Fair Lane Estate in Dearborn, Michigan was the home of Henry and Clara Ford from 1915 until Clara’s death in 1950; (Henry died three years earlier). This extensive venue is also referred to as the Clara and Henry Ford Estate and is one of the first historic sites to be designated a National Historic Landmark.
Henry and Clara Ford built this 31,000-square-foot mansion as their dream home and it takes center stage in this 1,300- acre estate which overlooks the Rouge River. This is a popular tourist attraction, with its enviable gardens and interesting architecture and was the final home of the pioneer of Ford Motor Company, whom, as you likely already know, was one of the creators of the automobile. The entire Estate in its heyday consisted of a working farm, pony barn, private garage/laboratory, greenhouse/potting shed, hydro-electric powerhouse/dam and staff cottages. A huge staff was needed to maintain the grounds i.e. the many stone walkways, rose, wildflower and perennial gardens, in addition to the English country manor-style mansion with its indoor pool, skating house and bowling alley. Amazingly, there were 26 gardeners attending to the various gardens and walkways.
I’ve visited this venue in three seasons.
From 2019 to 2021 I visited the Estate multiple times in different seasons and amassed a lot of photos. I discarded those photos taken in the Summer of 2019, because Fair Lane, which has been undergoing extensive interior and exterior restoration efforts since 2014, had scaffolding surrounding the mansion which detracted from the architecture. So, I returned in the Spring of 2020 when the outside mansion restoration was compete and took almost-identical shots, just minus that ugly scaffolding. One day I will return to visit the interior, but the renovations, done in phases, are as yet incomplete, partly because of COVID. I have been dragging my heels on getting these Fair Lane posts done as I wanted to include some historical info along with the photos, all which took time, but I figured the posts are evergreen.
A little backstory about the Ford Estate.
It seems incredible that I never knew this place existed until a few years ago – no big deal right? Except that I passed Fair Lane twice a day as I drove along Evergreen Road going to and from Henry Ford Community College. I will even sheepishly admit that for two years I was on the staff of my alma mater’s college newspaper, The Ford Estate. Query: did I not once wonder about the origin of the newspaper’s name which moniker was chosen for the nearby Ford Estate? Hmm.
Yes, the Estate grounds were next to HFCC, but tucked away from Evergreen Road where I blitzed by in my Biscay Blue VW Super Beetle five days a week. I guess I was not too mindful of my surroundings, or had other things going on. I was carrying a full load of classes, working at the diner part-time during the school year, full-time in Summer and on all school breaks. I was not only on the staff of the newspaper, but also an active member of HFCC Student Government. I wouldn’t want to try that juggling act now, but in those days, youthful stamina and lots of coffee got ‘er done.
Flash forward some 40 plus years later …
In 2019 I participated in the Mutt Strut, a 5K walk/run to raise money for a local animal shelter. The event route went along the Rouge River Gateway Trail and past the Henry and Clara Ford Estate. It was a gorgeous May day and the turnaround point was near the entrance to Fair Lane.
While passing the many flowering apple trees on the grounds, finally it clicked … the venue and the college newspaper’s name. Anyway, I liked that route and made a mental note to return to explore the Estate, which I did on a sunny Saturday afternoon in 2019. Before my return, I researched the venue online and knew there were renovations going on. This time I did not hike over to the Estate, but drove to Fair Lane and parked in an adjacent parking lot. I chitchatted for a half-hour with the guard before entering the grounds. She explained the extensive renovation to the Fords’ home prohibited interior access, but visitors were free to roam around the grounds. The interior renovation of Fair Lane is ongoing to this day and, when completed, will recreate artwork, window treatments, wooden floors and floor coverings in painstaking detail, all to ensure the 56-room Manor will one day look identical to when it was occupied by Clara and Henry Ford.
So, with all that history under my belt, I thanked her and prepared to explore. She called out to me “one more thing before you go dear – please be sure to return in the Spring when Clara’s lilac garden is in bloom – the smell and beauty will blow you away!” I thanked her and off I went to explore the grounds of Henry and Clara Fords’ Estate.
The first stop was Fair Lane Manor.
The Fords’ home took two years to build (1913 to 1915) and was the 15th and final residence of Henry and Clara. It was designed in part by famed architect Frank Lloyd Wright and is made of neighboring Ohio’s Marblehead Quarry limestone and concrete. This massive undertaking began after the success of Ford’s Model T. I’ll focus on photos of the house, but there are adjoining buildings where Henry Ford had a laboratory and a retreat area where he discussed his ideas with fellow inventor/pal Thomas Edison. Edison was instrumental in designing the power plant in 1914, which harnessed power from the River and directed it to the home, laboratory and Clara’s greenhouse/potting shed.
Below are the back of the Manor and two shots of the power plant/garage.
Here is how it looked back in the day.
Tootling along the Rouge River.
The Estate is built on the Rouge River. The rear of the home faces the River and that residence, along with the current 17 acres of gardens and grounds are located high above this River which is prone to flooding.
Below you will see the churning Rouge River …
… and these old photos show how that power was harnessed for use in the power plant.
One can have a peaceful stroll along the Rouge River on some of the stone walkways and there were stone steps as well – you had to have good footing as the steps were steep and uneven and that flagstone path was a bit slippery. The Redbud trees were in bloom and it was a very picturesque sight.
You can see the steps and stones were a bit precarious for walking. Below you can read how Clara Ford had the horizontal stones placed to form Alpine gardens.
Here are more photos around the exterior of Fair Lane Manor.
I stopped at Clara’s Greenhouse and Potting Shed.
I could tell there will be a lot more refurbishing done to the greenhouse area. The trails that lead to the gardens near the greenhouse were fenced off with signs that read “no entry” – oh well, as mentioned above, I’ll return when the restoration is 100% completed .
The potting shed (right) was quaint looking and was more like a small house. I peered inside where a slicker hung on a hall tree and there were high boots and a collection of garden utensils, gloves and potting soil.
There were plants lined up along the walkway awaiting one of the many gardeners still on staff.
Clara Ford loved her gardens and in these vintage photos, you can see all the planning that went into them with master gardeners and renowned landscape designers.
At the guard’s suggestion, I did return to see Clara Ford’s Lilac Gardens and my next post, for Wordless Wednesday, will focus on her Persian Lilacs. Unfortunately, as you see below, some of the Lilacs were lost or pruned back due to disease.
Next Monday’s post, will feature a section of the Estate known as the Formal Rose Garden where Clara Ford could gaze upon her 10,000-plant rose garden. Now you know why there were 26 full-time gardeners on staff!