One of the most memorable aspects of the Fair Lane estate is its waterfront location, providing the home with its picturesque grounds and creating an oasis from city life that Henry and Clara Ford wanted for their family. Yet that same water, with nearly a century of slow determination, had caused a substantial riverbank collapse that threatened Fair Lane’s landscape and, in turn, the estate itself.
At Fair Lane, noted landscape architect Jens Jensen had created an impressive limestone retaining wall along the banks of the Rouge River. Its stone walls extended the length of the estate, serving as both a way to manage the river but also highlight its beauty.
Jensen’s masterful naturalistic design, the craftsmanship of the era’s stone masons along with the weight and character of Fon-du-lac Limestone served Fair Lane well. The stacked layers, held together with a cement-based mortar and a concealed concrete foundation, seemed untouched by human hands; it looked and felt as if these terraces, cantilevers and irregular formations had been there since time began.
Yet time and water had done their best to undermine the structure. Mortar joints deteriorated; stones were dislodged; trees and other plants lovingly added by Jensen had created embedded root systems that aged the riverbank’s walls. In April 2011, approximately 100 linear feet of stone wall collapsed into the river. Fair Lane’s then caregivers determined the area to be unsafe for the public, and it was barricaded with fencing until funding was available to repair what Mother Nature had destroyed.
When Fair Lane transferred to the new nonprofit Henry Ford Estate in 2013, the new management team made the riverbank restoration project a top priority. The University of Michigan-Dearborn offered significant support for the project, as well. Henry Ford Estate established an investigative Dream Team of sorts, including architects and landscape experts from SmithGroupJJR, Karen L. Marzonie as the Director of Landscapes for Fair Lane as well as David Miller as the chief planning officer and Mark J. Heppner as Vice President for Historic Resources for the Historic Ford Estates.
Together, the group worked more than two years to determine a plan of action to repair, strengthen and restore the riverbank. It would not be an easy project – for example, the majority of the existing Fair Lane estate falls under a Conservation and Historic Preservation Easement managed by the State Historic Preservation Office, so that office needed to review and approve any physical alterations to the estate’s historic features.
“If it had remained unchecked, further deterioration of the historic riverbank and Jensen landscape would expand, causing further damage and increasing final repair costs,” Heppner said. “This work will allow for the authentic recreation and restoration of Jens Jensen’s and the Fords’ vision for the original landscape.”
Heppner, Marzonie and Miller were acutely aware of the challenges associated with such a renovation. Henry and Clara Ford selected this waterfront site for Fair Lane not only because of its natural beauty but also for its power and symbolic relationship to their farming backgrounds. Yes, the water needed to be tamed. But it also had to be respected for its might and tenacity.
Their investigation included intense research into the original construction of the riverbank, a study of Jen Jensens’ design approach, a deep dive into the construction methods of the early 20th century as well as a scientific review of modern techniques to find out what the riverbank needed to stand for another 100 years.
“We had to take all of the clues together to make sure what we did was as close as possible to reproducing what was there,” Miller said. “We looked at surveys and architectural drawings, we poured over correspondence from the time, we studied aerial photographs taken shortly after the estate was built and more. We kept at it until we could say, ‘Yes, we have it.’ … History, after all, is a science, too.”
Historic goals, modern needs
In the end, SmithGroupJJR and its partners developed a combination of modern measures to restore the riverbank, including driving steel sheet piling into the shoreline to set a foundation for the stone walls. The pilings are nearly invisible to any visitor but add a superhero-level of stability, said Paul Evanoff of SmithGroupJJR. Project managers also added a graded crush aggregate drainage system and geotextile fabric wrapping to the site, ensuring water could escape in a productive manner and away from the reconstructed walls.
However, historic details also were considered: Marzonie supplied SmithGroupJJR and its specialized contractors with historical photographs from Fair Lane, ensuring the walls, steps and wood footbrigdge were constructed as factually as possible. The estate even went so far as to obtain stone from the original Wisconsin quarries for any replacements needed. The final touches will include adding similar landscaping as Jensen dictated, relying on native plants to create a lush backdrop for the estate.
“The landscape and grounds of Fair Lane is a reflection of its original intent by the Fords and Jensen but, due to many reasons, has evolved over time into something that has lost much of the original integrity,” Heppner said. “Our goal, as it is with the interiors, is to bring back the estate as Clara, Henry and Edsel Ford first envisioned and experienced it. … By marrying the historic goals with modern needs, I feel we can allow visitors to experience a unique landscape that is more representative of the country house movement and that depicts more of the personality of its owners.”
By Karen Dybis for the Henry Ford Estate