Past Forward

Activating The Henry Ford Archive of Innovation

Posts Tagged ford rotunda

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.

Sketch of the Ford Exhibition Building for the Century of Progress Exposition, 1933-1934

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 “Out of the Earth” exhibit featured various natural materials that went into making Ford V-8’s, shown through a cutaway at top.

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.

Ford Rotunda Construction Site, 1935

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.

Postcard, "Ford Rotunda, Administration Building and the River Rouge Plant, Dearborn, Michigan," 1937

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.

New Ford Cars for 1940 Displayed in Ford Rotunda, Dearborn, Michigan, 1939 (http://bit.ly/1axUGrU)

Courtyard inside Ford Rotunda Building, Dearborn, Michigan, 1937 (http://bit.ly/130S40k)

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.

Brochure, "The Ford Rotunda, Fifty Years Forward on the American Road" 1953 (http://bit.ly/14nWeou)

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.

Ford Rotunda with Newly Added Dome, Dearborn, Michigan, circa 1953 (http://bit.ly/13qAOFb)

Workers Assembling the Geodesic Dome Roof on Ford Rotunda Building, Dearborn, Michigan, 1954 (http://bit.ly/114UFJd)

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.”

Ford Falcon Automobile and Christmas Tree Inside the Ford Rotunda Building, Dearborn, Michigan, 1959

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.

Fire at the Ford Rotunda Building, Dearborn, Michigan, 1962

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.

Dearborn, Ford Rotunda