The Ford Rotunda: Gateway to the Rouge
In 1936, Ford’s World’s Fair Exposition found a permanent home in Dearborn and became one of the most popular tourist attractions in the United States.
“FORD will participate in the 1934 World’s Fair at Chicago!” exclaimed the March edition of the Ford News. That same spring, Ford Motor Company opened the doors on a new pavilion. Sitting on 11 acres of land along the Lake Michigan shoreline, the rotunda exhibition welcomed nearly 50 million people during its two-year run.
By late 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 building 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 from the Ford Administration Building. The original plasterboard siding was removed and replaced with Indiana limestone. The newly situated Rotunda would also feature the original "Roads of the World" outdoor exhibition.
After more than a year of construction, the new Rotunda was opened on May 14, 1936. The Rotunda welcomed nearly 1,000,000 visitors 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 the transition to wartime efforts, 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 World War II, 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 building 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. A crowd of people braved stormy weather to watch as the Rotunda, decorated like a huge birthday cake, re-opened 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 twelve months after re-opening. Visitors were able to see 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. However, 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 viewed the latest car models.
On November 9, 1962, as the Rotunda was preparing for the Christmas Fantasy, a fire started on the roof of the building where workers were making repairs. The fire quickly burned through and dropped onto the Christmas decorations. Fire crews from Dearborn and the Rouge were unable to stop the flames, and the Rotunda was destroyed.