Henry and Clara Ford pursued a variety of hobbies, and birdwatching was one they enjoyed together. They spent many hours in Fair Lane’s Sun Porch, watching nature in its finest feathered form through the large and plentiful windows that are a notable characteristic of this room.
Yet, those same windows where the Fords enjoyed sunny afternoons were in desperate need of repair, showing the effects of age and extended exposure to the elements.
As part of the restoration focus on the Sun Porch, conservation experts made a bold call: They chose to remove the room’s windows entirely, then repair them and return them to the structure. The goal, said Mark J. Heppner, Vice President for Historic Resources for the Historic Ford Estates, was to give new generations the same view that the Fords had: An unencumbered vision of the wildlife, native plants and flowing River Rouge.
The process required a team of historic window experts. Christman Constructors Inc., a Lansing-based commercial concrete and carpentry contractor, came in as project lead. Its historic preservation carpentry resume includes such distinct projects as the Notre Dame Administration Building (Golden Dome), the Virginia State Capitol, the Michigan State Capitol and many other famous historic landmarks.
Christman’s team, including on-site experts Kevin Kanalos and Steve Roman, worked together with partners to prepare the windows for restoration. The Ford legacy and the 100-year-old home’s many windows make this estate a fascinating place to work, Kanalos said.
“You can appreciate the aesthetics and craftsmanship of the time,” Kanalos said. “But you also have to look at the window’s ability to function properly. They haven’t always received enough TLC. And you need these windows; it’s the only air conditioning the sunroom has.”
Kanalos said the Sun Porch’s windows also needed to be operational for safety, air circulation and movement as Michigan’s temperatures fluctuate, especially during area’s extreme weather conditions during the heat of summer and cold in winter.
Christman’s team removed the original windows from the room, allowing Fair Lane’s staff and conservators to take off the hardware for cleaning and any necessary repairs.
Every window then received a complete evaluation, cleaning and restoration. That meant scrapping any excess paint and aging weather stripping. The team also painstakingly took out any screws that attached the weather stripping to the wood. In many cases, the screws were stripped, so taking them out too quickly could cause the wood to splinter.
They had to chip out the original glazing and silicone caulk, which would have been applied sometime after the Fords lived at Fair Lane.
Upon removal, the glass was cleaned (sometimes with “low-tech means” such as a simple washing with water) repaired, and replaced as needed before being returned to the windows.
“You have to look where the windows might have moved or settled. Everything has to align within a fraction of an inch,” Kanalos explained. Failing to square the windows can affect whether it can be opened smoothly. Any miscalculation or ill fit could result in a window that is difficult to open. That can cause breakage or damage to an already fragile structure, he noted.
Is all this perfectionism necessary? Kanalos said absolutely. “It all matters. We work in black and white, not gray,” Kanalos added. “We can’t walk away from it until it functions like it should.”
With the wood, glass and metal ready to go, the sashes are painted and the windows are put back together. On site, Christman’s team put the windows in place, working carefully around some of the unique aspects such as the beveled hinges, a rare trait in any window. Lastly, ultraviolent-filtering film was applied to the windows, ensuring protection for the interior finishes for years to come.
“You typically cannot use power tools. You have to do it like you did in the old days – by hand,” said Kanalos. Surely, Henry Ford is smiling somewhere at that statement.
The work requires an attention to detail, an appreciation of the past and a meticulous nature. But Kanalos and Roman said it is worth the effort.
“We’re really enjoying ourselves. It’s a treat,” Kanalos said. “We know it will be a little bit difficult but we have the time and luxury of figuring it out.”
By Karen Dybis for the Henry Ford Estate