Some of you may have heard of or even visited the Ford Rotunda when it was here in Dearborn. But you may not know its true history.
It began when Henry Ford wanted his company to be featured in a show-stopping building at the 1934 Chicago Century of Progress Exposition. So he turned to his favorite architect, Albert Kahn—designer of the Highland Park Plant, the Rouge Plant, and the Dearborn Inn. Kahn was noted for his functional yet elegant architectural designs in Detroit and on the University of Michigan campus in Ann Arbor. He characteristically did not hone to one particular architecture style, but chose a style that best suited each building’s function.
For the Ford Exposition building in Chicago, Kahn broke completely from architectural styles and chose to symbolize Ford’s industrial might through an imposing cylindrical building whose outer walls simulated a graduated cluster of internally-meshed gears. The building was immense, rising 12 stories. Nine thousand floodlights, hidden around the circular exterior, bathed the building in a rainbow of colors. A torchlight effect emanated from the center of the building, sending a beam of light into the sky that, on a clear night, could be seen for 20 miles.
Noted industrial designer Walter Dorwin Teague designed the interior of the Ford Exposition building—both within the gear-shaped cylindrical building and in the two wings that projected from each side. Teague’s streamlined designs brought drama and coherence to the building’s space and exhibits.
The Ford building became the attraction of the 1934 Century of Progress Exposition, revitalizing flagging attendance during the second year of the fair.
Chicago’s Century of Progress Exposition closed its doors at the end of 1934. But Ford Motor Company decided to bring the central gear-shaped structure back to Dearborn. There it lived out its second life as the Ford Rotunda.
Where to locate the new Rotunda building? There was actually some thought of reconstructing it in Greenfield Village, but it found a comfortable home across from the Ford Administration Building. There, it served as the reception center for Ford’s highly visited Rouge Plant.
Albert Kahn supervised the reconstruction, suggesting that the original sheet rock walls—intended for temporary use—be replaced by stronger and supposedly fire-resistant limestone. Noted landscape architect Jens Jensen—another of Henry Ford’s favorites—supervised the landscaping around the building.
On the Rotunda’s opening day, May 14, 1936, 27,000 people visited the exhibits there. It would remain one of the top industrial attractions in the country for the next quarter century.
The Ford Rotunda began its third life in 1952, when Ford Motor Company executives decided that the now-outdated building and its exhibits needed a complete renovation.
A significant addition was the new roof designed by Buckminster Fuller. The inner court, now put to more extensive and varied uses, needed a roof. But the building, originally designed to be open-air, would not support the weight of a conventional roof. Fuller’s geodesic dome design seemed to perfectly solve the problem, promising to be both durable and extra-lightweight.
On June 16, 1953, the Ford Rotunda re-opened to the public. Between 1953 and 1962, it became one of the Midwest’s principal tourist attractions, annually drawing more than one-and-a-half million visitors. Ford took advantage of the Rotunda’s popularity to call attention to new car models. But its biggest draw was the annual “Christmas Fantasy.”
Sadly, the Ford Rotunda burned down on November 9, 1962, while the building was being prepped for the annual Christmas show. A waterproof sealer that was to be sprayed on the geodesic dome panels caught on fire. The company decided not to rebuild. Today, only Rotunda Drive in Dearborn serves as a reminder of this once-iconic and unique building.
Donna R. Braden, Curator of Public Life, learned all about the Ford Rotunda when she put together the “Ford at the Fair” cases outside the “Designing Tomorrow” exhibition in Henry Ford Museum.