with 50 percent more seating and room for outdoor dining as well; an orientation area where visitors can learn about the Ford family; a second-floor event area with balconies and lake views; and a larger gift shop.

The administrative building will enable all Ford House staffers to work out of the same building — the lack of office space now means that some employees have offices elsewhere on the 87-acre estate, including the powerhouse. There will be rooms for meetings and a resource library, along with space for gatherings and lectures.

Bob Varga, the project architect with SmithGroupJJR of Detroit, said the design reflects, but not mimics, the historic house and grounds, with features such as a slate roof and copper gutters, and limestone instead of brick.

“The goal of the project … is to look at what the existing house has … and make sure the landscaping and site organization of the project is in sympathy to it and matches it,” he said.

The Planning Commission voted unanimously in favor of the proposal and a special land use request allowing it to move forward. The Grosse Pointe Shores City Council was slated to vote on the project as well during a meeting Jan. 17, after the Grosse Pointe Times went to press.

Motorists and residents won’t be able to see the changes because of the location of the buildings and the mature trees that forest the Ford House grounds.

“From Lake Shore Road, it’s not going to look any different from how it looks today,” Varga said.

In keeping with the Ford family’s respect for the environment, this project is green in nature. The heavily-wooded lakeside property is a major stopping point for migratory birds, so the windows will be outfitted with more costly glass that almost eliminates bird collisions; the glass has lines that are invisible to the human eye but visible to birds, so they recognize the windows as obstacles to avoid.

Varga said the parking lot will have space between each row of cars for a bioswale to filter rainwater and slowly release cleaner runoff back into Lake St. Clair. He said the water that ends up in the lake will actually be cleaner than the water that’s already in the lake. Screened photovoltaic panels that won’t be visible to visitors or motorists on Lake Shore Road will enable the buildings to generate their own energy, and Varga said their calculations now show that they’ll actually produce more energy than is needed to power the new buildings. The visitor center is expected to seek LEED Gold certification.

New signs “will match the existing” signs, and all lighting will meet the city’s standards, Varga said.

The visitor center will give the Ford House more space for educational engagement with students at schools in the Grosse Pointes, Harper Woods and St. Clair Shores, said Mullins, who noted that they hope to offer more science, technology, engineering and math — or STEM — programs, especially those that enable students to take advantage of the lakefront site for environmental research. Ann Fitzpatrick, vice president of communications for the Ford House, said by email that the current activities building is about 17,000 square feet.

As to how much office space staffers occupy now in the main house and the powerhouse, Fitzpatrick said it was difficult to come up with a precise figure. What is clear, however, is that Ford House personnel will have a larger and more appropriate space for work in their new offices.

Some residents have expressed concerns to city officials that the project would lead to weddings or similar events at the estate. Mullins assured city leaders that this wasn’t the case, pointing out that the estate has only rarely been used as a wedding site; in her 10-year tenure, she said she can recall only about four weddings, two of which were for members of the Ford family. She said weddings are hard on the historic estate, and “our board is not actively going after the wedding business.” As to events, Mullins said they planned to maintain a similar schedule, with popular annual programs such as “Nutcracker” teas, holiday tea and tours, summer concerts by the Detroit Symphony Orchestra and the Fairy Tale Festival.

Events hosted by other organizations on the grounds, such as the Michigan Humane Society’s annual Mutt March and the Detroit Institute of Ophthalmology’s EyesOn Design are expected to continue as well, she said. Even when outside groups like the DIO use the grounds for a fundraiser, Mullins said, they’re still expected to observe the rules and requirements of the city, so she said they wouldn’t suddenly be hosting events that lasted until 1 a.m. or 2 a.m., for example.

“We follow the ordinances of Grosse Pointe Shores,” Mullins said. “We really are very diligent.”

Grosse Pointe Shores City Manager Mark Wollenweber said Ford House officials have always coordinated well with the city and its administrators, and he expected that to continue during this project. A new, larger water line being constructed and paid for by the Ford House as part of this project is even going to benefit the city by increasing water pressure for the northern section of the Shores, he said.

“This will be a great help to hydrants on the estate … (and) this will provide a significant improvement in water capacity on the whole north end of the city,” he said.

Mullins thanked the Planning Commission after its vote in favor of the project.

“It is our goal to make sure that this estate continues to add and benefit” the community, she said.

Staff-wise, Mullins said they expect to remain around the same. She said there are about 45 to 50 full-time Ford House staffers now, as well as more than 50 part-time employees who work as docents, security officers and visitor services representatives.

“Increases that we see with staff will be nominal,” said Mullins, telling officials that the estate would probably need some additional landscapers and staff in facilities and maintenance “because this is a lot more to take care of. … We have planned for limited (personnel) growth.”

Shores Planning Commissioner Alan Broad said they appreciated the Ford House officials’ “significant efforts to respect” both the historical elements of the property and the well-being of the community.

Planning Commission Chair Mary Matuja echoed that sentiment.

“This is a jewel of our community,” she told Ford House officials. “What you have presented is magnificent.”

Robert Gesell, the City Council representative on the Planning Commission, didn’t take part in the vote on the project because he can only vote once on each item and typically reserves his vote for action by the City Council, but he too voiced his support.

“I agree that it’s a fabulous project and I’m certainly in favor of it,” said Gesell.

David Scurto, a principal with the Shores’ planning firm — Ann Arbor-based Carlisle-Wortman Associates Inc. — said that St. Clair Shores officials still need to approve the parking lot portion of the project, after Grosse Pointe Shores officials approve the buildings. The parking lot is located in St. Clair Shores, while the buildings are in Grosse Pointe Shores. At press time, Scurto said the St. Clair Shores Planning Commission was expected to vote on the parking lot during a meeting Jan. 24, and the St. Clair Shores City Council was scheduled to vote on the lot at a meeting Feb. 6.

If approved by the Grosse Pointe Shores City Council, the project likely would start this August, with completion of the visitor center by November 2018 and completion of the administrative building by February 2019.

Mullins said the Cotswold Café would be closing in July and wouldn’t reopen until the new visitor center was completed. The restaurant and gift shop are expected to be the only areas that won’t be operational during the construction phase, as tours and other regular programs are slated to continue, albeit likely with registration or check-in occurring in alternate sites.

Former Shores resident and former Grosse Pointe Shores Improvement Foundation President Jon Walton, an attorney, spoke on behalf of Harry and Lynn Kurtz, the only residents whose property is adjacent to the Ford House. Walton said the couple wanted to let Shores officials know that they have no objections to the proposal.

“Kathleen has put together a great team,” he said. “They are using the best practices in connection with this project. … They are honoring the legacy of Edsel and Eleanor Ford to preserve this gem in our community, and they are to be commended.”

After Eleanor Ford’s death in 1976, the house was turned into a public museum at her behest. It opened to the public for tours in 1977.

“The addition of these two buildings is an important step in furthering the vision my grandparents, Eleanor and Edsel, had for their estate,” Ford House Board of Trustees Chair Edsel B. Ford II said in a prepared statement. “This phase of the master plan will provide us with the opportunity to interpret the entire home. Continuing their legacy in a sustainable manner is a top priority for the board and for the entire Ford family.”

For more about Ford House programs or activities, visit or call (313) 884-4222.