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DEARBORN - Fifty years ago today, Ford’s Rotunda, the home of many holiday memories for families living in the Detroit area, caught fire and was destroyed.
Ford Motor Company first opened the doors on a new pavilion at the Chicago World's Fair in the spring of 1934. Called the Ford Exposition Building, it sat on 12 acres along the Lake Michigan shoreline. Near the center of the 900 foot long building stood a 12 story "rotunda." Essentially a hollow cylinder, the rotunda had at its center an open courtyard, featuring a 20 foot-diameter, 12-ton, rotating globe called the "Ford World." Display areas around the courtyard displayed the "Drama of Transportation" – vehicles from an Egyptian chariot, to horse-drawn carriages, to the latest automobiles of the day. By the close of the fair, more than 12 million people had seen the Ford exhibit.
Late in 1934, it was announced that following the fair, the Rotunda would be re-located to Dearborn to act as a visitor center and starting point for public tours of the Rouge. The original architect, Albert Kahn, was called upon to update the design for its new purpose. One thousand tons of structural steel as well as many of the interior displays were shipped from Chicago and reassembled on a 13 ½ acre site across Schaefer Road. from the Ford Administration Building. The original plaster-board siding was removed and replaced with Indiana limestone to match the Administration Building. The newly-situated Rotunda also featured the "Roads of the World"– a 3/4 mile track replicating 19 famous highways, where visitors would be driven in the latest Ford vehicles.
After more than a year of construction, the new Rotunda was opened on May 14, 1936, with Fred Waring's band playing for the more than 22,000 visitors. Ford expected 100,000 visitors during the remainder of 1936, but in fact, attendance averaged nearly 1 million per year until it was closed to the public in early 1942. Movie stars, celebrities, business leaders, heads of state and millions of ordinary people came to learn about and to celebrate the Ford Motor Company.
During World War II, the Rotunda served as office space and a school for the Army Air Corps, with barracks set up across Rotunda Drive. The theater was used as a movie hall to entertain the soldiers. Following the war, the Rotunda was used for dealer presentations, press events and other business meetings. In 1946, ten young army officers, soon to be known as The Whiz Kids, first met Henry Ford II over lunch at the Rotunda.
In 1953, the Rotunda underwent a major renovation in anticipation of re-opening to the public. New displays were installed, and facilities were improved to better handle large crowds. The central courtyard was covered over with a light-weight geodesic dome, designed by Buckminster Fuller. More than 20,000 people braved stormy weather to watch as the Rotunda, decorated like a huge birthday cake, re-opened to the public on the evening of June 16, 1953 – as the culmination of the company's 50th Anniversary celebration.
Nearly 1½ million people visited the Rotunda to see the displays, ride the cars, and tour the Rouge in the first 12 months after re-opening. Visitors saw how a car was designed, how steel was made and how an assembly plant worked. In 1958, the new Continental was introduced to the press under a 100-foot-tall model of the Eiffel Tower. In 1959, just after Alaska became the 49th state, a display was built featuring mountains, fishermen and a stuffed grizzly bear. Flower shows and custom car shows were also held within the Rotunda's walls. But among the most memorable displays was the annual Christmas Fantasy. Opening just after Thanksgiving, there were typically 60,000 or more guests on the opening Sunday. Children could visit with Santa or look at his workshop, while the rest of the family looked at the latest cars.
In early November 1962, the staff was busy setting up the Christmas decorations, but it was not to be. On Nov. 9, a fire started on the roof where workers were making repairs. The fire quickly burned through the roof and dropped onto the Christmas decorations. Fire crews from Dearborn and the Rouge were unable to stop the flames, and the Rotunda was destroyed. All that remained was a charred shell and the memories of more than 16 ½ million people who had visited since 1936.