Google Street View image.
As vacant lots in the metro Detroit area go, the one above, on a bend on the northern section of Snow Avenue in Dearborn, looks rather plain. Some nicely maintained landscaping right up beside Ford's fenced-off Product Development Center next door, a little sidewalk cutting through a trim lawn, and most importantly, no house; otherwise, Ford's secrets might have not remained secret for very long.
When Ford's Product Development Center arose on an 800-acre tract of wooded land just off of Oakwood Boulevard in the late 1940s and early 1950s, it butted up against an established residential neighborhood to the northeast. Snow Avenue, which swung south off Monroe Street and then curved to the west, formed the boundary of the neighborhood and even provided overflow parking just outside the center's back entrance. At the time the PDC - including the styling rotunda and the adjacent courtyard - opened in 1953, vacant lots occupied much of that section of Snow Avenue (there's another section of Snow Avenue, south of Rotunda Drive, which doesn't figure into this story). However, at least a couple of houses did occupy that bend in the road, and one in particular would soon have to come down.
The house in question is marked with number 6 in this photo of the PDC around the time it opened.
Image courtesy Ford Media, via Jim and Cheryl Farrell.
The house didn't look like much in historic photos - just a two-story house of similar construction to its neighbors, maybe a little higher in elevation thanks to the knoll it sat on. Might have had a nice porch out front and some decent attic space for storage under that asymmetrical sloping roof. Might have had a garage or carriage house tucked in next to it. It stood rather close to the road and thus to the entrance to the PDC, but that proximity itself didn't seem to be an issue.
Rather, as Jim and Cheryl Farrell pointed out in their book on Ford's Design Department, the house's second story provided a direct line of sight into the PDC's courtyard, where Ford's design staff and executives spent plenty of time reviewing design clays and prototypes in ambient light rather than the direct light of the studios. And it didn't take long before somebody in Detroit figured out how to take advantage of that fact. According to the Farrells, a competitor rented out the whole house to spy on the courtyard goings-on.
Which competitor exactly, the Farrells didn't say. A comprehensive comparison of Ford's mid-1950s advanced designs and similar designs from the other Detroit-based automakers might pinpoint who took inspiration from that second-story view, or it might be a wild goose chase. Everybody in Detroit at the time looked for some edge over their competition in the race to look as modern and technologically/stylistically superior as possible, whether through spying, poaching talent, or just keeping a keen ear out at the bars.
Property lines for Ford's PDC near Snow Avenue. Image via LandGrid.com.
Ford's brass certainly knew the stakes, and once they discovered the spying from the neighboring house, they took no chances. As the Farrells wrote, Ford subsequently bought the house and immediately tore it down. The Wayne County Assessor's list doesn't appear to break out that parcel as a separate plot from the PDC, so without a trip to the assessor's office, it's difficult to determine exactly when Ford bought the house. However, from historic aerial photos, it appears the house (along with the two adjacent buildings) was demolished sometime before 1957. By 1964, Ford built an addition that blocked the northwest side of the courtyard, and by the early Seventies more additional buildings completely enclosed the courtyard.
Today, a row of duplexes fills many of the formerly vacant plots on Snow Avenue, but their march comes just short of that corner lot. They don't appear to be in any danger of coming down to make way for the proposed redevelopment of the PDC, but if somebody in those houses happens to figure out some Ford WiFi passwords, perhaps Ford might be inclined to snap up a few more Snow Avenue properties.
Article courtesy of Hemings, written by Daniel Strohl.