It lasted only nine years, from 1953 to 1961. Yet, many long-time Dearborn residents remember the Ford Rotunda’s Christmas Fantasy with nostalgia and a fierce sense of pride. After all, this great extravaganza of all things Christmas was staged in their own community by the company that Henry Ford—their favorite hometown-boy-made-good—had founded.
What was the Christmas Fantasy and why was it so memorable? The story starts back in 1934, at the Century of Progress Exposition in Chicago.
When Henry Ford decided that his company needed to have a showy building at the 1934 Century of Progress Exposition, he turned to Albert Kahn, his favorite architect. Kahn had designed Ford’s Highland Park Plant, Rouge Plant, and the classically-styled Dearborn Inn. But, for this exposition building, Kahn broke completely from traditional architectural styles and designed an imposing cylindrical structure that simulated a graduated cluster of internally-meshed gears.
By the time the Century of Progress Exposition closed its doors in 1934, Henry Ford decided that the central gear-shaped structure would be perfect for displaying industrial exhibits back home in Dearborn. He intended to re-erect the structure in Greenfield Village, but his son Edsel persuaded him that it would serve a far better purpose as a visitor center and starting point for the company’s popular Rouge Plant tours. The newly named Ford Rotunda found a suitable home near the Rouge Plant, across from the Ford Administration Building on Schaefer Road.
In 1953, as part of its 50th anniversary celebration, Ford Motor Company executives decided to give the Rotunda and its exhibits a complete renovation. The new industrial exhibits and changing car displays were popular. But its biggest draw became the annual Christmas Fantasy.
A Walk through the Christmas Fantasy
Just inside the entrance to the Rotunda, the holiday mood was immediately set by an enormous live Christmas tree. This 35-foot-tall tree glistened with thousands of colored electric lights.
Stretching along one wall was the display of more than 2,000 dolls, dressed by members of the Ford Girls’ Club. These would later be distributed by the Goodfellows to underprivileged children.
The Rotunda’s Christmas Fantasy became perhaps best known for its elaborate animated scenes. These were created by Silvestri Art Manufacturing Company of Chicago, who specialized in department store window displays. Santa’s Workshop—an early and ongoing display—featured a group of tiny elves working along a moving toy assembly line.
Over the years, these scenes became ever-more numerous and elaborate. Life-size storybook figures like Hansel and Gretel, Robin Hood, Wee Willie Winkie, and Humpty Dumpty pivoted back and forth in atmospheric Christmas and winter settings. In 1957, two animated scenes were added to the doll display: a Beauty Shop, where two beauty-operator elves “glamorized” a pair of dolls and a Dress Salon in which mechanical elves operated a sewing machine and iron. More displays were added in 1958. In the Pixie Candy Kitchen, animated workers turned out large chocolate-covered delicacies. A Bake Shop featured animated bakers kneading dough, trimming pies, mixing cakes, and baking bread and cookies. An animated fiddler and banjo player accompanied a group of square-dancing elves in a barn dance scene. In 1960, jungle animals in cages with peppermint-stick bars joined the other animated scene
An “outstanding new attraction” in 1958 was the 15,000-piece miniature animated circus, created as a hobby over a 16-year period by John Zweifel, from Evanston, Illinois. This hand-carved circus came complete with performing animals, a circus train, sideshow attractions, carnival barkers, and bareback riders. Larger-size animated circus animals and a clown band provided the backdrop for this popular attraction.
In the Rotunda’s walled-off inner court, the mood became more reverent. At the entrance to this court, visitors passed through a cathedral façade, with carillon music ringing from 40-foot spires. Inside the court was a Nativity scene with life-size figures. During an era in which stores and other businesses were closed on Sundays, this scene was considered “so beautifully and reverently executed” that the Detroit Council of Churches allowed Ford Motor Company to keep the Christmas Fantasy open on Sundays during the Christmas season. An organ set alongside the Nativity scene provided Christmas music while Detroit-area choral groups gave concerts here periodically.
Of course, visiting Santa was a highly anticipated activity for children at the Rotunda. Santa awaited each eager child high up inside a colorful multi-story castle, accessible by a curved ramp.
Finally, a visit to the Christmas Fantasy was not complete without a viewing of Christmas cartoons in the Rotunda’s newly renovated auditorium and a stop to see Santa’s live reindeer.
Up in Flames
Tragically, the Ford Rotunda burned down on November 9, 1962, when a waterproofing sealant of hot tar accidentally caught the roof on fire. The intense heat caused the building to collapse and burn to the ground in less than an hour. Fortunately, a wing housing the Ford Motor Company Archives survived.
Most of the already-installed Christmas Fantasy became a charred ruin. The doll display and miniature circus had not arrived yet. To help local residents come to terms with this tragic loss, Ford Motor Company invited the public to a tree-lighting ceremony that year in front of its Central Office Building on Michigan Avenue (now Ford World Headquarters). A Press Release for the event announced that Santa would be on hand to turn on the 70,000 lights that decorated the 75-foot Christmas tree—the tallest tree they could find for the occasion.
The Ford Rotunda’s Christmas Fantasy was never revived. But it lives on in vivid memory to the many people who had seen it. In fact, to hear long-time Dearbornites talk about it, you’d think that it had happened only yesterday!
Check out this short film to catch a glimpse of the 1955 Rotunda Christmas Fantasy.
Donna R. Braden is Curator of Public Life at The Henry Ford.