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Aerial view of Henry Ford Museum, 1934 with Robert O. Derrick, its architect.

May 2004

Designing a Landmark: Robert O. Derrick and
Henry Ford Museum

Imagine that it’s 1928 and that you are Robert O. Derrick, the architect who designed the Henry Ford Museum building. At age 38, you’ve been working as an architect in Detroit for about 10 years, the last 5 as the head of your own firm. You have an office in downtown Detroit--a city energized by an expanding automotive industry--and a home in the affluent suburb of Grosse Pointe Farms. You’ve developed a solid business designing homes in Grosse Pointe as well as some institutional and commercial buildings in Detroit and Grosse Pointe. It’s a comfortable life that has you socializing with some of Detroit’s elite. Among your friends are Edsel Ford, the son of automotive industrialist Henry Ford, and Edsel’s wife Eleanor.

You and your wife are traveling on vacation to Europe aboard the liner Majestic. You learn from Edsel and Eleanor Ford that his parents, Henry and Clara Ford, will also be traveling on the same boat. On the second day out, Henry and Clara invite you to their cabin for tea. During the conversation, Henry Ford tells you of his interest in building a museum to house his collection of Americana in Dearborn. Henry asks if you, as an architect, have any suggestions for the design of the building.

Talk about a question that could change the rest of your life.


MORE: Designing a Landmark: Robert O. Derrick and Henry Ford Museum

This was the first time Derrick had heard of Henry Ford’s plans, so he was totally unprepared for the question. As an architect, Derrick specialized in period revival styles, in particular, Colonial Revival. He had to think pretty fast, and the first thing that came to mind was one of the icons of American architecture. Derrick replied to Henry Ford, “Well, I’ll tell you, Mr. Ford, the first thing I could think of would be if you could get permission for me to make a copy of Independence Hall in Philadelphia. It is a wonderful building and beautiful architecture and it certainly would be appropriate for a collection of Americana.” Ford liked the idea immediately, and told Derrick to stop in and see him when he got home. Upon his return Derrick met with Ford, and the whirlwind began.

To learn about museum design, Derrick visited many industrial and historical museums in the United States and Europe. Henry Ford secured measured drawings of Independence Hall from the city of Philadelphia. Derrick had a crash course in working with Henry Ford during this early part of the design process. When Derrick discovered design errors in the original Independence Hall building and offered to correct them, Ford replied “Oh, no! Make it exactly the same, put in all the mistakes.”

Derrick’s preliminary design for the building reflected current thinking on museum design overlaid with Colonial Revival styling. It offered five wings, one for each major area of Ford’s collections. Each wing had two stories of galleries, with a basement below for storage. When Ford examined a model of the plan, he asked about the second floor, the balconies, and the basement space, and Derrick explained that the second floor was for exhibit space, and the basement was for exhibit preparation, storage and repair. Ford replied “I wouldn’t have that; I couldn’t see those men down there when I came in. You have to do the whole thing over again and put it on one floor with no balconies and no basements.” Ford’s wishes were carried out, resulting in an open plan that has proven over the years to have tremendous flexibility in accommodating a variety of exhibit designs. Yet it also forced the museum into decades of adaptations to accommodate maintenance, repair, and storage needs.

Henry Ford was a challenging client for an architect. On one hand, he held many strong opinions; on the other hand, he had no patience for addressing questions about details. Of course, it was never clear which details Henry Ford might view as a critical. To move forward on the project, Derrick worked closely with one of Ford’s assistants, Fred Black, and with Edsel Ford. Between them, they would figure out which questions really needed to be answered by Henry Ford, and work out the rest themselves.

The completed museum had multiple references to colonial buildings. In addition to Independence Hall, the building included copies of the facades of Congress Hall and Old Philadelphia City Hall, identical buildings built in the 1750s that flanked Independence Hall. The rest of the building was ornamented with Colonial style details. Construction began in April of 1929, and the front section was completed in time for the dedication ceremony on October 21, 1929. The main exhibition hall of the museum was completed over the next couple of years. Ford must have been satisfied with Derrick’s work, because he brought him back to design the entrance building for Greenfield Village in 1932, and again to design Lovett Hall in 1937.

The Henry Ford Museum building brought Derrick much notoriety and transformed his architectural business. He moved his office to the 35th floor of Detroit’s prominent Union Guarantee building, and soon received major commissions, including the new Detroit Federal Building/United States Courthouse in 1932.

The Henry Ford Museum building is now recognized by the Department of the Interior as a National Historic Landmark. It remains Derrick’s preeminent achievement--emerging from a hastily constructed answer to a single question. And for that answer we all have a remarkable building to be thankful for.


Jim McCabe, Curator of Buildings



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