The Ford Rotunda was originally built as an exhibit building for the 1933 Chicago World’s Fair, known as the Century of Progress Exposition.
After the fair closed, Ford had the Rotunda disassembled and moved to Dearborn, Michigan, where it took 18 months to rebuild on a site directly across from Ford Motor Company’s Central Office Building, Ford’s “World Headquarters” of the time.
The Rotunda was opened to the public in Dearborn on May 14, 1936, and immediately became a top attraction.
During World War II, the Rotunda was closed to the public, and underwent extensive remodeling in 1952, at which time the center courtyard section was enclosed by the addition of a geodesic dome roof section weighing 18,000 pounds. The Rotunda reopened to the public on June 16, 1953, as part of Ford’s 50th Anniversary Celebration. A highlight of this celebration included 50 huge Birthday candles, mounted and lit along the rim of the Rotunda.
The ultra-modern Rotunda was a huge attraction, becoming the fifth most popular United States tourist destination during the 1950s. In fact, only Niagara Falls, the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, The Smithsonian Institution, and the Lincoln Memorial were more popular. Yellowstone, Mount Vernon, the Washington Monument, and the Statue of Liberty all received less visitors.
The annual Christmas Fantasy held during the Holiday season was partially responsible for the Rotunda’s popularity, with nearly a half million people visiting during 1953, the very first year it was held. A giant Christmas tree was always a spectacular thing to see, and the Christmas Fantasy became more spectacular each year. Highlights from various years included animated characters from children’s stories, a 1/2″ per foot scale 15,000-piece miniature circus with 800 animals, 30 tents, and 435 toy figurines of circus performers and customers. In all, nearly 6 million people visited the Christmas Fantasy during the nine years it was held at the Rotunda.
Ford always utilized the popularity of the Rotunda to call attention to new model introductions, and as a special place to photograph its automobiles and hold special events. The Edsel would become one of Ford’s few marketing mistakes, being introduced in a depressed economy in the late 1950s, at about the time when Americans began to want smaller, more economical cars. The dawn of the American compact car was about to begin. Ford discontinued the Edsel shortly after the 1960 model year introductions were held, making the Edsel available for just over 2 years.
With work well under way to make the 1962 Christmas Fantasy the best one ever, tragedy struck. Shortly after 1 p.m. on Friday, November 9, 1962, an employee inside the Rotunda noticed smoke and flames up near the roof. Roof repairmen were up on the roof weatherproofing the geodesic dome panels with a transparent waterproof sealer. The sealer was being heated to make it easier to spray, and the flammable vapors ignited accidentally from a propane heater that was in use on the roof. Once the sealer caught fire, the fire spread quickly, and within minutes the entire roof structure was on fire. The composite plastic and fiberglass materials supported by an aluminum frame burned quickly. Workers on the roof scurried down to safety, while the alarm was sounded and the Rotunda was evacuated. Even though the Fire Department arrived quickly, it was too late to save the building. The roof of the building collapsed before the firemen arrived, and several firemen barely escaped when the tops of the walls started to fall. Once the fire reached the highly combustible Christmas Fantasy display which was being set up, it was out of control. Flames shot 50 feet in the air, and thick smoke could be seen for miles.
During the period of time the Rotunda was open to the public, a total of 18,019,340 people toured the facility. The Rotunda saw the introduction of the Lincoln Continental, the Ford Thunderbird, and both the introduction and discontinuance of the Edsel.
All that was saved of the Christmas Fantasy was the Christmas tree itself, which hadn’t been placed in the Rotunda at the time, and the miniature circus figurines and props, which were still packed away from the previous year. The Nativity scene, for which Ford had received a commendation in 1958 from the National Council of Churches for emphasizing the true spirit of Christmas, and which the Council had determined to be the largest display of its kind in the United States, was a total loss.
It was estimated that it would have taken $15 million to rebuild the Ford Rotunda. Ford chose not to.
A sad end for a building that was filled with many happy memories, and was one of the most famous buildings in the world during its time.
Michigan Every Day.
Ford Rotunda from Michigan In pictures, December 12, 2009.
Jenny Nolan, “When flames consumed a Christmas fantasy”, Detroit News, June 13, 1996.