U-M Dearborn gives up ownership of Henry Ford Estate

Photo by J. Patrick Pepper

Photo by J. Patrick Pepper

Steve and Donis Mezzo of Taylor check out an informational plaque during a visit to the Henry Ford Estate on Friday. The National Historic Landmark will close for a multiyear renovation in 2011, when the University of Michigan-Dearborn will transfer ownership of the property to the Ford House of Grosse Pointe.

DEARBORN — The University of Michigan-Dearborn has reached an agreement to transfer ownership of the Henry Ford Estate to the Ford & Eleanor Ford House.

At its April 15 meeting, the University of Michigan Board of Regents approved a memorandum of understanding on the matter, which over the next 15 months will lead to the formal transfer on July 1, 2011.

The Board of Trustees of Ford House, the nonprofit entity that operates and maintains the former Grosse Pointe home of Henry Ford’s only child, approved the memorandum in late March.

Historic restoration architectural firm Chambers, Murphy, Burge already has completed a comprehensive analysis of the property and will complete a detailed report of suggested restorations prior to the transfer date, school officials said.

The estate will close prior to the 2011 transfer to allow for restoration work on its buildings and grounds to begin. Ford House anticipates it will reopen in phases to celebrate milestones in Ford family history: Henry Ford’s 150th birthday in 2013, the estate’s 100th anniversary in 2015, and Clara Ford’s 150th birthday in 2017.

The National Historic Landmark has been owned and operated by the university for 53 years. The Ford family donated the grounds to the University of Michigan in 1957 in order to establish a Dearborn satellite campus.

School officials said the transfer assures that the Ford legacy will be professionally preserved and interpreted while allowing UM-Dearborn to focus on its educational mission.

“UM-Dearborn is committed to preserving the legacy of Henry Ford, which is a story of innovation and experimentation that serves as inspiration for the entire region,” said UM-Dearborn Chancellor Daniel Little.

“This transfer will help the Henry Ford Estate achieve its full potential as a first-rate historic attraction and allow the university to remain committed to its core academic mission.”

Ford House officials said the agreement would open the door to new presentation options for the properties, with an emphasis on showcasing the connections of the two.

“(The Ford family story) is a story that will be more effectively shared with a national and international audience with the coming together of these important properties,” said Kathleen Mullins, president of Ford House.

Fair Lane was built in 1913 and for more than 30 years was the home of Henry Ford and his wife, Clara. Nestled on a 1,300 acre wooded tract along the Rouge River, the property features a Frank Lloyd Wright-inspired 31,000-square-foot limestone house, a powerhouse, a boathouse, and extensive landscape design by renowned landscape architect Jens Jensen.

Members of the national preservation community hailed the agreement as a model that other historic attractions could look to as previous funding models become less sustainable.

“Museums across the country are looking for novel ways to realize new efficiencies while still meeting their mandate of public service,” said Ford Bell, chief executive officer and president of the American Association of Museums.

Richard Moe, president of the National Trust for Historic Preservation, agreed. “Together, the Ford estates have a unique opportunity to become a testing ground for bold ideas, innovative approaches and new ways of thinking about how we preserve and present historic sites,” he said.

“The National Trust looks forward to learning from this venture as innovative methods are tested and a new model for sustainability is explored.”