Ford Rotunda: From Deco Dream to Flaming Fiasco

Ford Rotunda: From Deco Dream to Flaming Fiasco

Ford Motor Company originally built the Albert Kahn-designed Rotunda for the 1933/ 34 Chicago World’s Fair under the supervision of a young Edsel Ford. The fair was better known as the ‘Century of Progress Exposition’, and more than 40 million people visited it. Ford even handed out a soybean shift knob with the Rotunda embossed on the top. The Rotunda was constructed of a steel framework, over which Indiana Limestone was attached, and the building resembled a stack of four gears, each decreasing in size toward the top. It was roughly the same height as a ten story building, measured 210 feet tall, and featured a center courtyard and two additional wing buildings anchored to the center section.

After the fair ended, Ford had the Rotunda disassembled and moved to Dearborn, Michigan, where it took 18 months to rebuild on a site directly across from the Ford Motor Company Central Office Building. The architecturally-inspiring Rotunda was opened to the public in Dearborn on May 14, 1936, and immediately became a top attraction. Featuring car history and automotive technology displays, it was sort of the “Ford Show and Tell” building of it’s time.

In 1952 the building was remodeled, and the center courtyard section was capped with a geodesic dome roof section weighing 18,000 pounds. The Rotunda reopened to the public in June of 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, which did look a bit like an art deco cake to some observers. The ultra-modern Rotunda was a huge attraction, becoming the fifth most popular United States tourist destination during the 1950s, with nearly a half million people visiting the annual Christmas Fantasy held during the Holidays each year. Ford was quick to capitalize on the popularity of the Rotunda to make glitzy new model introductions, and as a strong backdrop to photograph its latest offerings.

While working on the 1962 Christmas Fantasy display, tragedy struck when an employee inside the Rotunda noticed smoke and flames up near the roof. Roof repairmen were weatherproofing the geodesic dome panels with a transparent waterproof sealer that was being heated to make it easier to spray. The highly flammable vapors ignited from a propane heater on the roof, and within minutes the entire roof structure was on fire. The plastic and fiberglass materials supported by an aluminum frame burned quickly. Even though the Fire Department responded to the alarm 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 collapse. 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. In less than an hour, the Rotunda burned to the ground and only the foundation remained.

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. Truly a very sad day in Ford history, and the sad end for one of the most famous buildings in the world during its time. The ground where the Rotunda was located stood vacant for many years, until the November 2000 ground breaking of the Michigan Technical Education Center (M-TEC).

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