Below a 90-foot dome a half-century ago, dozens of employees were busy as elves preparing the Ford Rotunda’s annual display of Christmas folklore, religious figures, and Santa’s workshop. Outside it was a gray, overcast day in early November — unseasonably warm, not even topcoat weather.
The Rotunda began as a late entry to the 1933-34 Chicago World’s Fair. Stung by reports of an elaborate Chevrolet display, Henry Ford, at 70 years old, invited fair executive Rufus Dawes to Dearborn to discuss the inclusion of an exhibit hall along the Lake Michigan shoreline. Its creation was formally announced on Feb. 12, 1934, and the massive hall was completed in just four months (the exterior was made of plaster).
Following the world exhibition, the Rotunda was dismantled and shipped to Dearborn, where it was re-erected along Schaefer Road under the direction of famed Detroit architect Albert Kahn. A sheath of Indiana limestone, made to appear as a giant set of gears, formed the outer walls. A north wing housed the Ford Archives, while across the street stood the Ford Administration Building (the automaker’s world headquarters at the time).
In its first seven days after re-opening in May 1936, the Rotunda recorded 61,846 visitors. Over the ensuing 26 years, some 16 million guests from around the world paid a visit, including heads of state and celebrities. The Rotunda, from which guided tours of the giant Rouge industrial complex began, was the fifth most popular tourist attraction in the nation in the 1950s.
One display, called Drama of Transportation, was a rolling history lesson of Egyptian chariots, horse-drawn carriages, trains, and, naturally, Ford’s latest vehicles. Another attraction was Roads of the World, where guests rode a 3.4-mile track that replicated 19 famous highways, including Italy’s Appian Way and India’s Grand Trunk Road.
Due to World War II and the resulting conversion of Ford’s operations to civilian use, the Rotunda closed in 1942. It reopened in 1953 for the automaker’s 50th anniversary celebration. As part of the makeover, Buckminster Fuller designed a geodesic dome to cover the building’s courtyard.
On Nov. 9, 1962, while the Christmas displays were being prepared, a Rotunda employee saw a flaming blob drop from the roof, where contractors were sealing the edges of transparent aluminum roof panels. Almost instantly, the blob ignited the delicate displays of full-size camels and gaily-wrapped faux Christmas packages.
Employees rushed for the fire extinguishers. There was no point to unreeling the building’s fire hoses, because the water lines had been turned off in anticipation of impending freezing temperatures.
As more flaming blobs fell from the skylight, someone telephoned Ford Security — the company’s policy in emergencies — rather than making a direct call to the city’s fire department.
The ensuing few minutes’ delay probably wouldn’t have made any difference in the outcome. In less than an hour, the celebrated Rotunda, save for the Ford Archives, was a smoldering pile of twisted steel, fallen walls, and burned-out Fords, Mercurys, and Lincolns. “I’ll never forget it,” recalls Bob Harnar, an assistant manager of Lincoln-Mercury’s public relations staff, who worked across the street at the time. “We had grandstand seats.”
Miraculously, only one person of the more than 50 people in the building was injured. Dearborn’s fire marshal concluded the combination of a faulty material called Vaporseal, which had a low “flash point,” and careless procedures for heating and applying it, caused the fire. The financial loss was estimated at $15 million, but the community’s loss was immeasurable. db