Tommy Karr, the newly installed director of communications and engagement for the Edsel and Eleanor Ford House, walks through the halls of history every day.
Located in Grosse Pointe Shores, the Ford House was designed by famed architect Albert Kahn and features over 20,000 square feet of extraordinary splendor situated on exquisite grounds that visitors wander all year round.
Despite the grandeur, the property has become a surprisingly comfortable and welcoming home away from home for Karr. “If there weren’t ropes up, you’d feel perfectly comfortable to come sit on the furniture or read a book and have a lovely experience,” Karr said, adding that he thinks of the house’s grounds as “everybody’s backyard.”
“You can come to the grounds, you can explore, take a class, come meet Santa Claus,” he continued. “All these magical things happen at this place that very much still feels like a home.”
Karr spends much of his work life focused on welcoming more people to the Ford House. “How do we enhance the programs here and how do we really lean into the inclusivity that is part of our mission and really make this a place that every person, regardless of background or financial status, can come here and have an amazing experience? People can learn about some Michigan history that truly impacted the rest of the world,” he said.
Karr, for his part, has only called Michigan home since 2017. And his journey to get here was long and winding. Hailing from Pigeon Forge, Tennessee — or, as he calls it, “the Myrtle Beach of the mountains” — Karr was a navy brat who traveled with his enlisted father around the country. Eventually, the family settled back in Tennessee just in time for Karr to begin his sophomore year of high school. Karr recalled “slinging frozen lemonade” as his job at Pigeon Forge’s Dollywood, the theme park owned by the incomparable Dolly Parton. There, he developed a certain fondness for bees.
“If you got stung, they required you to take a two-hour break,” he said. “So, when you’re 15 and hot, you’ll take a bee sting.”
After a start at Middle Tennessee State University, Karr earned his bachelor’s degree in art and theater in 1998 from the University of Tennessee. In college, he had gotten involved in the theater program and actually changed his major to chase his new dream. His first production was a bit part in “La Cage aux Folles.”
“I had no experience,” he recalled. “I had no idea what I was doing.”
To get the part, Karr was required to attend one of three dance workshops.
“I didn’t know you only had to do one,” said Karr. “I was still terrible at dance, but at the audition they offered me a spot. Later, they told me they felt so bad that I’d tried so hard in all those workshops that they just had to give me a chance.”
That chance led Karr to pursue a career teaching theater. After graduation, Karr worked there for the Theatre Development Fund in New York City, where he helped establish the organization’s first marketing department, increased membership and implemented a number of data-driven research initiatives.
These early career moves would help shape Karr’s future, but perhaps the most lasting memento he would take with him when he left the city was his husband, Matt. The two paired up in New York in 2012 when Karr found Matt on the dating app OkCupid, years after both of them attended the final rehearsal of Carrie Fisher’s “Wishful Drinking” show on Broadway and sat just seats away from each other without knowing it.
Their first date took place at a barbecue joint in Hell’s Kitchen. “We had a great dinner and chatted. Then we went somewhere else for margaritas. And then we finished our night having these amazing cookies we bought from a cookie bakery. Then we started exclusively dating.”
Within a year they’d be engaged and would eventually marry in Brooklyn.
“That was 2015,” he said. “And within five days of getting married, we moved to Charlotte, North Carolina. We loved it down there. It was this great blue bubble in an otherwise red state.”
In North Carolina, both Karr and his husband worked in the theater. Family concerns would eventually cause the couple to relocate to Matt’s home state of Michigan to be near his parents. “We came up with our five-year plan to move to Michigan,” he said. “Once again, our plan was expedited because I was offered a job at Wayne State University.” Five months later, they were living in the Great Lakes State.
At Wayne, as the graduate program director for the Theatre Management and Arts Administration department, Karr “loved mentoring students and helping them find their right path. Because my path was so choppy and unpredictable. I like helping students through that process and figuring out what they want to do with life.”
Then came the pandemic, when there were no theatrical productions being launched. Karr left the university and took the position with the Ford House in November.
Now, Karr said he has “free rein to imagine what we can do and what events we can offer. I have this sort of free rein to develop ideas and test them and experiment and amplify all of these offerings.”
Karr said he loves working with professionals who “are intelligent about restoration, landscaping, horticulture. I’m getting to learn all of these things as part of this new experience in my career. I hope the people who come can learn a fraction of what our folks here have to offer them.”
The Ford House is one of several mansions belonging to past auto barons — others include the Henry Ford House in Dearborn, the Dodge mansion at Meadowbrook and the Fisher Mansion just north of downtown Detroit — that are now open for tours.
“I think people would be surprised by the fact that while it’s a historic site, it’s very forward-thinking,” said Karr. “That’s evident in our sustainability efforts. Our leadership here is very focused on that.”
Edsel and Eleanor Ford were “so innovative,” Karr continued. “She had mid-century modern designs in the home in the 1930s. She was 20 years ahead of her time. And we want to be the same way.”
When not working at the Ford House, Karr lives in Livonia with Matt, two dogs and a cat. They are renovating their home, which is over 100 years old. Though it’s not quite as grand as the Ford House, Karr said it’s still a comfortable home.
Today, Karr is looking to make the Ford House more attractive and more accessible to the LGBTQ+ community.
“I think there’s some really strong opportunities for us to create some engaging opportunities that the queer community can participate in. We’ve been very involved with Grosse Pointe Pride. We have pronoun pins our staff can wear. And we try to make it a place where everyone is welcome. You can come as you are, and we’re going to celebrate with you.”
The Ford House is open for tours and special events. For more information, visit fordhouse.org.