As part of our 90th anniversary celebration the intriguing story of Henry Ford Museum of American Innovation’s design bears repeating. It was last discussed in depth in the 50th anniversary publication “A Home for our Heritage” (1979).
Our tale begins on the luxury ocean liner R.M.S.Majestic, then the largest in the world, on its way to Europe in the spring of 1928. On board were Henry and Clara Ford, their son Edsel and Edsel’s wife Eleanor. Serendipitously, Detroit-based architect Robert O. Derrick and his wife, Clara Hodges Derrick, were also on board. The Derricks were approximately the same age as the Edsel Fords and the two couples were well-acquainted. According to Derrick’s reminiscence, housed in the Benson Ford Research Center, he was invited by Henry Ford to a meeting in the senior Fords’ cabin, which was undoubtedly arranged by Edsel Ford. During the meeting Derrick recalled that Mr. Ford asked how he would hypothetically design his museum of Americana. Derrick responded, “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 enthusiastically approved the concept and once back in Detroit, secured measured drawings of Independence Hall and its adjacent 18th century buildings which comprise the façade of the proposed museum. Both Derrick and Ford agreed to flip the façade of Independence Hall to make the clock tower, located at the back side of Independence Hall in Philadelphia, a focal point of the front of the new museum in Dearborn.
Robert Ovens Derrick (1890-1961) was an unlikely candidate for the commission. He was a young architect, trained at Yale and Columbia Universities, with only three public buildings to his credit, all in the Detroit area. He was interested in 18th century Georgian architecture and the related Colonial Revival styles, which were at the peak of their popularity in the 1920s.
In his reminiscence, he states that he was overwhelmed with the commission, but was also confident in his abilities: “I did visit a great many industrial and historical museums and went to Chicago. I remember that I studied the one abroad in Germany, [The Deutsches Museum in Munich] which is supposed to be one of the best. I studied them all very carefully and I did make some very beautiful plans, I thought. Of course, I was going according to museum customs. We had a full basement and a balcony going around so the thing wouldn’t spread out so far. We had a lot of exhibits go in the balcony. I had learned that, in museum practice, you should have a lot more storage space, maintenance space and repair shops than you should have for exhibition. That is why I had the big basement. I didn’t even get enough there because I had the floor over it plus the balconies all around.”
In the aerial view [THF0442], the two-story structure is a warren of courtyards and two-story buildings, with exhibition space on the first floor and presumably balconies above, although no interior views of this version survive. A domed area on the upper right was to be a roundhouse, intended for the display of trains. THF0443 shows a view of the front of the museum from the southeast corner. This view is close to the form of the completed museum, at least from the front. An examination of the side of the building [THF0444] shows a two-storied wing.
Derrick recalled Mr. Ford’s initial response to his proposals, “What’s this up here? and I said, that is a balcony for exhibits. He said, I wouldn’t have that; there would be people up there, I could come in and they wouldn’t be working. I wouldn’t have it. I have to see everybody. Then he said: What’s this? I said, that is the basement down there, which is necessary to maintain these exhibits and to keep things which you want to rotate, etc. He said, I wouldn’t have that; I couldn’t see the men down there when I came in. You have to do the whole thing over again and put it all on one floor with no balconies and no basements. I said, okay, and I went back and we started all over again. What you see [today] is what we did the second time.”
Henry Ford Museum proposed Exhibit Hall. THF294368
A second group of presentation drawings show the museum as it was built in 1929. THF294368 is the interior of the large “Machine Hall,” the all-on-one-floor exhibit space that Mr. Ford requested. The unique roof and skylight system echo that of Albert Kahn’s Ford Engineering Laboratory, completed in 1923 and located just behind the museum. Radiant heating is located in the support columns through what appear to be large flanges or fins. The image also shows how Mr. Ford wanted his collection displayed – in long rows, by types of objects – as seen here with the wagons on the left and steam engines on the right.
These corridors, known today as the Prechter Promenade, run the width of the museum. Floored with marble and decorated with elaborate plasterwork, the promenade is the first part of the interior seen by guests. Mr. Ford wanted all visitors to enter through his reproduction of the Independence Hall Clock Tower. The location of Light’s Golden Jubilee, a dinner and celebration of the 50th anniversary of Thomas Edison’s development of incandescent electric lamp, held on October 21, 1929 is visible at the back of THF294388. This event also served as the official dedication of the Edison Institute of Technology, honoring Ford’s friend and mentor, Thomas Edison. Today the entire institution is known as The Henry Ford, which includes the Henry Ford Museum of American Innovation and Greenfield Village.
Just off the Prechter Promenade is the auditorium, now known as the Anderson Theater. Intended to present historical plays and events, this theater accommodates approximately 600 guests. During Mr. Ford’s time it was also used by the Greenfield Village schools for recitals, plays, and graduations. Today, it is used by the Henry Ford Academy, a Wayne County charter high school, and the museum for major public programs.
Virginia Courtyard inside Henry Ford Museum. THF294374
Pennsylvania Courtyard inside Henry Ford Museum. THF294392
Derrick created two often-overlooked exterior courtyards between the Prechter Promenade and the museum exhibit hall. Each contains unique garden structures, decorative trees and plantings, and both are accessible to the public from neighboring galleries.
Greenfield Village Gatehouse front view, about 1931. THF 294382
Greenfield Village Gatehouse rear view, about 1931. THF 294386
The Greenfield Village Gatehouse was completed in 1932 by Robert Derrick, in a Colonial Revival style to complement the Museum. From its opening in 1932 until the Greenfield Village renovation of 2003, the gatehouse served as the public entrance to the Village. Today, visitors enter the Village through the Josephine Ford Plaza behind the Gatehouse. Although the exterior was left unchanged in the renovation, the Gatehouse now accommodates guests with an updated facility, including new, accessible restrooms and a concierge lounge with a will-call desk for tickets.
Edison Institute students dancing in Lovett Ballroom, 1938. THF 121724
Edison Institute students in dancing class with Benjamin Lovett, instructor, 1944. THF 116450
In 1936 Robert Derrick designed the Education Building for Mr. Ford. Now known as Lovett Hall, the building served many purposes, mainly for the Greenfield Village School system. It housed a swimming pool, gymnasium, classrooms, and an elaborately-decorated ballroom, where young ladies and gentlemen were taught proper “deportment.” Like all the buildings at The Henry Ford, it was executed in the Colonial Revival style. Today the well-preserved ballroom serves as a venue for weddings and other special occasions.
Obviously, Mr. Derrick was a favorite architect of Mr. Ford, along with the renowned Albert Kahn, who designed the Ford Rouge Factory. The museum was undoubtedly Derrick’s greatest achievement, although he went on to design Detroit’s Theodore J. Levin Federal Courthouse in 1934. Unlike the Henry Ford commissions, the courthouse was designed in the popular Art Deco, or Art Moderne style. Derrick is also noted for many revival style homes in suburban Grosse Pointe, which he continued to design until his retirement in 1956. He is remembered as one of the most competent, and one of the many creative architects to practice in 20th century Detroit.
Charles Sable is Curator of Decorative Arts at The Henry Ford.
Lighting and Communications Exhibits at Henry Ford Museum, 1979. THF112161
Home Arts Exhibit at Henry Ford Museum, 1979. THF112157
Transportation Exhibit at Henry Ford Museum, 1979. THF112159
Inaugural Run of the Torch Lake Steam Locomotive and Passenger Train in Greenfield Village, August 9, 1972. THF133929
With an unmatched treasury of America’s past already at their fingertips, the staff at Henry Ford Museum continued Henry Ford’s vision as they began to add to the collection.
1939 Douglas DC-3 after Move from Ford Proving Ground to Henry Ford Museum, June 2, 1975. THF124077
In 1974, North Central Airlines (known today as our partner Delta after a series of mergers) donated a 1939 DC-3 Douglas airplane that, at the time of its donation, had flown more than 85,000 hours, more than any other plane. In 1978, the Ford Motor Company donated the limousine President and Mrs. John F. Kennedy rode in when he was assassinated in Dallas in 1963. The car, leased by the government from Ford Motor Company, was extensively rebuilt and then used by four presidents after Kennedy. The Ford Motor Company donation stipulated that the car could not be displayed until the Kennedy children reached adulthood.
Decorative Arts Gallery in the Henry Ford Museum Promenade, 1976. THF271166
In the 1970s, museum staff began to place more emphasis on collection decorative and fine arts, such as furniture and paintings. The museum’s research library began to acquire engravings, rare books, and documents associated with the early history of the country, such as an original Paul Revere engraving of the Boston Massacre and a copy of the famous “Stamp Act,” published in London in 1761. In the early 1970s, the museum purchased an extraordinary collection of 19th century quilts made my Susan McCord, an Indiana farmwife.
Fire Damage, Henry Ford Museum, August 9, 1970. THF111720a
As the museum staff worked to make significant improvements to the museum experience, they faced another challenge. In August 1970, as more than 1,000 visitors toured the exhibits, a fire broke out in the museum. It was one of the worst fires to ever hit an American museum, destroying hundreds of artifacts, including major portions of the textile collections. Though the museum reopened to the public in just two days, it was a full year before the building was completely repaired.
Torch Lake Locomotive at Main Street Station in Greenfield Village, July 1978. THF133933
Let Freedom Ring Parade, Greenfield Village, 1976. THF112250
This decade witnessed a flurry of planning and construction, with a steady stream of improvements designed to broaden the appeal and educational impact of Henry Ford Museum and Greenfield Village. (Attendance at historic sites was climbing during the early 1970s as the nation moved toward the bicentennial of its founding.) The expansion was intended to attract new audiences and set the institution on a path to self-sufficiency. In Greenfield Village, the most dramatic changes were the new railroad and period amusement park. The railroad line, completed in 1972, circled the village perimeter. Visitors rode in open cars, pulled by a steam locomotive. The train quickly became a visitor favorite.
Suwanee Park and Steamboat, Greenfield Village, 1975. THF95455
Suwanee Park, located alongside the Suwanee Lagoon, opened in 1974 as a recreation of a turn-of-20th amusement park. The complex was designed to be a “focal point fun,” offering a “nostalgic look at how American amused themselves in bygone days.” The centerpiece of the new amusement park complex was a restored, fully operational, 1913 Herschell-Spillman Carousel.
The village received an important new building in the 1970s, a mid-18th-century rural Connecticut saltbox house (now Daggett Farmhouse). In Henry Ford Museum, the vast Hall of Technology underwent a total redesign. New restaurants and gift shops further improved the visitor experience. In 1972, the museum opened its first professional conservation lab and staffed it with trained conservators. A year later, the Tannahill Research Center (now incorporated into the Benson Ford Research Center) opened and held the institution’s remarkable collection of historical manuscripts, books, periodicals, maps, prints, photographs, music, and graphic collections.
Additions Made to the Collections: 1970s
“Brewster” Chair, 1969 In 1970, the Museum purchased what was believed to be a rare and remarkable 17th century armchair. In 1977, a story broke about a woodworker who attempted to demonstrate his skill by making a similar chair that would fool the experts. Analysis proved the Museum's chair was the woodworker's modern fake. Today we use this chair as a teaching tool in understanding traditional craft techniques. - Charles Sable, Curator of Decorative Arts
Susan McCord Vine Quilt In 1970, a fire in Henry Ford Museum destroyed many objects on exhibit and in storage--including much of the quilt collection. Curators soon began to fill the void. An exceptional acquisition in 1972 brought ten quilts made by Indiana farmwife Susan McCord--an ordinary woman with an extraordinary sense of color and design. This distinctive vine pattern is a McCord original, made by sewing together fabric scraps to create over 300 leaves for each of the thirteen panels. McCord’s quilts remain among the most significant in the museum’s collection. - Jeanine Head Miller, Curator of Domestic Life
1961 Lincoln Continental Presidential Limousine For years, the White House leased Lincoln parade limousines from Ford Motor Company. When the leases ended, Ford Motor reclaimed the cars and generously gifted them to The Henry Ford. This arrangement enabled our unmatched collection of presidential vehicles. None is more significant than the 1961 Continental that carried President Kennedy through Dallas in November 1963. Following the assassination, the open car was rebuilt with a permanent roof, armor plating, and other protective features and put back into service. The Henry Ford acquired the limo in 1978 and first exhibited it -- alongside its 1939 and 1950 Lincoln predecessors -- in 1981. - Matt Anderson, Curator of Transportation
Black & Decker Type AA Circular Saw, 1930-1931 In the 1970s, curators worked to bring Henry Ford Museum’s considerable tool collection into the 20th century. As part of that effort, staff wrote to power tool manufacturer Black & Decker for information about its history and most important products. The company responded with a donation of five electric power tools, including this example of Black & Decker’s first portable circular saw. -Saige Jedele, Associate Curator, Digital Content
Self-Propelled Cotton Picker, 1950 John Rust invented a wet-spindle system for mechanically picking cotton in 1928. By 1933 his machine picked five bales per day (2,500 lbs). Peter Cousins, Curator of Agriculture, wanted one of Rust’s machines, and Allan Jones agreed to donate his 1950 picker, named "Grandma," in 1975. Twenty years of life intervened before the picker arrived at The Henry Ford in January 1995. -Debra Reid, Curator of Agriculture and the Environment
This year, Henry Ford’s museum and village complex – now known as The Henry Ford – celebrates its 90th anniversary. Throughout 2019, we’ll be reflecting decade-by-decade on significant additions to the collection he began, with a focus on our institution's evolving collecting philosophies. This post covers our history and acquisitions of the 1930s.
A Working Village After its dedication in 1929, Henry Ford didn't consider his campus complete. In Greenfield Village, he continued to erect homes, mills, and shops that he felt best reflected the way Americans had lived and worked, or that were associated with famous people he admired. Individuals even began to offer Ford historic structures for his Village.
By the mid-1930s, several Village shops were staffed by people demonstrating traditional craft skills, including glassblowers, blacksmiths, weavers, shoemakers, and potters. Visitors to Greenfield Village not only had the pleasure of watching the craftsmen work, they could also buy samples of their hand-crafted products. Craftsmen like brick makers and sawyers supported the Village restoration efforts.
Building the Museum While Ford Motor Company draftsman Edward J. Cutler labored in the muddy fields of Greenfield Village, architect Robert O. Derrick was designing a large indoor museum adjacent to the historical village to house the objects Ford had collected. Derrick suggested that the façade should resemble Independence Hall and related buildings of Philadelphia, with a large “Exhibition Hall” in back.
Since Henry Ford had rejected the notion of storage rooms, nearly everything had to be exhibited out in the open. The twelve-acre museum contained a glorious assemblage of stuff. To Ford, that assemblage represented the evolution of technological progress. For nearly a decade after the museum officially opened to the public in 1933, visitors found it a work in progress. The exhibits would not be completed until the early 1940s.
Additions to the Collections: 1930s
Stanley Cookstove Henry Ford appreciated the history found in everyday objects and in inventions that made people’s lives better. This innovative 1830s cookstove hits on both these “cylinders.” Used by people to prepare their daily meals, it is an everyday object with emotional connection to hearth and home. As an improvement over fireplace cooking, this cookstove is an example of technological progress--one of many that Ford was gathering for his museum. - Jeanine Head Miller, Curator of Domestic Life
Sweetmeat Dish owned by Alexander Hamilton Like many collectors in the 1930s, Henry Ford and his staff were interested in acquiring decorative arts objects that had strong historical associations. The staff also sought out works that were aesthetically pleasing. This sweetmeat basket, which descended through the family of Alexander Hamilton, fit the bill. Part of a larger set of Sheffield plate silver, the group was a prized acquisition in 1935. - Charles Sable, Curator of Decorative Arts
Noah Webster Home Following the dedication of Greenfield Village in October of 1929, Henry Ford continued to expand, and “flesh out,” the collection of buildings in Greenfield Village. The Noah Webster House from New Haven, Conn., was one of the examples of projects brought to Henry Ford; the building was purchased from the salvage company that had already began the demolition. The Noah Webster story aligned perfectly with Henry Ford’s passion for education and his interest in the history of education in the United States. This home, where Noah Webster completed the American Dictionary, a work that finally defined American English to the rest of the world, could not have been a better fit. - Jim Johnson, Director of Greenfield Village and Curator of Historic Structures & Landscapes
Wright Cycle Shop Henry Ford admired self-made innovators who rose from humble roots to change the world. (He counted himself among them.) Surely the Wright brothers fit that mold. Ford acquired the Wrights' home and cycle shop in 1937, relocating them from Dayton, Ohio, to Greenfield Village. Wilbur had passed away in 1912, but Orville assisted Ford in the buildings' restoration. He provided furnishings and books original to the home and helped to locate surviving equipment used in the shop. - Matt Anderson, Curator of Transportation
Machine Used to Strand Transatlantic Cable This cable machine, built by Glass, Eliot & Co., helped to wire the world. It was used at Enderby’s Wharf in Greenwich, England, to build the second transatlantic telegraph cable. Machines like these were used to create the core of submarine cable from iron and conductive copper—and then moved aboard a ship, where they applied a protective sheath made of galvanized steel, an insulating layer of gutta-percha, and a final layer of jute to protect against abrasion. These submarine cables—like the modern-day fiber-optic cables that carry the signals of Internet traffic—connected cultures and communities. - Kristen Gallerneaux, Curator of Communication & Information Technology
Circus Poster, Barnum & Bailey, A Child Dreaming of a Circus, 1896 In 1935, the Strobridge Lithographing Company donated 329 circus posters to this institution. The company produced posters for the biggest circuses, including Barnum & Bailey and the Ringling Brothers. This collection of colorful posters give insight into the excitement that “Circus Day” held in communities – and especially rural communities – all over the country. In many towns, the day was treated like a holiday, with schools and workplaces closed for the occasion. This particularly evocative poster illustrates the eager dream of a child, anticipating the wonders of the circus. - Katherine White, Associate Curator, Digital Content
Coffeepot, Made by Paul Revere, 1755-1765 With an eye for design and a developed artistic sensibility, avid art collector, Edsel Ford, began collecting early American silver in the 1920s. In 1936, Edsel donated part of his silver collection to his father's museum, including this coffeepot made by silversmith Paul Revere. A talented artisan, Revere created this coffeepot in the late 1750s or early 1760s -- before his famed midnight ride that warned fellow Patriots, "the British are coming." Wealthy citizens in colonial America used luxury silver items like this coffeepot to consume popular drinks of the time period, which included tea and coffee. - Ryan Jelso, Associate Curator, Digital Content
Jacquard Loom When Henry Ford couldn’t locate a suitable Jacquard loom for Greenfield Village in the 1930s, he commissioned weaving master Sidney Holloway to create blueprints for the construction of this reproduction. This loom employs the innovative punch card technology (developed by French weaver Joseph-Marie Jacquard) that revolutionized the weaving industry in the early 1800s. As an artifact, it helps tell a broad story of industrial change and exemplifies Henry Ford’s commitment to experience-based education. - Saige Jedele, Associate Curator, Digital Content
McGuffey Newly Revisited First Reader - 1844 Henry and Clara Ford both were taught on McGuffey Readers. These beloved primers that taught both morals and literacy skills make up the foundation of the library at The Henry Ford. Many different editions, like this one, were bought in the 1930s to help round out a full collection of McGuffey Readers. - Sarah Andrus, Librarian
Jenny Young Chandler Collection Jenny Young Chandler’s photographs not only capture scenes of daily life in and around Brooklyn, New York, during the late 1800s and early 1900s, but also document objects and collections held by private individuals and museums in New York and New England during the same period. These themes of documenting everyday life and building museum collections, as well as the use of photography, were all very much of interest to Henry Ford when he acquired this collection in 1932. - Brian Wilson, Senior Manager Archives and Library, Benson Ford Research Center
1926 Fordson Tractor Cutaway The Ford Motor Company used cutaways to educate customers about new technologies. They conveyed information about internal combustion, power generation, and transmission through arrows and symbols, but few words. Antonio Stabile, a Ford distributor in Rosario, Argentina, displayed this cutaway made from a 1926 Fordson tractor, in the showroom and at exhibitions. (Ford incorporated a branch office in Argentina in 1919.) Model changes made the cutaway obsolete. Mr. Stabile shipped it and a similar Model T cutaway, both created in the service department at Agencia Ford Stabile, under the direction of Bernardo Pagliani, to Ford in late 1931. - Debra Reid, Curator of Agriculture & the Environment
In 1927, Greenfield Village was “born,” as Henry Ford began to acquire buildings and move them to Dearborn for his historical village. The first building Ford bought was the Clinton Inn (now Eagle Tavern), which came from the village of Clinton, Mich., about 45 miles west.
Clinton Inn (now Eagle Tavern) on its original site in Clinton, Mich., mid-1920s. THF237242
The dilapidated 1831 stagecoach inn had stood on the Chicago Road in Clinton for almost 100 years. Ella Smith, its owner, still lived in the badly deteriorated building. As Henry Ford’s agents stood inside the crumbling structure, they worried it might collapse. One of Ford’s assistants observed, “There was only one man in 4,000 that would consider it anything but a pile of junk.” Yet, Henry Ford’s vision and resources assured that this early 1830s inn--built when Michigan was still a territory--survived.
The Clinton Inn (now Eagle Tavern) in Greenfield Village, August 1929. THF123747
By summer 1929, the inn stood--restored--on the village green, as Greenfield Village continued to take shape around it.