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 first mechanical efforts were 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. Heinlen 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.” Henry Ford's "laziness" led to the Highland Park assembly line; the five dollars his assembly line workers took home each day 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 rural Michigan farm to downtown Detroit, where he worked as a machinist before becoming an engineer for the Edison Illuminating Company. Ford would often sneak away to his own workshop while on the clock to tinker away at the one-cylinder internal combustion engine that would power his first automobile. When the time came to take his quadricycle 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 the gilded age young Henry Ford helped usher in and it 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 in service of 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. In 1926, Henry Ford’s former home and workshop at 58 Bagley stood in the way of a lavish new movie palace to be built on the site. Completed in August, the 4050-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. The grand main staircase led to a mezzanine filled with antique furniture and the theater itself boasted a $50,000 Wurlitzer organ and a breathtaking proscenium arch decorated with birds, cherubs and classical figures.
Meanwhile in suburban Dearborn, Henry Ford still guided the Ford Motor Company’s major decisions, but he'd put the day-to-day running of the company into other capable hands and begun spending much of his time collecting the artifacts and buildings that would become a different part of his legacy. Starting with a painstaking replica of his childhood farm built on a plot of land not far from his Dearborn estate, Ford created what has since grown into a major regional tourist-attraction called Greenfield Village. Today 1.5-million people annually visit this place which boasts the world's largest concentration of historical buildings moved from their original locations to a new site. Today, there are nearly 100 historical buildings "preserved" in the walled 240-acre compound, many of them chosen and situated to represent a typical American village somewhere between 1870 and 1910. There's a town square, a courthouse (where young Abe Lincoln practiced law), a general store, and a chapel. Seersuckered historical interpretors as friendly as Mormon missionaries prowl the streets in straw hats, pouncing on unsuspecting tourists:
|Reenactors near Greenfield Village entrance (2009)|
|Abe Lincoln Courthouse, Greenfield Village (2009)|
Unlike other business titans of his day, Henry Ford wasn't much of an art collector. He was like, "Y'all can have your French paintings. I collect buildings, motherfuckers. Then I move them to Dearborn." Many of the buildings at Greenfield Village represent people or places significant to Ford's vision of industrial progress (The Wright Brothers' bicycle shop, Thomas Edison's Menlo Park laboratories). Ford brought together an incredible collection of buildings including a fully-operating machine shop, an early electric plant, a mill, several working farms, as well as talented glassblowers and craftsmen. In the years since Ford's death, a host of thoughtful curators have brought new visions and standards to the open-air museum. But still, the heart and soul of Greenfield Village are the buildings associated with Ford's own life and the growth of his automobile company.
|1/4 Size Replica of Ford's Mack Ave. Plant (2009)|
|56 and 58 Bagley Street (Ford Historical Archives)|
|Lola Bett tea room in 1930s (Detroit News archive photo)|
|Photo taken March 1, 1933 of the newly-built replica of Henry Ford's garage at Greenfield Village incorporating bricks from the original structure at 56 Bagley (original photo from my collection).|
|The Bagley workshop replica at Greenfield Village in 2009.|
|Michigan Building Parking Garage (2008)|
The nostalgic fantasy of small-town history on display at Greenfield Village is what most of the descendents of the beneficiaries of Ford’s $5 a day plan thought they were getting when they left Detroit for its suburbs: they sought a pastoral, small town 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 decent salaries he provided could escape the dirty city, the ethnic neighborhoods, and live in some version of this idealized small American town. Greenfield Village is the ultimate Fauxtopia. Aside from the occasional sputtering of the ubiquitous Model Ts (the only cars allowed inside Greenfield Village's walls), the roads are safe for children. There is no crime (unless you count the sartorial offenses of reenactors wearing sneakers and tourists in ye olde cargo shorts). There are numerous options to buy old-timey crafts and dine on old-timey food. Many of the buildings preserved there exhibit the sort of classical architectural grandeur mimicked by so many architects of today's suburban McMansions. Everything is wholesome and good. And none of it is real.
|The Noah Webster house, behind Greenfield Village's walls (2012)|
|Greenfield Village parking lot during the off-season (2012)|
|Greenfield Village construction, 1930s (Detroit News archive)|
|East Side Neighborhood, Detroit|
|Meijer Supercenter Parking Lot, Livonia (2012)|
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 discovered that in many suburban and exurban 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). I know these sort of places exist everywhere, but there is an intense concentration of them around Detroit. These "towns" surround the city in every direction the highways go:
Over the past few months I've visited each of these historic parks to see and understand what the 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 middle class flight was to the city of Detroit. The first wave of refugees from Detroit who moved to these suburbs in the 1940s and 1950s thought they were getting the historic small towns they first found there. By the 1970s these suburban pioneers were getting older and it was clear that the small town atmosphere they'd sought there was doomed. The new residents of 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 presented and preserved through these historic villages---places where no one would actually work or live and where none of the buildings had actually 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 wanted to photograph each village in the state they spent most of their time: vacant, empty, and silent (some even behind locked gates). During the warmer months these villages are certainly used for various educational and recreational purposes, but most of the time they are ghost towns.
|Livonia (note: this park does have a caretaker who lives in the 1924 Methodist parsonage moved to the site in 1977; also, a few of the many buildings at Greenmead are original to the site, including the 1841 Greek Revival Simmons farm house)|
Nearly all of the historical villages also have a rescued one-room schoolhouse.
Ubiquitous antique-looking gas lanterns provide light for empty streets.
A lot of hard work went into the landscaping, design, maintenance and (particularly) the movement of these buildings from their original sites to these new locations. It is a monumental, expensive task to move a historic structure from one location to another requiring a great deal of skill, equipment, and luck. Telephone and electrical wires often need to be removed in the truck's path.
|Moving Methodist church and parsonage to Troy Historic Park, August 20, 2003 (photo by flickr user David Weller)|
Mr. Collins had been a landscape architect at Wayne State University in Detroit for many years. He told me some great stories about his big fight with Minoru Yamasaki and how the university used to tear down big Detroit houses when expanding and he would salvage whatever he could. "I had a whole barn's worth of stuff we took out of Detroit houses," he said. "We got some lady from Birmingham to sell it all for us, she made a lot of money." I thought about all that history, scattered: terracotta in suburban gardens, leaded-glass in modest ranch homes. Just stuff, from houses turned to dust, bulldozed into basements. The land itself is parking lots now, probably. Wayne State is largely a commuter school.
I told Mr. Collins I thought his park was great, because like all the others, it really is. I was being sincere. I do love these places---and have loved places like this since I was a child. But that doesn't mean I still can't find them problematic.
I keep thinking about those bricks Henry Ford ordered his minions to knock out of a perfectly-functional building and haul back to his walled town and incorporate into a replica of a modest turn-of-the-century shed. What did he think those bricks meant? What strange power did he believe they held? Does it even matter 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 preposterous to begin with? What story does a building tell when it has been removed from its original context: the mill from the 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, past the hills where he gazed while dreaming up rhymes? And what about "historical" buildings that were 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 (using historic preservation tax credits)? 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: through actual artifacts. When we hold an antique or view an antiquity with our own eyes in a museum, we understand that we are interacting with the same object in the same way as one of our predecessors. Henry Ford believed very strongly in 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 tools and handicrafts and machines. But the legacy on display at his colossal museum near Greenfield Village also includes ordinary objects made extraordinary by significant (and often morbid) events in American history: the chair Lincoln sat in when he was assassinated, the limousine that took JFK for his final drive, Thomas Edison's "last breath" captured in a glass bottle. Even President Obama recently visited and sat on the bus where Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat.
|(Obama on Rosa Parks bus, Pete Souza-White House)|
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 will 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 anyone leave? Websites like this one sum up the nostalgia industry of the Detroit diaspora. 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 that never really existed. 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.
Henry Ford was a visionary in many ways, and he should be remembered for saving buildings at a time when there was little thought given to historic preservation. When a building was torn down in Ford's day, there was still the hope and promise that what replaced it would be even grander. In Detroit, such hope is long gone. The city is littered with abandoned buildings we simply cannot hope to surpass in style, skill, or even materials. In cities other than Detroit, history is often obscured by the present. But Detroit's abandoned historical buildings demand that you stop and consider them. What were these places? Who spent time here? Where are they now? When historic structures are demolished in Detroit, no one is lining up to build something else on the spot. In Detroit, when we lose our history, we get nothing but emptiness in its place. That is why I will always love the ruins. Orhan Pamuk wrote: There are two ways of looking at cities. The first is that of the tourist, the newly arrived foreigner who looks at the buildings, monuments, avenues, and skylines from outside. There is also the inside view, the city of rooms in which we have slept, of corridors and cinemas and old classrooms, the city made up of the smells and lights and colors of our most cherished memories. A city’s collective memory is its soul, and its ruins are its most eloquent testimony…. A city’s ruins also help it to forget. First we lose a memory, but we know we’ve lost it and we want it back. Then we forget we have forgotten it, and the city can no longer remember its own past. The ruins that cause us such pain and open the road to forgetfulness become, in the end, the lots on which others can found new dreams.
Much of this (particularly the Greenfield Village/58 Bagley stuff) was the subject of a lecture I delivered in August, 2009 for Rogue HAA. I have been thinking about this stuff for a long time, and decided to share this post as a sort of background for a new series of pictures I have been working on.