A Collaborative Masterwork on Lake St. Clair (2011)
Edsel & Eleanor Ford House, Grosse Pointe Shores, Michigan
In the 1920s, landscape architect Jens Jensen (1860–1951) designed four estate landscapes for Eleanor and Edsel Ford, son of Henry Ford, the inventor of the Model T. The last of these was built between 1926 and 1930 on Gaukler Point, a peninsula on Lake St. Clair, in Grosse Pointe Shores, north of Detroit. The Fords commissioned Albert Kahn to create the sixty-room, Cotswolds style mansion, which became the family’s chief residence while their four children were growing up. Although the house and its extensive collections of art and antiques tend to grab the attention of visitors to the property, historians have hailed the estate’s eighty-six-acre landscape as a Jensen masterpiece.
The Chicago-based Jensen was a proponent of naturalistic design who advocated the use of native plants to retain regional character. Although his design incorporated some existing exotic trees (at the Fords’ request), Jensen added characteristically thick plantings of native trees, shrubs, and wildflowers at the Gaukler Point estate. He also included several other signature features, such as a large meadow bounded by an irregular line of dense woods and a lagoon and waterfall constructed of naturalistic rockwork. Yet in striking ways the scheme departs from Jensen’s typical approach.
In A Genius for Place Robin Karson suggests that the kidney-shaped swimming pool, the transparency of spaces, and the subtle grading, among other features, reveal the influence of Edsel Ford, whose talent as an automotive designer was evident in the aerodynamic Model A. Drawing on the extensive correspondence between Jensen and Ford, Karson contends that the design, “arguably one of the first abstract landscapes created in the United States, was the product of two imaginations, one [Jensen’s] firmly rooted in the workings of nature and the other fixed on the beauty of pure line and form.” And she suggests that what the two men shared—and the reason this landscape gracefully resolves the potential conflict between Ford’s love of sleek abstraction and Jensen’s desire for dramatic landforms and dense plantings—was a belief in the restorative powers of nature.
“This landscape has helped me realize how important it is to try to learn as much of the story of a place as possible,” says leading Jensen scholar Bob Grese. “In particular, I’m trying to discover the clients’ influence as much as the Jensen influence.” When the widowed Eleanor Ford died, in 1976, she left an endowment to preserve the house and landscape as a public museum, the Edsel and Eleanor Ford House. Since 1989, the property’s managers have been guided by a landscape-preservation plan developed by Grese and landscape architect Miriam Rutz. Grese has twice updated the plan, based on changes in the landscape (such as tree loss caused by age and pests) and on newly discovered Jensen letters and plans that illuminate his original concepts and plant choices.
The documents suggest more nuanced approaches to coping with the gradual loss of elms, ash, sugar maples, and hawthorns—all key species in the design. Grese grapples with the ongoing preservation challenge. “Should you create a diverse forest as the elms die off, to avoid vulnerability to a single pest? Is the species important, or should you replace the dead trees with species that approximate their character and form?” In general, Grese has chosen the latter option; but the next phase of preservation will challenge such prevailing wisdom. “Do you replant the allée of silver maples, which predated the Jensen–Ford landscape, or restore only features of Jensen’s scheme?” Even if he were to recommend restoring all plants that predated the estate, Grese says, not all landscape effects are replaceable. “The wind-sculpted Austrian pines along the shore, for example, cannot be duplicated even if you replant the same species.”
Meanwhile, the recently appointed president of Ford House, Kathleen Mullins, and Christopher Shires, director of education and interpretation, are developing new programs focused on environmental stewardship, which flows from interests shared by the Fords and Jensen. On Bird Island, where Jensen planted fruiting trees and shrubs to attract birds, visitors will learn about planting for wildlife and how important that was to Edsel Ford and his father, a proponent of the 1918 Migratory Bird Act. Students from local schools are using the estate’s three thousand feet of shoreline to learn how to monitor water quality. Shires also has introduced an iPod based audiovisual tour to take visitors through the landscape. “One of the first things I did when arriving here was to read Jensen’s autobiography, Siftings,” Shires says. “It was an almost spiritual experience—I saw my world in a different way after that. Visitors were not getting that by walking around on their own.” The video tour introduces Jensen’s design and shows the Fords using their home grounds for everyday activities.
“With this tool, more visitors are getting out into the landscape,” Mullins observes. “It’s a bridge or an avenue that allows them to see this place in a new way. Once they’re familiar with it, they feel freer to explore and take different paths.”
—Jane Roy Brown