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57 years ago: Ford Rotunda, a top US tourist attraction, goes up in flames

Ford Rotunda postcard. (WDIV)

57 years ago, the Ford Rotunda in Dearborn, one of the most popular tourist attractions in the U.S., burned down.

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If you were living in Metro Detroit in the 1940s or 1950s, there’s a really strong chance you visited the Ford Rotunda in Dearborn.

The Ford Rotunda was a staple of the area for decades, and was at one point the fifth most visited tourist attractions in the U.S., drawing more than one million visitors every year. (Fifth behind Niagara Falls, Smokey Mountain National Park, the Smithsonian, and the Lincoln Memorial).

In November 1962, the Rotunda was destroyed by a massive fire. But the memories live on. Let’s take a look back and the history of the Ford Rotunda.

Origins of the Ford Rotunda

Ford commissioned the Rotunda for the 1934 Chicago World’s Fair. It was to showcase man’s development in automotive innovation.

Henry Ford called Albert Kahn, his favorite architect. Kahn had designed Ford’s Highland Park Plant, Rouge Plant, and the Dearborn Inn. (Kahn is also known for designing several iconic Detroit buildings.)

For this project, Kahn broke from traditional architectural styles and designed an imposing cylindrical structure that simulated a graduated cluster of internally-meshed gears. The Rotunda stood 130 feet high. The building’s steel frame was covered in 114,000 square feet of Indiana limestone.

The Rotunda’s grounds featured 19 “reproductions” of Ford’s “Roads of the World”: the Appian Way, the Grand Trunk Road, the Oregon Trail and Detroit’s Woodward Avenue.

By the time the Chicago World Fair closed its doors in 1934, Henry Ford decided that the Rotunda would be perfect for displaying industrial exhibits back home in Dearborn.

At first, Ford wanted to move the structure to Greenfield Village, but his son Edsel persuaded him that it would serve a far better purpose as a visitor center and starting point for the company’s popular Rouge Plant tours.

Ford Rotunda. (Henry Ford Collection)

The Rotunda found a new home near the Rouge Plant, across from the Ford Administration Building on Schaefer Road.

Christmas at the Rotunda

Many probably remember visiting the Rotunda during the holidays. That’s because Christmas at the Rotunda was something to remember.

In 1953, as part of its 50th anniversary celebration, Ford decided to give the Rotunda and its exhibits a complete renovation. The new industrial exhibits and changing car displays were popular. But its biggest draw became the annual Christmas Fantasy.

Visitors would be greeted by a massive Christmas display, including incredible lighting, a 35-foot Christmas tree, and a wall display of more than 2,000 dolls, dressed by members of the Ford Girls’ Club. These would later be distributed by the Goodfellows to underprivileged children.

Ford Rotunda. (Henry Ford Collection)

The Rotunda’s Christmas Fantasy became perhaps best known for its elaborate animated scenes. These were created by Silvestri Art Manufacturing Company of Chicago, who specialized in department store window displays. Santa’s Workshop—an early and ongoing display—featured a group of tiny elves working along a moving toy assembly line.

And of course, kids would line up to see Santa.

The Henry Ford has so much more on the Christmas Fantasy here. Check it out!

Up in flames

November 8, 1962, was the last day the Ford Rotunda stood.

The Rotunda burned down the next day, when a waterproofing sealant of hot tar accidentally caught the roof on fire. The intense heat caused the building to collapse and burn to the ground in less than an hour. Fortunately, a wing housing the Ford Motor Company Archives survived.

Ford Rotunda. (Henry Ford Collection)

The price to rebuild the Rotunda was near $15 million. The company opted to raze the building’s remains instead.

The site of the Rotunda was vacant until 2000 when the Michigan Technical Education Center (M-TEC) opened.

(Special thanks to The Henry Ford for the photos and for the historical information. They’re awesome.)

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