The house; the lawn; the pool; the garage; the tree house; the basketball hoop. The common trappings of twentieth century American suburbia. But where did this image of life come from, and why does it appeal to so many of us?
It’s a complicated story. The best way to start is, as always, to look to the past.
The first modern suburb was built by William Levitt on Long Island in the late 1940s. Named Levvittown, it was an instant success, row upon row of near identical houses.
Here, life was quieter. You had a backyard to relax in, a garage to park in. It was safe for your kids to play outside. It felt like the logical outcome of our dramatic economic progress. Levitt fashioned himself a manufacturer of the American dream, not a builder.
Soon, shiny new suburbs were popping up everywhere.
In contrast to the suburbs, urban living was viewed as messy, chaotic, and uncontrollable. Race riots in the 1943 in Detroit and New York City were taken by many as a warning sign of the danger to come. Humanity, huddled in America’s big cities, had brought out the best and worst in itself. The shadows of our grand skyscrapers now harbored the evils of skid row, the smokestacks of our factories working class discontent.
We hoped the suburbs could bring back our innocence, back to the cherished ideals of rural life that men like Thomas Jefferson considered quintessential to our national character. That, just maybe, the suburbs could democratize the moderating influences of nature on human behavior. In Levittowns across the country, we could all have our own chunk of the American dream. And so we built, built, and built some more.
The suburbs reflected the values of the America’s industrial and commercial elite at the time. We wanted what they had, and leveraged ourselves to the hilt to try and get a piece of it.
Starting in the 1910s, with the mainstreaming of the automobile, many wealthy fled their mansions in the crowded city for sprawling countryside estates. There, the goodness of fresh air, quiet, and space was theirs to behold, and they celebrated it with elaborate gardens, pools, and winding equestrian trails. Glorified in newspaper and magazine articles and short films, it had to have left a mark on the typical American. They all looked so happy out of the city, at peace.
I can think of few better examples of early suburban splendor than the Edsel and Eleanor Ford House on Lake Shore Drive in Grosse Pointe Shores, a short distance from Detroit and yet seemingly a world away. Edsel, son of the Henry Ford, and his beloved wife Eleanor built the home in 1929 with the help of legendary Detroit architect Albert Kahn and famed landscaper Jens Jensen, among other illustrious collaborators.
It was a masterwork of contemporary taste.
Inspired by a trip to England, the Fords had the exterior of their house designed to resemble a homey Cotswold village, with impressive stonework, tapered shingled roofing, and ornate windows. In flights of fancy, they surrounded their new home with elaborate gardens, a pool that emptied out into Lake St. Clair, and a giant heated playhouse with reliefs by renowned sculptor Corrado Parducci. They even had a tennis court and a putting green put in, right on the lake. It was a spectacle, to be sure.
The interior of the Edsel and Eleanor house only added to its grandeur, with rooms that vary from Louis XVI opulence to streamlined Art Moderne that would’ve made Steve Jobs jealous. Paneling and other building materials were brought in from English estates to decorate the house, and when the Fords lived there, Vincent Van Gogh and Paul Cézanne paintings hung casually from the walls. Imagine playing hide-and-seek as a kid around priceless antique vases, almost knocking into a Diego River painting as you ran in excited terror.
Such was life at the Edsel and Eleanor Ford House. Yet despite such extravagant indulgences, Edsel and Eleanor were adamant about living wholesome, balanced lives. Their children shared rooms growing up and the central idea behind every room and space on the grounds was first and foremost to bring the family closer together.
Eleanor, in particular, latched onto the virtues of her family estate. Few activities brought her more joy than time on the putting green, or watching the boats on Lake St. Clair from Jensens’ curated view on Bird Island. For her, it was like a dream come true. She’d write letters to her eldest son Henry “The Duece” explaining her adventures with the children in breathless detail.
It was Eleanor’s decision to have the house turned into a public museum after her death in 1976. Thanks to her largess, you too can now experience the wonders of early suburban life. Though there were few homes in the area when the Fords moved in, today the Edsel and Eleanor Ford House stands as a model par excellence of the vast suburbs enclosing it, a shining testament to the suburban dream.