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The Smithsonian of the Midwest: Henry Ford's Vision Revealed

by Stephen Kelly, managing editor


The water wheel of the Lorange Gristmill (its predecessor was inside the mill) was designed by John Grissim, FASLA, and made in New York out of oak. A little waterfall and a sluice gate were additional touches. The stone around the mill is native Michigan granite; the bridge is stone quarried in Wisconsin. A large maple tree borders right, with Joe Pie weed in the foreground.

The Henry Ford in Dearborn, Michigan, is one of America's greatest historical attractions, dedicated to the landmark automaker and father of the assembly line. This "Smithsonian of the Midwest" features the Henry Ford Museum, Benson Ford Research Center, Ford Rouge Factory and Greenfield Village, 90-acres of Ford's vision for a spacious outdoor museum of historic buildings, workshops, storefronts and farms.

There are homes dating from the 1650s to the 1930s, including the homes of Ford, Noah Webster, William McGuffey (whose Eclectic Readers taught generations to read), the Wright brothers, H.J. Heinz, and Robert Frost, to name a few.

Greenfield Village is reminiscent of several Twilight Zone episodes in which the modern man, overworked and frazzled, is miraculously transported back to a more serene, slower-paced America of horse and buggies, and bands playing on the village green.


The site plan called for moving the Edison Statue closer to Edison's Menlo Park Complex (in background), the actual facilities (some of it rebuilt) where Edison developed the first incandescent lamp, December 31, 1879. Ford had the statue cast of his friend who patented 1,093 inventions before his death at 84. Begonias grace the statue.

Ford had the Martha-Mary Chapel built in 1929, one of six chapels erected around the country in honor of his mother, Mary, and his mother-in-law, Martha Bryant.

Ford's heros and influences were showcased, such as the Wright Brothers' Cycle Shop (yes, they tinkered with bikes before planes) and Thomas Edison's Menlo Park. In 1935, Ford commissioned Jens Jensen, a Chicago landscape architect, to create a master landscape plan for Greenfield Village.


Main Street. Textured, raked concrete was specified for all the village roads. The sidewalks throughout the village are colored concrete (sombrero buff) with roll-up curbing. The first house (right) by the large maple is the Sharpsburg, Pennsylvania boyhood home of H. J. Heinz, his first factory where he produced bottled horseradish. The light fixtures on Main Street are single arm, pendant-mounted lights.

In more modern times, the development of the village was a bit haphazard and its growth static over the last 20 years. The last important exhibit, the Harvey Firestone Farmhouse, was introduced in 1984.

When the Greenfield Board of Directors recognized it was time to upgrade the park's 70-year old infrastructure, it called upon Grissim Metz Andriese Associates, Inc., landscape architects of Northville, Michigan, to create a master plan to improve the retail elements, themes and general visitor experience.


Ford had the Martha-Mary Chapel built in Greenfield Village in 1929, one of six chapels built in honor of his mother and mother-in-law. The Garden of the Leavened Heart in front was designed by Clara Ford in 1938.

JGA of Southfield, Michigan, the consulting design architects provided design support and expertise in signage, retail opportunities, and theme recognition. The master planning team subsequently worked with ARCADIS of Southfield, Michigan, responsible for infrastructure design and construction documents.

Grissim Metz Andriese led the design team through the master planning over an eight-week period beginning in March 2000, doing site analysis, inventory and interviews with representatives of the village's zones and neighborhoods.

In June 2000, Grissim Metz Andriese established an office in Greenfield Village, kind of "design immersion," meeting with still more groups for feedback. The master planning took two years.


A one-room schoolhouse built in 1861 in the Scotch Settlement of southeastern Michigan was attended by Henry Ford in the early 1870s. Black-eyed Susans and maples decorate the schoolyard. The light fixture here is a colonial post top. A tulip tree (right), maples and black-eyed Susans are prominent.

A Crumbling Infrastructure

A primary concern and major stumbling block was the village's decrepit infrastructure. Water mains, sewage system, drainage and electrical needed replacing, which would not have been accomplished without hundreds of workers from the AUC Michigan Heavy Construction Association and about 20 of its member contractor companies led by Wade-Trim, and the Associated General Contractors of America (greater Detroit Chapter) and many of its member organizations led and coordinated by the Walbridge-Aldinger Construction Group. They set to work in September 2002 to work through one of the coldest winters in history, with grounds frozen to five feet.

The collaboration between the construction groups, the architect (JGA), the civil/electrical engineering group (ARCADIS), the landscape architect (Grissim Metz Andriese Associates, principals of the master plan), the Michigan Laborers-Employers Cooperation & Education Trusts, and the operating engineers Local 324 labor-management education committee, completed the gigantic undertaking in an amazing nine months (Sept. 2002 to the village's new opening on June 1, 2003.)


The fountain base is granite (a theme for the bases of various structures throughout the village) followed by brick and capped with limestone. The fountain tiers are also brick. The fountain shoots water six feet into the air. Grissim used Fountain People as a consultant. The flora includes a honey locust (left of fountain) and a planter of black-eyed Susans and Sedum autumn joy.

The Master Plan

The Grissim Metz Andriese (GMA) master plan drew upon Jensen's naturalistic landscape designs while being true to Henry Ford's educational mission. Jensen created outdoor rooms through plant massing. The landscape architects adopted that design element, while creating distinct elements for each exhibit, including unique plazas for the historic collections. The plazas, a focus for gatherings and space for retailers, had to be "authentic to the fabric of the time" of the venue.

The firm's master plan stressed "access, orientation, and wayfinding" (signage), important elements that make the visitors' experience more enjoyable. The new 3R amenities, restrooms, refreshments and retail, were located strategically to give the "troops" resting places along their journey. [Disneyland, where finding a place to sit and rest that's nonretail is few, far between and occupied, could learn from this design.]


A separate entrance near the new research building on the Henry Ford Museum campus provides bus drop-offs and pick-ups for thousands of school children and exits for the school groups. Seven of the bollards (all 36 in.) are fixed, but six removable for fire truck access. The benches and trash receptacles are from Scarborough and vary at each venue. An oak tree (left) and Hawthrone complete the scene.

The master plan set distinct zones to capture the attention of visitors, along the same lines as Jensen's concept of breaking the village into smaller rooms.

Visitors are drawn in the moment they exit the freeway via visual cues along the revised Village Road. The forecourt, paved and shaded with trees, is designed to accommodate large groups, including handling 3,000 to 5,000 school children all being bused in within 45 minutes. A separate entrance near the new research building on the Henry Ford Museum campus provides bus drop-off and exit for the school groups.


Looking toward the sawmill, wild flower grasses sweep the lagoon's edge, accented by river birch.

The new entrance plaza offers shopping and places to wait. Once you enter the research facility, kiosks, information displays, and donor walls tell you about the exhibits and activities.

Visitors cross the train tracks into the village and are transplanted into the rural America of our ancestors. A second plaza with a map directory orients visitors. A drop-off and pick-up area includes the conveniences of carts and wagons for preschoolers and toddlers, and locker storage.


This area was previously grass. Precast concete tumbled pavers on a sand base of crushed stone border a fabricated clay-bottomed pond with aerators to keep the water from becoming stagnant. The pond simulates the waterways where sawmills (buildings in background) were built. A modern railing was out of the question for the pond; the wood posts and ropes are in keeping with the spirit of the times. The style of the light poles vary depending on the era of the venue. The bases were designed, but the light fixtures were specified from catalogues. To the left is a chimney for a kiln; aspen trees are in the background.

Research showed that, previously, 65 percent of the people entering the village immediately turned to the right toward the main street and carousel.

The orientation plaza now directs visitors to three possible directions:

The Firestone Farm, a hands-on, working farm demonstrating how people lived off the land circa1880s. There are cattle, horses, chickens and sheep, and fields of ripening vegetables and grain tended with the tools and techniques of the time.


William Holmes McGuffey's birth home, brought from southwestern Pennsylvania and reconstructed in 1934. His graded Eclectic Readers, commonly referred to as the McGuffey Readers, taught millions of children to read, including Henry Ford. The period light fixture has a colonial top. The prominent tree in front is a maple.

The Crafts and Trades area with its new pond and running gristmill draws visitors to glass-blowing, textile, pottery and printing exhibits.

The Henry Ford Story neighborhood of houses, a school, turn-of-the-century industry, and a ride on a Model T, portrays urban life on Mack Avenue in Detroit, a dynamic transition from Ford's early life on the nearby farm. Other transportation options in the village include a ride in a 1931 Ford Model AA bus; a horse-pulled shuttle; a cruise around the lagoon in the Suwanee paddle wheel steamboat; a train ride via historic steam or diesel locomotives; and for those who like to go around in circles, the 1913 Herschell-Spillman Carousel of animals.


A pine picket fence, barnyard, windmill and oaks and maples set off a scene recalling America's rural past that Ford wanted to preserve for future generations.

The Town Center is the village hub. The paving, lighting, furniture, seating and walkways throughout the village are from Ford's era. Vendors, push carts and activities enliven the paths and characters in historic garb mingle to further the experience. You look upon kitchen gardens, water boiling in pots and clothes hanging on the line, as if eavesdropping on another time.

The new playground is designed for toddlers, with activities based on historic America.


It was necessary to move the building to make room for pedestrian traffic at the train station entrance to the working farms. Ford made soybean-based plastics for automobile components here and experimented with other ingenious uses for agricultural products. The trees are sugar maples (left) and river birch (right).

Motorized vehicles are eliminated in certain areas and service routes are out of view from visitors. Pedestrian have their own defined and safe paths.

The master plan creates transitions from one era or activity to the next. Grissim Metz Andriese's displays and properties inventory and interviewing of curators defined the historical significance of each collection and its relationship to others. The firm incorporated best management practices for stormwater by designing ponds and streams. Stormwater is even used for operating the gristmill and to irrigate landscaped areas.


The white-painted pine fence and red pavers contrast nicely. The planter contains begonias and white and red salbia. Apple trees are in the yard, and no doubt an apple pie cooling nearby on a window sill.


The ruff-sawn oak, while newly installed, presents a weathered look perfect for the setting here and for the working farms. Sombrero buff concrete is smooth to accommodate baby strollers. The trees are red maples (far left) and river birch.


A stroll from the train station past the soybean laboratory. The ramp (left) is part of the carriage shed. The lights here are Victorian gas post tops. A honey tree locust looms (right) and more black-eyed Susans border the sidewalk.


Josephine Ford Plaza was created as "free space," an area just inside the entrance for gatherings. The recirculating fountain is bordered by Sedum autumn joy (red) and Coreopsis verticillata (moonbean) perennials. A Cornus kousa (flowering Chinese dogwood) is to the right of the fountain. The arched structure (right), duplicated on the opposite side, is a donor wall.

Greenfield Village - Lighting & Audio Design

Illuminating Concepts
Principal - Ron Harwood
Design Director & Project Manager - Kenneth Klemmer
Audio Design - Larry Schirmer

Illuminating Concepts' involvement was sought during the early planning stages of the Greenfield Village Restoration project. Due to the extensive infrastructure renovations planned for the historical grounds, every street and pathway was to be extensively excavated, presenting the Henry Ford team with the perfect opportunity to not only upgrade the mechanical aspects of the site, such as water, sewer, and electrical service, but to also enhance the visitor experience via an invisible network allowing Internet access, digital communications, audio and a park-wide control system.

Illuminating Concepts saw the extensive network of street lighting poles as the logical termination points for these types of systems: they were located everywhere and situated close to the planned Ethernet infrastructure. In order to keep the technology as transparent to the visitor as possible, IC developed a priority list of services that needed to be contained with in the pole base which included electrical convenience recteptacles, telephone and Ethernet connections, audio speakers and a park-wide locator system that would detect the presence of parade vehicles and dynamically route appropriate audio to those locations.

While the communications infrastructure was being developed, IC worked with Henry Ford personnel and manufacturers to establish suitable illumination criteria that included appropriate light levels and locations to enhance safe nighttime usage of the Village, while considering the aesthetics and maintenance and operational characteristics of various lamp sources and optical systems that would deliver an appropriate light level, color temperature and enhanced color rendering characteristics throughout the Village. In some instances, this involved placing 2 different lamp sources (277 v color corrected ceramic metal halide and 120v halogen) within the luminaire to achieve the dual (and often competing) goals of providing an effective illumination system and a suitable nighttime environment for the Village's numerous performances and programs, many requiring a low, consistent and historically appropriate light level.

Through a series of onsite mockups, a balance was reached between the functional requirements of the pole, which included specification of materials, fasteners and finishes selected to achieve a theoretical 100 year life, and aesthetic requirements of scale and location, complicated by the need to provide a single large pole base to contain the all of the requisite electrical and communications gear while working in visual harmony with the 7 different luminaire styles.

As might be expected, designing for a 100 year life led to the use of materials that were greater in cost than anticipated, resulting in the implementation delay of some of the planned systems, including the locator network, some building specific show audio systems and a reduction in the number of pole integrated speakers. Key areas where pole-centric audio was needed was crucial to achieve the long term design goals of the park and faced with the prospect of going back to the former system of speakers hung temporarily in trees with overhead wire was reprehensible to the IC design team. As a result, IC redoubled its efforts to develop a low cost, completely concealed and integrated speaker design into the pole. Several prototypes later, the IC "Skunk Works" Audio team unveiled a workable speaker that that met all design and cost criteria, was weather proof and due to its unique approach of employing the ground plane as a reflective acoustical surface, allowed evenly distributed background audio from a single 5" speaker placed up to 100' apart. The resulting effect when the park was completed was stunning; a "surround-sound" effect that makes it extremely difficult to pinpoint the source.

The complete streetlight pole design, cast in Mexico by the Holophane Corporation from, ironically enough, old recycled Ford engine blocks; yielded a lighting and audio system that is a perfect blend of function, technology, reliability and ease of use. We think it's just the way Henry Ford would want it. Plans are now in place to broaden the audio enhanced areas throughout the park.


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October 20, 2019, 8:07 pm PDT

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