In Dearborn, Michigan, across Ford World Headquarters, where is now the Michigan Technical Education Center, there stood the visitor center of Ford Motor Company. It was a circular building ten stories high resembling a stack of internally-meshed gears, each decreasing in size towards the top where a geodesic dome rested. Two wings flanked out from the sides anchoring the steel-framed dome in place.
Ford Rotunda was once America’s fifth most popular tourist attraction ahead of such places like the Yellowstone Park, Mount Vernon, the Washington Monument and the Statue of Liberty. The Rotunda was originally conceived in Chicago when Henry Ford decided that his company should be featured in a show-stopping building for the 1933 World Fair, “Century of Progress Exposition”. So he turned to his favorite architect, Albert Kahn, who was known for his functional yet elegant architectural designs in Detroit and on the University of Michigan campus in Ann Arbor. Albert Kahn also designed many of the company’s plant and buildings including the Highland Park Plant, the Rouge Plant, both of which are now National Historic Landmarks.
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The Ford Pavilion and the Ford Exposition Building, as it was called then, was 900 feet long with a 12-story glass rotunda at its center. Nine thousand floodlights, hidden around the circular exterior, bathed the building in a rainbow of colors. From the center of the building, beams of light were projected into the sky that, on a clear night, could be seen for 20 miles.
During the two years the fair ran, the Ford Pavilion was visited by over 12 million visitors. After the fair ended, the Rotunda was disassembled and moved to Dearborn, Michigan, and erected directly across from Ford Motor Company's Central Office Building to serve as a visitor center and starting point for the company’s popular Rouge Plant tours. The building was renamed Ford Rotunda.
The Rotunda immediately became a huge attraction drawing not only common people but many movie stars, celebrities, business leaders, and heads of state who came to see the company’s latest cars and the elaborate shows Ford organized. The biggest draw was the annual Christmas displays during the holidays. The interior of the Rotunda was transformed into a spectacular Christmas fair with a 35-foot tall glistening Christmas tree, a doll display with more than 2,000 dolls, and elaborate animated scenes featuring life-sized, moving storybook figures like Hansel and Gretel, Robin Hood, Wee Willie Winkie, and Humpty Dumpty. New attractions were added each year. The 1958 decorations boasted of a 15,000-piece miniature animated circus, for instance.
It was while preparing Ford Rotunda for the 1962 Christmas Display, a workman accidently overturned a firepot on the building’s highly inflammable tar roof setting the entire building on fire. In less than an hour, Ford Rotunda had burned to the ground.
The fire caused an estimated damage of $15 million, equivalent to nearly $115.5 million in 2013. The company decided not to spend any more money, and razed the building’s remains instead. The ground where the Rotunda was stayed vacant for many years, until 2000 when the Michigan Technical Education Center was opened.
Ford Rotunda with Newly Added Dome, Dearborn, Michigan, circa 1953. Photo credit: www.thehenryford.org
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Ford building at the Century of Progress Exposition, Chicago, Illinois, 1934. Photo credit: www.thehenryford.org
New Ford Cars for 1940 Displayed in Ford Rotunda, Dearborn, Michigan, 1939. Photo credit: www.thehenryford.org
The “Out of the Earth” exhibit featured various natural materials that went into making Ford V-8’s, shown through a cutaway at top. Photo credit: www.thehenryford.org
Courtyard inside Ford Rotunda Building, Dearborn, Michigan, 1937. Photo credit: www.thehenryford.org
A 1937 postcard showing Ford Rotunda. Photo credit: www.thehenryford.org
The Christmas tree and doll display at the 1955 Christmas Fantasy. The large banners of the Rouge Plant on the wall behind the doll displays were part of the Rotunda’s regular exhibits. Photo credit: www.thehenryford.org
Visitors view dolls from the Ford Motor Company Girls’ Club “Doll Dressing Contest,” 1958. Photo credit: www.thehenryford.org
Santa’s Workshop, 1960. Photo credit: www.thehenryford.org
The majestic cathedral entrance to the inner court, where the Nativity scene was displayed. The Nativity scene can be seen through the entrance. Photo credit: www.thehenryford.org
Fire at the Ford Rotunda Building, Dearborn, Michigan, 1962. Photo credit: Michigan in Pictures
Fire at the Ford Rotunda Building, Dearborn, Michigan, 1962. Photo credit: www.thehenryford.org
Photo credit: Michigan in Pictures
Photo credit: Michigan in Pictures
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