A Deep Dive Into the Archive

Albert Kahn Associates mines original drawings for the restoration of the historic Ford House.

By Jeff Link

1929 plan the Edsel and Eleanor Ford House
The design team consulted Jens Jensen’s original drawings for the restoration, including this 1929 plan for the pool and lagoon. FOE31 Jens Jensen Drawings and Papers, Bentley Historical Library, University of Michigan.

The restoration of the 87-acre grounds of the Edsel and Eleanor Ford House in Grosse Pointe Shores, Michigan, may be among the most historically faithful re-creations of the work of Jens Jensen and Albert Kahn to date. Pieced together from Jensen’s original drawings, detailed construction logs, archival photographs, and digitized film reels, the restored landscape just outside Detroit features a 185,000-gallon clamshell-shaped pool, a lagoon, a meadow, and a wagon-wheel-shaped rose garden. 

“The original idea was to be reminiscent of an ‘up north’ swimming hole in the middle of the woods,” explains Karl Koto, the director of landscapes and project manager at Ford House, the nonprofit that owns and maintains the property. In 2018, faced with increasing visitation and a deteriorating pool, the board of Ford House commissioned Albert Kahn Associates to lead a full restoration. The restored grounds opened to the public in August 2022. 

Topical view of a natural pool
A point-cloud scan of the pool in its existing condition was compared against archival images. Image courtesy Albert Kahn Associates.

The project combines the abilities of modern software with the insights contained in original documents. The design for the pool, laser-scanned from an original shop drawing and digitally reconstructed in AutoCAD, Revit, and SketchUp, was compared against archival family photos to replicate historical conditions, says Stephen White, ASLA, a principal at Albert Kahn Associates.

To determine the exact dimensions of the pool’s original pavers, 600 coping and fieldstones weighing up to 100 pounds each were sourced from the same sandstone quarry as the originals and cut into trapezoidal shapes using computerized numerical control machines. Three lead gargoyles were artificially aged with muriated acid to create a patinated surface, and the Belgian designer Mikel Tube re-created a 1936 diving board design by A. G. Spalding using four pieces of Douglas fir.

An analysis of a seven-foot-long pool sectional drawing, sketched on linen, followed by concrete core sampling, revealed a green film on the water’s surface was not caused by deteriorating concrete as suspected. To blame was a corroded cast-iron supply line buried under the pool’s marcite surface within a network of piping, expansion joints, and bronze spray fans that, together, feed water to the pool.

A bronze pan and stone wall separate the pool from the lagoon.
In the water feature designed by Jens Jensen, a bronze pan and stone wall separate the pool from the lagoon. Image courtesy Ford House.

Other changes were required to meet today’s building codes and environmental standards. A new irrigation system with ultraviolet filtration ensures that chlorinated water no longer flows from the pool to the lake, and sandstone edging near the shoreline was rebuilt to prevent erosion. American elm, used extensively by Jensen in the original design, was only replanted where it was deemed critical due to Dutch elm disease.

Above all, Koto says, the design strives to balance the needs of a popular public amenity with those of a historic private estate. “The property was designed for a single family. And Jensen wanted people to walk through the landscape single file,” he says. “Today, we have events where we’ll have 5,000 people on the grounds. So we’re really stressing the landscape in ways that it wasn’t designed for.”