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Auto pioneer Henry Ford wasn't a home builder, but when his workers in Dearborn needed housing a century ago, the automaker switched gears. He built houses.

Between 1919 and 1920, Ford and his team built 250 homes just west of downtown Dearborn in what is now known as the Ford Homes Historic District to provide housing for workers at a nearby tractor plant.

Considered Dearborn's first planned subdivision, all of the homes are still standing and this year the neighborhood marks a big milestone -- its centennial anniversary. To celebrate, 15 homes will open their doors on Sunday for a special 100th anniversary Holiday Home Tour (see box for details).

"There's nothing like it in the Detroit area," said Joe Oldenburg, the neighborhood's historian who played a role in getting the area designated as a historic district. 

Dan and Sharon Hensley Alford certainly like the neighborhood's unique character. The former high school sweethearts who moved to their home on Park Street in 2001 will open their home's first floor for Sunday's tour. 

And while their home has changed since it was built a century ago -- the couple did an extensive renovation in 2017, adding a new kitchen, open concept dining area and mudroom along with an upstairs master bedroom suite -- some original features remain such as the fireplace, covered porch and staircase.

In fact, it was the staircase just off the front foyer that drew Sharon to the house from the start.

"This sold me on the house -- walking in and seeing the staircase," says Sharon. "I love -- love! -- the staircase."

She and Dan, who have two kids, 19 and 15, also were drawn to the neighborhood's walkability, diversity and how close it is to downtown Dearborn.

 "We walk downtown for dinner or drinks," says Sharon. "My kids loved to walk to Marshalls."

Housing shortage

The Ford Homes Historic District has its roots in World War I. With Britain engulfed in the war and Germans blocking the country's food supply chain, tractors were demand for the British to grow their own food. But few were being built.

"Tractors are not being built in large quantities in the United States or Great Britain at that time," said Oldenburg. "So he's being asked to build tractors in quantity so he builds this tractor plant."

Ford's Fordson Tractor Plant, opened in 1917 at Oakwood Boulevard and Michigan Avenue, employing 4,000 workers.

But housing was an issue. Rents were very high in Dearborn and workers often had to ride into the city from Detroit on the interurban railway for an hour.

Ford's personal secretary, Ernest Liebold, had a suggestion: Ford should build houses for his workers.

Ford agreed but with a few stipulations. He initially asked that his name not be associated with the development. He also wanted the homes to be "affordable and they’re to use the best materials," said Oldenburg. 

The homes, designed by architect Albert Wood, the original architect of Henry Ford Hospital, were built six blocks from the tractor plant. On Park and Nonna, 94 homes were built in 1919. In 1920, 156 were built on Beech, Edison, Francis, Gregory and Military. 

"He thought if his name is in it, then it's going to become a major issue, policy in it," said Ford. 

The homes were open to anyone to buy, but 90% were bought by tractor workers and workers of the Dearborn Realty & Construction Co., Oldenburg said. That was the company formed just to sell the homes and build them.

Unlike today's market, where buyers pick out a lot and have a say in the design of their future homes, that wasn't the case in the Ford Homes.

"The homes were already platted out," said Oldenburg. "You'd go and say, 'All right, I want a Ford home.' They'd say, 'You chose from one that's platted out.'...If you didn't like the design, sorry."

Homes could be reversed -- having a door on the left as opposed to the right -- but that was about it. Buyers couldn't have an A home on a lot that was already planned to have an F style home, said Oldenburg.

In the end, many of the materials were locally sourced -- the wood came from Detroit -- and much work was done right on site, said Oldenburg.

"They built the windows there, they had a tin shop that built what we would call all of the furnace materials," said Oldenburg. "They knew exactly what they were putting in each house."

The Hensley Alford home

The Hensley Alfords live in an F style house. The living room looks very much the way it did when the homes were originally built with a simple but sophisticated fireplace. 

But in 2017, the couple decided to discard three previous additions, tear them down and do their own big reno. Using Patrick Murray Construction as their contractor, they added about 1,000 square feet. Their new kitchen, which features plenty of counter space, now opens to the dining room. Extensive windows fill the space with light. Off the addition, which was finished in the spring of 2018, is a new mudroom.

“We wanted to open up the back,” said Sharon. “...It was like a cave before.”

Above the kitchen and dining room is a new master bedroom suite with his and hers closets and a spacious bathroom.

But even with the changes, the couple was conscious of keeping everything in line with the style of the four-bedroom house. The new red oak floors, for example, look almost identical to the original floors. The Shaker-style cabinets in the kitchen also compliment the house’s style.

Throughout the house are personal touches and spaces. Sharon has her own first-floor craft room — painted a lively pink — where she and her daughter do sewing and quilting projects. 

“I’m very into color and texture,” said Sharon, an epidemiologist with a Ford connection of her own – she works at Henry Ford Hospital. “I love art. I’m a scientist, which makes you think I wouldn’t be (into that), but I am.”

And keepsakes from Sharon and Dan’s time in the Peace Corps, where they spent two years as newlyweds in the Solomon Islands of the South Pacific, such as bark fabric are framed and hang in various rooms.

Sharon, who, like Dan, grew up in Toledo, admits she’d never heard of the Ford Homes when the couple first started looking for houses in the Detroit area. Driving through the neighborhood, looking for a place close to work, she liked what she saw. She still does — 18 years later..

“I really like it – the style, the layout and the walkability,” says Sharon.

Ford Homes Holiday Tour 

Fifteen homes in the Ford Homes Historic District will be featured on the 100th Anniversary Holiday Home Tour, which runs from 12-6 p.m. Dec. 8. Tickets are $20 in advance or $25 the day of the tour. Go to fordhomes.org for ticket locations or to purchase tickets on Sunday, go to DuVall Elementary School, 22651 Beech Street in Dearborn.

mfeighan@detroitnews.com

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