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Connecting to Detroit's History

You're never supposed to lead a story with a quote, but I'll make an exception.

“You have to physically immerse yourself in something to truly experience it. That's where memory starts.”

Who: Kathleen Mullins, president of the Edsel & Eleanor Ford House.

What: During a press conference Wednesday afternoon to talk about the new iPhone app that gives an interactive tour of this awe-inspiring historical site

Why: Because I defy anyone who comes to Detroit to walk away unaffected.

This is why I love love LOVE my job. I get access to truly awesome people like Mullins, who joined the Ford house about three years ago. During our chat, she and her staff were as gracious to me (a mere press slug) as Mrs. Ford likely would have been.

We were there to learn about the app (look at me with my fancy lingo!) so more on that later. Let's just say that it's changes the way you think about “estate homes” and historical sites. It makes the house feel alive, like the Ford family and its four kids are going to tumble out onto the lawn at any second.

Some news too – Mullins says the two Ford houses will soon join forces. The Edsel folks will soon operate the Henry Ford Estate (Fair Lane) in Dearborn. This will give both places some growing pains, but it also gives them a chance to unify the experiences, modernize the Dearborn site and keep it all in the family (the Fords still sit on the managing board there).

For now…more from Mullins. She loves the tour in part because it is multi-sensory. It is modern. It is fun and family-friendly. It is all of the things the Ford House wants to be. And what she and other people like her want the public to know about Detroit, the metropolitan area and all of Michigan.

“When you come here, you can understand a big piece of Detroit's history,” said Mullins, who recounted a story about an automotive reporter who recently toured the house. The writer wanted to talk about the Lincoln, and he told the staff he never truly felt what the Ford family was all about until he walked through their home.

“It helps you start to make those connections,” she said, and that is what these cultural institutions are all about. “We offer an escape. We encourage people to sit on the lawn, have a picnic with their families. … Look at our grounds! We're like a community park.”

And Detroit needs a few more places to relax these days.

“People need to feel like they belong to something. They want to be a part of a legacy,” she noted. “When you're under stress, you need a touchstone. You need a feel a sense of place and rootedness again.”

Back to my original point – I don't think you could be as disappointed or distressed with Detroit once you've been here. If you could just see the hope in everyone, you'd understand why we all feel compelled to stay. Granted, there is decades of work ahead of us. But it's all about baby steps – if I only had a nickel for every time I've heard that lately.

A little background on the House itself: Since 1978, the Ford House has been open to visitors. Eleanor Ford envisioned this magnificent use, giving the house (and money to support it) to the world. It is located at 1100 Lake Shore Road in Grosse Pointe Shores. I love its location ending the lake, as far back from the public road as you possibly could be. From the street, it looks like a nice little abode…but that's just the gate house. The real thing is some 30,000 square feet. Yet it seems intimate and cozy, just as the family wanted.

And there is nothing more wonderful than family, and that is what the Fords were all about, Mullins said. She wants to see more families sprawling across the open landscape, making their own memories. The House recently hosted the Detroit Symphony Orchestra, and that event brought so many new people, groups and kids to the Estate. They expected 3,000 and more than 5,000 attended the outdoor concerts.

“We're so fortunate that our city understands the value of these places,” Mullins told me. “I love Detroit. I think fantastic things are in store for the Detroit area.”

Oh, and you can eat there too. Sounds like the new Cotswald Cafe restaurant is jumping, enjoying double the diners as it had a year ago. Along with lunch daily (except Monday), it is now open for dinner on Fridays and Saturdays. I have my wedding anniversary coming up, and I think I know where we're going to go.

…Okay. Back to the app. The Ford House now has its own iPhone and iPad application. It is free of charge on iTunes and as a Web app for most smartphones. Pre-loaded iPod Touches are also provided on site (for people like me, the only one left in my universe without one).

The app features 60 minutes of exclusive video content, an original soundtrack and the previously unseen footage of the Ford family at play. There they are, playing golf just steps away from where you stand. Or swimming together at the pool; they had four kids after all. Many of the videos were filmed by Edsel Ford himself using his own camera. It's very personal and emotional at times, Mullins notes.

Check it out for yourself.

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