Navigating Fair Lane's Conservation Perspectives

Present day Fair Lane Mansion sits on a hill above the Fair Lane dam.
This 31,000 square foot mansion is set within an idyllic landscape that served as a sanctuary for Clara and Henry Ford.

Photo courtesy of Karen L. Marzonie, Director of Landscapes, Fair Lane.

About ten miles west of downtown Detroit, set on rolling land above Michigan’s Rouge River, is the Fair Lane National Historic Landmark (NHL). Fair Lane served as the country residence of Clara and Henry Ford from 1915 until their respective deaths in 1950 and 1947. The 356-acre district contains an imposing stone mansion and a number of equally impressive stone support buildings, all set within an idyllic landscape designed by the noted Chicago landscape architect Jens Jensen.

It is an oasis of green within an intensely urban environment. According to Robert E. Grese,
Director of the Matthaei Botanical Gardens and Nichols Arboretum at University of Michigan, and Professor of Landscape Architecture, Jensen’s landscape design for Fair Lane is the earliest and best example of his maturing style of estate design and one of his most complex.[1] This includes Jensen’s stone masterpiece, a hydroelectric stone dam and its associated river bank rockwork. The construction reflects Jensen’s status as the leader of Prairie style landscape architecture, a uniquely Midwestern design approach that grew out of strong conservation values and an appreciation of the natural heritage of the region. Today, in an interesting twist of perspective, Jensen’s work presents a challenge to twenty-first century conservation goals to restore the natural heritage of the Rouge River.

Over the past 30 years, a concerted effort has been made to reverse a century-long trend in the river’s declining water quality. The 127-mile Rouge River includes a 467-square-mile watershed contained within the Detroit Metro area. Nearly the entire drainage basin is within a developed area occupied by over 1.35 million people. It is an area of intensive residential and industrial development, and multiple dams impede flow along branches of the river. Until recently the river was heavily polluted; in 1969 it caught fire. River clean-up awareness began in 1986 with the creation of the non-profit Friends of the Rouge. The following year the entire watershed was designated a Great Lakes Area of Concern (AOC) under the Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement (GLWQ). Established in 1972, the GLWQ represents a commitment between the United States and Canada to restore and protect the waters of the Great Lakes. In 1992 the Federal and locally-funded Wayne County Rouge River National Wet Weather Demonstration Project targeted sewer overflow and non-point discharges. The project successfully improved water quality in 89 of the 127 miles of the larger streams and tributaries in the watershed. To facilitate delisting the Rouge River as an AOC, a Rouge River Remedial Action Plan Advisory Committee (RRAC) was established in 1993. The Water Resources Development Acts (WRDA) of 2000 and 2007 authorize the Corps of Engineers to plan, design, and construct projects in support of restoring the Great Lakes fisheries and ecosystem. This includes the Rouge River. In addition, 2005 saw the creation of the non-profit Alliance of Rouge Communities (ARC), an organization of both governmental and non-governmental entities. The ARC serves as the RRAC’s fiduciary and coordinating organization.

A hurdle to Rouge River restoration is the Fair Lane NHL dam, located about eight miles upstream of the river’s confluence with the Detroit River. While the current appearance dates to 1914-1916, it is a re-design of a dam built across the river circa 1909 by Ford. Fair Lane was once part of a much larger complex of lands in four Michigan counties owned by Clara and Henry Ford and collectively known as “Ford Farms.” Staunch supporters of rural values and self-sufficiency as a way of life, the Fords treated Fair Lane as a wildlife sanctuary and worked to improve wildlife habitat on the land.
Henry Ford's concrete dam and brick powerhouse in 1909.
The concrete dam and brick powerhouse built by Henry Ford in 1909.

Photo from the Collections of the Henry Ford, 841.1660.151/THF134726.

The Fair Lane NHL dam represents an interesting dichotomy between Ford’s support for wildlife conservation and his enthusiastic pursuit of innovation. About 1909, before construction had even begun on the nearby mansion (1914-1915), Henry Ford built a concrete dam and a small brick powerhouse to generate his own electric power. Integrated into the south side of the dam was a fish ladder for migrating fish. Ford hired Jensen in 1914 to develop garden designs and ultimately a master landscape plan for Fair Lane, which included the dam.
Men constructing the Fair Lane dam near the Fair Lane Mansion in 1915.
The Fair Lane dam was designed by Jens Jensen to look like natural rapids.

Photo courtesy of the Sterling Morton Library, The Morton Arboretum.

Jensen’s deep knowledge of regional landscapes and skillful design for a widened dam complimented a new, larger stone power house (1914-1915) to make it appear a natural element of the landscape. Jensen used horizontal bands of Fon du Lac limestone to “stonescape” the dam, and to build associated wing walls that extend for a considerable distance along the river’s edge. The entire composition appears to be a major outcrop of weathered bedrock framing a natural falls on the river. The design incorporates Prairie Style concepts of naturalistic forms and spaces, horizontal lines, artful use of sunshine and shadow, and conservation. The intent of such design was to bring awareness and appreciation of both the native landscape, and to broader conservation initiatives. Grese notes that Fair Lane showcases Jensen’s most extensive use of layered limestone for either a public or private project. The stonework artfully ties together features that the Fords wanted to include along the Rouge River—a hydroelectric dam with the water intake areas and discharge chutes, and a boathouse and rock garden area—while making them appear as geologic features.
Rushing water of the present day Fair Lane dam.
Present day Fair Lane dam.

Photo courtesy of Karen L. Marzonie, Director of Landscapes, Fair Lane.

Nearly a century after its construction, however, the concept of Fair Lane as a paradigm for conservation now requires a reevaluation. In 1998 the Michigan Department of Natural Resources described Henry Ford’s dam as “particularly devastating” in isolating the Rouge River watershed from the Detroit River and the Lake Erie ecosystem.[2] Removing the dam would improve habitat and increase aquatic biodiversity in the Rouge River for 50 main and 108 tributary river miles, reconnecting them to the Great Lakes system.[3] From the perspective of preserving the NHL, removing the dam is not an option. Developing a viable solution without adversely impacting the Jensen design has been nearly two decades in the making, and involved Federal, state, and local government agencies, property owners, and a number of organizations and interested parties.

Under WRDC authority, the Corps of Engineers took the lead in undertaking preliminary feasibility studies and design options. In 2007 the Corps proposed a fish passage that circumvented the dam to the south, utilizing land within the NHL district that is owned by Wayne County Parks. Concerns raised by the Michigan State Historic Preservation Office and the National Park Service (NPS) regarding potential and permanent impacts to the Jensen-designed riverbank rockwork prompted the Corps to explore additional designs. This was no small effort; such a design had to avoid damaging historic resources to the maximum extent possible, consider flow regimes for hydroelectric turbine operations, provide appropriate hydraulics with adequate flow and pool depths, identify outflow locations that would facilitate fish movement, design revegetation of disturbed areas, avoid impacting wetlands, and require little maintenance. During the course of this design process, in 2008 the RRAC confirmed that de-listing the Rouge River as an AOC necessitated construction of a fish passage around the Fair Lane NHL dam. The Corps undertook a number of surveys, and worked with the firm Environmental Consulting & Technology, Inc., (ECT). A hydraulic model for two final alternatives was produced before budget constraints halted work in 2014.

The project was re-energized in 2015 when ARC successfully applied for a National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration grant. Utilizing the information previously prepared by the Corps, ARC moved forward with the ECT contractors to finalize the Corps preferred alternative—a design favorably considered by the NPS due to intake and outflow locations that entirely avoids impacting the Jensen dam and wing walls, and which minimizes impacts of the viewshed across the river from the developed area of the Ford estate. A final natural channel fishway design was produced in the fall of 2016. Implementation funding from the Environmental Protection Agency has been secured by Wayne County, on behalf of, and in partnership with, ARC.

With navigation of the final required consultation components underway in 2017, conservation improvements to the Rouge River appear to be on course. The design and review process ensured that both natural and cultural resources at the Fair Lane NHL were carefully considered, to their mutual benefit. Just over 100 years old, the dam still serves its support role for generating hydroelectric power. A 2016 engineering study determined the dam to be stable, although the stone rockwork suffers from deterioration.
Originally published in "Exceptional Places" Vol. 12, 2017, a newsletter of the Division of Cultural Resources, Midwest Region. Written by Dena Sanford.
[1] Robert E. Grese, “Fair Lane” National Historic Landmark nomination, draft, 2009, copy on file National Park Service, Midwest Regional Office, Omaha, NE. Subsequent information regarding Jensen, the Jensen design, and the Fords is drawn from this draft document.
[2]Michigan Department of Natural Resources, Fisheries Division, “Special Report: Rouge River Assessment,” September 1998, 11., accessed August 2, 2017.
[3] Alliance of Rouge Communities, “Project Summary” for Funding Opportunity Number, NOAA-NMFS-HCPO-2015-2004351, copy on file, National Park Service, Midwest Regional Office, Omaha, NE.

Last updated: July 19, 2018