To mark the publication of A Detroit Anthology, we’re highlighting one of the many great essays in that book. Order your copy today!
By James D. Griffioen
Detroit rose to its greatest height (and fell as far as it did) in part because Henry Ford didn’t want to work too hard. As a child, he hated farm tasks that required physical labor; a neighbor once recalled young Henry as “the laziest little bugger on the face of the earth.” Ford’s lifelong love of mechanical processes was born out of frustration with manual labor: “I have followed many a weary mile behind a plough and I know all the drudgery of it,” he said. “When very young I suspected that much might somehow be done in a better way.” Science fiction writer Robert A. Heinlein might have had men like Ford in mind when he said, “Progress isn’t made by early risers. It’s made by lazy men trying to find easier ways to do something.” Ford worked very hard to change our very understanding of work. His fanaticism for efficiency led to the Highland Park assembly line; the five dollars his line workers took home each day eventually led them to the middle class; the cars they bought with that money eventually took them to the suburbs.
When he was sixteen, Henry Ford moved in the opposite direction, from his family’s farm to downtown Detroit, where he worked as a machinist and later as an engineer for the Edison Illuminating Company. Ford worked so close to his home at 58 Bagley Avenue that he would often sneak off to his own workshop (while still on the clock) to tinker away at the one-cylinder internal combustion engine that would power his quadricycle. When the time came to take it out for a test drive, he discovered that the door to his workshop was too narrow, so he famously knocked down a wall to drive the vehicle out into the streets of the sleepy, horse-drawn metropolis. They say Henry didn’t invent the automobile, but that night he might have invented the garage door with his sledgehammer.
A few years later, Detroit was in the midst of its gilded age and was the fourth-largest city in the United States. If you couldn’t find work in the auto factories there were jobs building skyscrapers meant to rival those in Chicago and Manhattan, or plenty of other jobs serving the growing population. Historic old Detroit needed to make way for the new. During this time countless historic structures were demolished to make way for new construction. By 1926, Henry Ford’s former home and workshop stood in the way of a new theater to be built on the site and was reportedly demolished before construction began. Completed in August, the 4,050-seat Michigan Theater was designed in the French Renaissance style, with a four-story lobby decorated with European oil paintings and sculptures, faux-marble columns, and giant chandeliers. At its unveiling, the Michigan Theater seemed to embody Detroit’s decadent optimism for the century ahead, fueled by the surging sales of the automobiles the city and its citizens built. A plaque on the outside of the theater identified it as sitting on the spot where sparks met the tinder of the burgeoning industry.
Meanwhile, in suburban Dearborn, Henry Ford was nearing the end of his decade-long effort overseeing the construction of the sprawling new factory down the Rouge River from his Fairlane estate. The Rouge was Ford’s opus, the largest vertically-integrated factory in the world, and embodied nearly all of the innovations and ideas Ford spent his lifetime developing. Upon its completion in 1928, he walked away from it, retreating to a plot of land just upriver from the factory, where he’d built a painstaking replica of the childhood farm where he’d learned so many early lessons about hard work. The man who’d helped usher in a new twentieth-century way of living abandoned it to focus his energy on recreating the nineteenth-century past he’d left behind. He spent much of his time and wealth collecting the artifacts and buildings that would become a different part of his legacy, the major regional tourist-attraction known as Greenfield Village and the Henry Ford Museum.
Today 1.5 million people annually visit nearly 100 historical buildings “preserved” in the walled 240-acre compound, many of them chosen and situated to represent a typical American village between 1870 and 1910. Many of the buildings represent people or places significant to Ford’s vision of industrial progress (the Wright Brothers’ bicycle shop, Thomas Edison’s Menlo Park laboratories), but the heart and soul of Greenfield Village are the buildings associated with Ford’s own life and the growth of his automobile company.
Ford deeply regretted not saving his former home and workshop that stood in the way of the Michigan Theater, and he was forced to settle for a full-scale replica of the workshop.
But then in 1929, Ford’s friend Charles B. King discovered that the original home had not actually been destroyed, but jacked up on rollers, moved, and turned ninety degrees so that it now faced Grand River Avenue. 56-58 Bagley had been given a modern facade at 514 Grand River and was open to the public as the “Lola Bett Tea Room.” The house where Henry Ford lived when he built his first car was now where the before-theater crowd went for pots of Earl Grey and cucumber sandwiches.
Ford rushed downtown and confirmed it. After negotiating with the owner to buy, remove and replace a large number of bricks, he ordered his workers to incorporate them into the replica workshop he’d already built at Greenfield Village. According to Ford biographer Sidney Olson, the workers accidentally took bricks from what would have been Number 56 Bagley—the wrong half of the duplex—and to this day at Greenfield Village you can visit the bricks from Henry Ford’s neighbor’s home that were used to recreate a replica of the workshop where he built his first automobile.
The Lola Bett Tea Room was later demolished to no fanfare. The site, like so much of historic downtown Detroit, is now a surface parking lot. The lavish theater that originally displaced Henry Ford’s workshop met a better-documented fate. By the 1960s, the decadent optimism of its unveiling had faded with its carpets as Detroit faced recompense for its Jazz Age giddiness. The badly neglected Michigan Theater barely survived to show grindhouse double features and host rock concerts. In 1976, it closed for good. When it was discovered that demolition would compromise the structural integrity of the adjoining office building, the interior of the theater was gutted to create a 160-space parking garage. Today, commuters park in a three-story garage with gilded seraphim of the old proscenium arch looking down at them from above the shredded remnant of a maroon velvet curtain.
It is arguably Detroit’s most breathtaking ruin, beloved by photographers, journalists, and academics for the easy irony of Ford automobiles parking in a ruined theater on the site of the garage where Henry Ford built his first automobile. What’s more interesting, I think, is how this building represents a sort of unintentional preservation. At least this is not just another surface lot. And with so much of the rest of the historical city lost to development, demolition, and abandonment, there is the deeper irony that fifteen miles away Henry Ford moved so many historical buildings brick-by-brick from elsewhere around the country and “preserved” them as decontextualized structures in a counterfeit community.
The nostalgic fantasy of small-town life on display at Greenfield Village is what most of the beneficiaries of Ford’s $5-a-day plan thought they would get when they left Detroit for the small towns surrounding it: They sought a pastoral atmosphere, far from the clanging of streetcars, the factories, and the crime. “We shall solve the city problem by leaving the city,” Ford said. With his cheap automobiles, anyone with the salaries he provided could escape the dirty city’s ethnic neighborhoods, and (like Philip Roth’s Swede Levov) cast away their immigrant shadows. With the fresh air and personal fiefdoms found on every new block of the suburbs, anyone could be baptized as an American in that most American of places: the small town. Frozen in time, Greenfield Village serves as the perfect template for this utopia. Aside from the occasional sputtering of ubiquitous Model Ts (the only cars permitted inside Greenfield Village’s walls), the roads are safe for foot traffic. There is no graffiti or crime of any kind. There are plenty of options to buy old-fashioned crafts or dine on historical comfort food. Everything is wholesome and good. And none of it is real.
Like some medieval village, Greenfield Village is surrounded by a ten-foot wall. You must drive there and leave your car in a vast surface parking lot before paying twenty-four dollars to get inside (parking is an additional five dollars).
Every night the streets are emptied and the gates locked and guarded. Even the costumed interpreters abandon the village for four months every winter. Henry Ford, the man who famously said, “history is bunk,” spent the last part of his life building an unoccupied historic village without any actual history. It has now existed there for eighty years. New buildings and attractions have been added, but since it was created in the 1930s it remains perpetually and intentionally frozen in the 1890s. This village Henry Ford built has, for eighty years, existed solely as a simulacrum of the world Henry Ford destroyed.
If Greenfield Village represents the sort of wholesome, idyllic (and sanitized) environment that most Detroiters sought in the suburbs, then the city of Detroit has for several decades come to represent its opposite: seedy, gritty, blighted, ruined, overgrown, dangerous, poor, and Black. Yet in the era of exurban sprawl some parts of Detroit have lost so much housing stock they are starting to resemble the pastoral environment Cadillac found there two centuries before the city became a symbol of American industrial might (three hundred years before it came to symbolize its failure). Today these parts of Detroit look more like the actual world Greenfield Village has always tried to represent than many of its once-bucolic suburbs.
That’s because for the last fifty years, Detroit’s suburbs have been where the action is. One of the reasons metro Detroiters get so upset when journalists and photographers represent Detroit as a city of ruins is the reality that there are millions of people living in safe, well-kept neighborhoods in dozens of prosperous suburban communities. Many Detroit suburbs have walkable, thriving business districts that resemble gentrified neighborhoods in other cities. Southfield has more workers and office space than downtown Detroit. But with big-city amenities come big-city issues of traffic, parking, and overcrowding. And of course, most suburban open spaces long ago gave way to subdivisions, strip malls, and parking lots for shopping malls and big-box stores.
With all the recent development and growth, it is easy to forget that these suburbs of Detroit have their own histories. There was a time before sprawl when these small, historic communities and their citizens provided the lumber for Detroit’s homes and the food for its tables. Last year, I started taking an interest in the histories of these communities and visiting all the historical museums and sites that I could find. There are dozens of historical societies in these suburban Detroit communities, many of them quite active. I quickly learned that in more than eighteen suburban communities, an effort had been made since the 1970s to preserve historical structures that were “in the way of development” through the creation of a series of historic “towns” (basically mini-Greenfield Villages) that surround Detroit in every direction the highways go.
Over the past few months, I’ve visited each of these historic parks to observe and document what so many communities surrounding Detroit did when their history was threatened by sprawl—after all, the drastic and sudden change that sprawl brings to a small town is as devastating to its history and overall character as upper- and middle-class flight was to the city of Detroit. By the 1970s, the suburban pioneers who first moved to these communities were getting older, and it was clear that the small town atmosphere they sought there was doomed. The newer residents of the new subdivisions were just another kind of immigrant seeking refuge and hope in a new place. And there were millions of them. I was interested in the idea of history each suburban community has preserved and presented in villages where no one would actually work or live and where none of the buildings had been preserved in their original context. What did they want their history to look like? Where would they fit that history now that land had grown so scarce? I photographed each village in the state in which they spent most of their time: vacant, empty, and silent (some even behind locked gates).
These communities all preserved and presented a nearly-identical set of nineteenth-century buildings to create eerily-similar, lifeless fauxtopias. Each boasts at least one pioneer log cabin, a rescued one-room schoolhouse, a small church and a general store.
These are the structures that form the bedrock of community: the rustic hearth, with separate spaces for education, religion, and commerce. These historic parks are perfect symbols of the romantic small-town fantasy most people first thought they would get when they moved out of the city. That today they are besieged on all sides by freeways clogged with rush hour traffic, thriving businesses and office parks, and neighborhoods full of homes show that no one escaped the city: They brought the city with them.
I keep thinking about those bricks Henry Ford knocked out of a perfectly functional building and hauled back to his walled town to incorporate into a replica of a modest turn-of-the-century workshop. What did he think those bricks meant? What strange power did he believe they held? Does it even matter, in the end, that the bricks came from the wrong house, when the underlying idea of moving any bricks from one place to another to represent some physical space of historical significance is so ludicrous? What story does a building tell when it has been removed from its original context: the mill from its stream, the general store from the community it served, the log cabin from the path of civilization in which it stood? What does Robert Frost’s home in Greenfield Village mean if we can’t walk down the same sidewalks he did when we leave it, or past the same hills where he gazed while dreaming up verse? And what about historical buildings rebuilt entirely after they were razed in war or some other disaster? Or historic buildings gutted to shells and filled with Chinese drywall and modern ornament? In the end, is any building really anything more than just mud and carbon?
It seems we are capable of interacting with history only through limited means. The first way is through the tangible. When we hold an antique or view something in a museum, we understand that we are interacting with the same object in the same way as others throughout history. Henry Ford believed very strongly in this tangible history. He created a legacy where future Americans would understand living history through interaction with ordinary objects—that’s why he collected so many thousands of ordinary tools and handicrafts and machines. But the second (and perhaps more important) way we interact with history is through the intangible; through our imaginations and the inspiration of others’ memories, their spoken or written words or artistic and photographic records. “History is about places of the mind,” writes historian David Starkey. Appreciating history through architecture requires some of this imagination. When we visit the Roman forum, we like to tell ourselves that we are “walking in the footsteps of Caesar,” but those bricks and columns have been toppled and rebuilt and broken again before being screwed together by dozens of archaeologists thousands of years after the Republic fell. Still. We believe architecture brings us closer to history the way medieval pilgrims believed relics brought them closer to Christ. They must have known that chunk of wood probably didn’t come from the true cross, but still, they bought it. We know a building is really just wood and bricks, but still we tell ourselves it’s something more, and open our imaginations to the wonder of those who came before us.
I have never lived anywhere so burdened by nostalgia, which is a sort of enemy to history. How many older suburbanites cluck on and on about the state of Detroit today and then wax nostalgic for how good it was in the good old days? If it was so good, why did any of them leave? Most of the folks who live in the communities I’ve discussed above do not trace their origins to whitewashed steeples or quaint one-room schoolhouses that have been saved as a nostalgic reminder of a past most never really experienced. They trace their stories through Detroit, and the old world beyond it. While Detroit rots, the nostalgic, fauxtopian villages that surround that city are a vision of history some would rather embrace. This is what happens when we try too hard to preserve the past. We create towns without memories. We abandon buildings by saving them. We create history without any history. A history of nowhere. A history that is, I suppose, easier to contend with.