It was one of the top tourist attractions in the Unites States, just behind, Niagara Falls, the Smokey Mountains, the Smithsonian, and the Lincoln Memorial, but ahead of the Statue of Liberty and Empire State Building. Every year during the 40s and 50s, millions of Americans would hop into their automobiles and make for this midwestern mecca, celebrating, what else, the American automobile.
The Ford Rotunda was originally built for the 1934 Century of Progress exposition in Chicago, back at the dawn of an era when there would soon be a gas station on every corner. The Rotunda itself had no corners, being round. It was 130 feet high and designed to look like a stack of gears surrounding a large courtyard. When the fair ended, Ford had the building disassembled and moved to Dearborn, Michigan.
The Rotunda was bigger and better after being reassembled at its new permanent location. Ten stories high, it looked like a stack of four stacked gears decreasing in size to the top. Inside the Rotunda were murals showing the River Rouge assembly line. On the grounds of the Rotunda, 19 reproductions depicted what Ford called the Roads of the World: the Appian Way, the Grand Truck Road, the Oregon Trail and Detroit’s Woodward Avenue where visitors would be driven in the latest Ford vehicles. In 1952, an 18,000-pound dome was added over the courtyard, the first real-world application of inventor R. Buckminster Fuller’s geodesic dome.
Ford used the building to showcase its line of automobiles including the introduction of new models. The Continental was unveiled here and so was the Edsel.
Beginning in 1953, the Rotunda featured an elaborate Christmas show featuring a gigantic tree, Santa’s workshop and a life-size nativity that the National Council of Churches called the “largest and finest” in the country. Each year’s installation had a different theme such as the 1958 display boasting a 15,000-piece hand-carved miniature circus.
The 1962 show was scheduled to be a woodland tableau featuring 2,500 dolls. On November 9, while workmen were preparing the Rotunda for that display, someone was careless with fire on the building’s tar roof (where’s Smokey when you need him?). Just after lunch, employees spotted flames on the ceiling of the main floor. Within minutes, the octagonal top of the building resembled a huge chimney, with smoke and fumes pouring out. Workers evacuated, and the building burned to the ground in less than an hour as would-be visitors watched in horror from a cafeteria across the street.