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Sun sets on the Ford Rotunda

Sun sets on the Ford Rotunda


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On November 8, 1962, the famous Ford Rotunda stands in Dearborn, Michigan for the last time: the next day, it is destroyed in a massive fire. Some 1.5 million people visited the Rotunda each year, making it the fifth most popular tourist attraction in the U.S. (behind Niagara Falls, Smokey Mountain National Park, the Smithsonian, and the Lincoln Memorial).

Ford had commissioned the Rotunda for the 1933 Century of Progress exposition in Chicago and had moved it to Dearborn when the fair ended. It was 130 feet high and designed to look like a stack of gears surrounding a 92-foot-wide courtyard. (In 1952, an 18,000-pound dome was added over the courtyard; it was the first real-world application of inventor R. Buckminster Fuller’s lightweight geodesic dome.) Outside, the building’s steel frame was covered in 114,000 square feet of Indiana limestone; inside, the walls were covered in murals showing the River Rouge assembly line. On the Rotunda’s grounds were 19 “reproductions” of what Ford called the Roads of the World: the Appian Way, the Grand Trunk Road, the Oregon Trail and Detroit’s Woodward Avenue.

Many people who grew up near Detroit during the 1950s remember the Rotunda for its spectacular Christmas displays. Every year since 1953, it had had a 37-foot-tall tree, an elaborate Santa’s workshop and a life-size Nativity that the National Council of Churches called the “largest and finest” in the country. Each year’s installation had a different theme: the 1958 display boasted a 15,000-piece hand-carved miniature circus, for instance, and the 1962 show was scheduled to be a woodland tableau featuring 2,500 dolls.

While workmen were preparing the Rotunda for that display, someone overturned a firepot or heater on the building’s tar roof. Just after lunch, an employee spotted flames on the ceiling of the main floor. “Within a few minutes after the first alarm,” The New York Times reported, “the octagonal top of the building resembled a huge chimney, with smoke and fumes pouring out.” Workers evacuated, and the building burned to the ground in less than an hour. A group of schoolchildren visiting the Rotunda from South Bend watched in horror from a cafeteria across the street.

It would have cost at least $15 million to rebuild the Rotunda. The company opted not to spend the money, and razed the building’s remains instead.


Ford Rotunda - Glory and Tragedy

The Ford Rotunda was originally built as an exhibit building for the 1933 Chicago World's Fair, known as the Century of Progress Exposition

Ford Rotunda at Chicago World's Fair - 1933

Ford Motor Company originally built the Rotunda, designed by Albert Kahn, for the 1933 Chicago World's Fair, which opened in May of 1933 and ran for two years. Known as the Century of Progress Exposition, more than 40 million people visited.

After the fair closed, Ford had the Rotunda disassembled and moved to Dearborn, Michigan, where it took 18 months to rebuild on a site directly across from Ford Motor Company's Central Office Building, Ford's "World Headquarters" of the time, (although Ford didn't call it that until the building that currently houses it was built).

Constructed of a steel framework, over which Indiana Limestone was attached, the building resembled a stack of four gears, each decreasing in size toward the top. The Rotunda was the equivalent height of a ten story building, measured 210 feet at the base, and featured a center courtyard with a diameter of 92 feet. Two additional wing buildings anchored the center section.

The Rotunda was opened to the public in Dearborn on May 14, 1936, and immediately became a top attraction.

During World War II, the Rotunda was closed to the public, and underwent extensive remodeling in 1952, at which time the center courtyard section was enclosed by the addition of a geodesic dome roof section weighing 18,000 pounds. The Rotunda reopened to the public on June 16, 1953, as part of Ford's 50th Anniversary Celebration. A highlight of this celebration included 50 huge Birthday candles, mounted and lit along the rim of the Rotunda.

The ultra-modern Rotunda was a huge attraction, becoming the fifth most popular United States tourist destination during the 1950s. In fact, only Niagara Falls, the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, The Smithsonian Institution, and the Lincoln Memorial were more popular. Yellowstone, Mount Vernon, the Washington Monument, and the Statue of Liberty all received less visitors.

The annual Christmas Fantasy held during the Holiday season was partially responsible for the Rotunda's popularity, with nearly a half million people visiting during 1953, the very first year it was held. A giant Christmas tree was always a spectacular thing to see, and the Christmas Fantasy became more spectacular each year. Highlights from various years included animated characters from children's stories, a 1/2" per foot scale 15,000-piece miniature circus with 800 animals, 30 tents, and 435 toy figurines of circus performers and customers. In all, nearly 6 million people visited the Christmas Fantasy during the nine years it was held at the Rotunda.

Ford always utilized the popularity of the Rotunda to call attention to new model introductions, and as a special place to photograph its automobiles and hold special events. At right, the new 1958 Edsels are shown in the Rotunda. The Edsel would become one of Ford's few marketing mistakes, being introduced in a depressed economy in the late 1950s, at about the time when Americans began to want smaller, more economical cars. The dawn of the American compact car was about to begin. Ford discontinued the Edsel shortly after the 1960 model year introductions were held, making the Edsel available for just over 2 years.

With work well under way to make the 1962 Christmas Fantasy the best one ever, tragedy struck. Shortly after 1 p.m. on Friday, November 9, 1962, an employee inside the Rotunda noticed smoke and flames up near the roof. Roof repairmen were up on the roof weatherproofing the geodesic dome panels with a transparent waterproof sealer. The sealer was being heated to make it easier to spray, and the flammable vapors ignited accidentally from a propane heater that was in use on the roof. Once the sealer caught fire, the fire spread quickly, and within minutes the entire roof structure was on fire. The composite plastic and fiberglass materials supported by an aluminum frame burned quickly. Workers on the roof scurried down to safety, while the alarm was sounded and the Rotunda was evacuated. Even though the Fire Department arrived quickly, it was too late to save the building. The roof of the building collapsed before the firemen arrived, and several firemen barely escaped when the tops of the walls started to fall. Once the fire reached the highly combustible Christmas Fantasy display which was being set up, it was out of control. Flames shot 50 feet in the air, and thick smoke could be seen for miles.

In less than an hour, the Rotunda had burned to the ground. Little was left, other than the foundation. Fortunately, there were no serious injuries, although a Ford Building Engineer suffered from smoke inhalation when he rushed up to the roof shortly after the alarm sounded.

During the period of time the Rotunda was open to the public, a total of 18,019,340 people toured the facility. The Rotunda saw the introduction of the Lincoln Continental, the Ford Thunderbird, and both the introduction and discontinuance of the Edsel.

All that was saved of the Christmas Fantasy was the Christmas tree itself, which hadn't been placed in the Rotunda at the time, and the miniature circus figurines and props, which were still packed away from the previous year. The Nativity scene, for which Ford had received a commendation in 1958 from the National Council of Churches for emphasizing the true spirit of Christmas, and which the Council had determined to be the largest display of its kind in the United States, was a total loss.

Truly a very sad day in Ford history, and the sad end of a structure that was filled with many happy memories, and was one of the most famous buildings in the world during its time. The official report from the fire department stated that the "Plastic dome on light aluminum construction over interior court of building collapsed spreading fire to combustable content (Christmas Fantasy display)." The ground where the Rotunda was located stood vacant for many years, until the November 20, 2000 ground breaking of the Michigan Technical Education Center (M-TEC).

AUTO BREVITY is a single-topic, brief look into automotive history from Automotive Mileposts.


Former site of the Ford Rotunda (Dearborn, Michigan)

Ford Motor Company originally built the Rotunda, designed by Albert Kahn, for the 1933 Chicago World's Fair, which opened in May of 1933 and ran for two years. Known as the Century of Progress Exposition, more than 40 million people visited. After the fair closed, Ford had the Rotunda disassembled and moved to Dearborn, Michigan, where it took 18 months to rebuild on a site directly across from Ford Motor Company's Central Office Building, Ford's "World Headquarters" of the time, (although Ford didn't call it that until the building that currently houses it was built). Constructed of a steel framework, over which Indiana Limestone was attached, the building resembled a stack of four gears, each decreasing in size towards the top. The Rotunda was the equivalent height of a ten story building, measured 210 feet at the base, and featured a center courtyard with a diameter of 92 feet. Two additional wing buildings anchored the center section. The Rotunda was opened to the public in Dearborn on May 14, 1936, and immediately became a top attraction.


Ford Rotunda at Chicago World's Fair - 1933
During World War II, the Rotunda was closed to the public, and underwent extensive remodeling in 1952, at which time the center courtyard section was enclosed by the addition of a geodesic dome roof section weighing 18,000 pounds. The Rotunda reopened to the public on June 16, 1953, as part of Ford's 50th Anniversary Celebration. A highlight of this celebration included 50 huge Birthday candles, mounted and lit along the rim of the Rotunda.

The ultra-modern Rotunda was a huge attraction, becoming the fifth most popular United States tourist destination during the 1950s. In fact, only Niagara Falls, the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, The Smithsonian Institution, and the Lincoln Memorial were more popular. Yellowstone, Mount Vernon, the Washington Monument, and the Statue of Liberty all received less visitors.

The annual Christmas Fantasy held during the Holiday season was partially responsible for the Rotunda's popularity, with nearly a half million people visiting during 1953, the very first year it was held. A giant Christmas tree was always a spectacular thing to see, and the Christmas Fantasy became more spectacular each year. Highlights from various years included animated characters from children's stories, a 1/2" per foot scale 15,000-piece miniature circus with 800 animals, 30 tents, and 435 toy figurines of circus performers and customers. In all, nearly 6 million people visited the Christmas Fantasy during the nine years it was held at the Rotunda.

Ford always utilized the popularity of the Rotunda to call attention to new model introductions, and as a special place to photograph its automobiles and hold special events. At right, the new 1958 Edsels are shown in the Rotunda. The Edsel would become one of Ford's few marketing mistakes, being introduced in a depressed economy in the late 1950s, at about the time when Americans began to want smaller, more economical cars. The dawn of the American compact car was about to begin. Ford discontinued the Edsel shortly after the 1960 model year introductions were held, making the Edsel available for just over 2 years.

With work well under way to make the 1962 Christmas Fantasy the best one ever, tragedy struck. Shortly after 1 p.m. on Friday, November 9, 1962, an employee inside the Rotunda noticed smoke and flames up near the roof. Roof repairmen were up on the roof weatherproofing it with hot tar. The tar caught fire, reportedly by a repairman's torch, and within minutes the entire roof structure was on fire. Workers on the roof scurried down to safety, while the alarm was sounded and the Rotunda was evacuated. Even though the Fire Department arrived quickly, it was too late to save the building. The roof of the building collapsed before the firemen arrived, and several firemen barely escaped when the tops of the walls started to fall. Flames shot 50 feet in the air, and thick smoke could be seen for miles.

In less than an hour, the Rotunda had burned to the ground. Little was left, other than the foundation. Fortunately, there were no serious injuries, although a Ford Building Engineer suffered from smoke inhalation when he rushed up to the roof shortly after the alarm sounded.

During the period of time the Rotunda was open to the public, a total of 18,019,340 people toured the facility. The Rotunda saw the introduction of the Lincoln Continental, the Ford Thunderbird, and both the introduction and discontinuance of the Edsel.

All that was saved of the Christmas Fantasy was the Christmas tree itself, which hadn't been placed in the Rotunda at the time, and the miniature circus figurines and props, which were still packed away from the previous year. The Nativity scene, for which Ford had received a commendation in 1958 from the National Council of Churches for emphasizing the true spirit of Christmas, and which the Council had determined to be the largest display of its kind in the United States, was a total loss.

Truly a very sad day in Ford history, and the sad end of a structure that was filled with many happy memories, and was one of the most famous buildings in the world during its time. The ground where the Rotunda was located stood vacant for many years, until the November 20, 2000 ground breaking of the Michigan Technical Education Center (M-TEC).


The ford Rotunda

1933 Chicago World’s Fair

In 1933, at the Chicago’s World’s Fair, among the many distinctive features that lined the city’s lakefront property was a uniquely shaped building, circular in design, with a top that resembled ”a granulated cluster of internally meshed gears.”

The Ford Rotunda, as it was called, was the brainchild of company founder Henry Ford and architect Albert Kahn, who designed the building specifically for the Ford Motor Co.’s contribution to the Fair.

The Fair’s theme was technology, which inspired the tagline: “A Century of Progress,” and since planes, trains and automobiles were a large part of the Fair’s showcase exhibits, Ford fit right in.

The 12-story Ford Rotunda had a long wing extending off the base, thousands of multi-colored exterior lights, and in the open-aired middle, a spotlight that shot skyward and could be seen for miles. Inside was the large rotunda, with moving parts and displays, including a photographic mural of a Ford plant and a 20-foot high globe.

In 1934, when the Fair closed, Ford had the building dismantled and moved to Dearborn, Michigan near the site of the Rogue plant company headquarters.

“The reconstructed rotunda is expected to relieve the congestion,” the papers noted, referencing the attendance numbers at the Fair.

On May 4, 1936, the Rotunda opened its doors again. To celebrate Ford’s 50th anniversary, in 1953, the Rotunda went through another transformation. A geodesic roof was constructed over the open center. This allowed for more varied and seasonal exhibits, including the Christmas Fantasy, which combined Ford cars with holiday-themed displays. The Christmas tree and doll displays were especially popular.

The Christmas Fantasy drew so many people that the Ford Rotunda became one of the most famous and frequented buildings in the nation. It quickly surpassed more established tourist attractions like the Statue of Liberty and the Washington Monument in the number of visitors attending each year.

That is until November 9, 1962.

On that day a kettle of hot tar used for winter sealing was left unattended and the Rotunda’s roof caught fire. Thankfully, everyone got out safely and only one worker was slightly injured. But the building didn’t stand a chance.


Ford Rotunda

In 1933, at the Chicago’s World’s Fair, among the many distinctive features that lined the city’s lakefront property was a uniquely shaped building, circular in design, with a top that resembled ”a granulated cluster of internally meshed gears.”

The Ford Rotunda, as it was called, was the brainchild of company founder Henry Ford and architect Albert Kahn, who designed the building specifically for the Ford Motor Co.’s contribution to the Fair.

The Fair’s theme was technology, which inspired the tagline: “A Century of Progress,” and since planes, trains and automobiles were a large part of the Fair’s showcase exhibits, Ford fit right in.

The 12-story Ford Rotunda had a long wing extending off the base, thousands of multi-colored exterior lights, and in the open-aired middle, a spotlight that shot skyward and could be seen for miles. Inside was the large rotunda, with moving parts and displays, including a photographic mural of a Ford plant and a 20-foot high globe.

In 1934, when the Fair closed, Ford had the building dismantled and moved to Dearborn, Michigan near the site of the Rogue plant company headquarters.

“The reconstructed rotunda is expected to relive the congestion,” the papers noted, referencing the attendance numbers at the Fair.

On May 4, 1936, in Dearborn, the Rotunda opened its doors again.

Then in 1953, to celebrate Ford’s 50th anniversary, the Rotunda went through another transformation. A geodesic roof was constructed over the open center. This allowed for more varied and seasonal exhibits, including the appropriately titled “A Christmas Fantasy,” which combined sparkling new Ford cars with holiday-themed displays.

The Christmas tree and doll displays were especially popular.

“A Christmas Fantasy” drew so many people that the Ford Rotunda became one of the most famous and frequented buildings in the nation. It quickly surpassed more established tourist attractions like the Statue of Liberty and the Washington Monument in the number of visitors attending each year.

That is until November 9, 1962.

On that day a kettle of hot tar used for winter sealing was left unattended and the Rotunda’s roof caught fire. Thankfully, everyone got out safely and only one worker was slightly injured. But the building didn’t stand a chance.


The Ford Rotunda’s three lives

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&mdashdesigner 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&rsquos 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&rsquos 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&mdashboth within the gear-shaped cylindrical building and in the two wings that projected from each side. Teague&rsquos streamlined designs brought drama and coherence to the building&rsquos space and exhibits.

The &ldquoOut of the Earth&rdquo exhibit featured various natural materials that went into making Ford V-8&rsquos, 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&rsquos 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&rsquos 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&mdashintended for temporary use&mdashbe replaced by stronger and supposedly fire-resistant limestone. Noted landscape architect Jens Jensen&mdashanother of Henry Ford&rsquos favorites&mdashsupervised the landscaping around the building.

On the Rotunda&rsquos 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&rsquos 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&rsquos principal tourist attractions, annually drawing more than one-and-a-half million visitors. Ford took advantage of the Rotunda&rsquos popularity to call attention to new car models. But its biggest draw was the annual &ldquoChristmas Fantasy.&rdquo

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 &ldquoFord at the Fair&rdquo cases outside the &ldquoDesigning Tomorrow&rdquo exhibition in Henry Ford Museum.

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Christmas Fantasy at the Ford Rotunda

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.

Ford building at the Century of Progress Exposition, Chicago, Illinois, 1934. In addition to the central cylindrical structure, this Exposition building included two wings that housed historical and industrial exhibits. (64.167.232.525)

Rotunda Origins

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 Christmas tree and doll display at the 1955 Christmas Fantasy. The large banners of the Rouge Plant on the wall behind the doll displays were part of the Rotunda’s regular exhibits. (74.300.1182.3.4)

Visitors view dolls from the Ford Motor Company Girls’ Club “Doll Dressing Contest,” 1958. (74.300.1182.3.65)

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.

Santa’s Workshop, 1960. (74.300.1182.3.91)

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

Bake Shop, 1957. (74.300.1182.3.40)

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.

The majestic cathedral entrance to the inner court, where the Nativity scene was displayed. The Nativity scene can be seen through the entrance. (74.300.1182.3.79)

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.

Eager visitors wait in line on the ramp to visit Santa, 1957. (74.300.1182.3.60)

A wide-eyed child listens to Santa, gripping the gift Santa has just given him. (74.300.1182.3.18)

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.

The Ford Rotunda Christmas Book, a gift from Santa in 1958, contained stories, games, and puzzles, while it also—not too subtly—featured the Ford line of cars. It was illustrated by famous children’s book artist Richard Scarry. (90.219.36)

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.

The Ford Rotunda on fire, November 9, 1962. (P.833.130646.132)

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 Senior Curator and Curator of Public Life at The Henry Ford.

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Get the latest news from The Henry Ford. From special offers to our series of popular Enthusiasts eNewsletters, you can tailor the information you’d like us to deliver directly to your inbox.

Facebook Comments

Events & Exhibits

As a nonprofit, we need your support now more than ever. Please consider making a donation today. Your contribution is greatly appreciated.


Remembering the Ford Rotunda, A Great Tourist Attraction

The Ford Rotunda

The beginning chapter for the Ford Rotunda started on February 12, 1934, when Ford Motor Company announced a special display, a late entry in the 1933-34 Chicago World’s Fair. It was an exciting time in Ford Motor Company’s history. A massive plaster hall was developed and completed in just four months. After the completion of the World’s Fair event, the Rotunda was dismantled and shipped to Dearborn. Construction for the permanent installation of the Ford Rotunda was supervised by the talented Detroit architect, Albert Kahn, who was the most popular industrial architect of his time, noted for many projects in Detroit and around the world.

The Ford Rotunda's outdoor sign

The Ford Rotunda was located along Schaefer Road in Dearborn, and opened its doors to the public in May, 1936. It was recorded at the time that over 61,000 visitors went through its doors in the first week, and 16 million guests from around the world visited over its 26-year history. Many historians have noted that the Rotunda was one of the five most popular United State tourist attractions during the 1950s.

Ford Rotunda night scene

In 1942, when Americans began to prepare for World War II, the Ford Rotunda closed its doors to the public, as Ford Motor Company prepared for military production. As the war efforts came to an end, most of the men and women who participated came home to their families and loved ones. In the early 1950s, Ford began to look for new ways to use the Rotunda as both a tourist attraction and as a way to market the latest new Ford vehicles. It should also be noted that the Rotunda also highlighted many Ford concept vehicles and future automotive designs, along with showcasing Ford’s research and engineering capabilities.


Ford Rotunda display

The 1950s brought the glamor and excitement back to American automotive designs, and Ford often led the way with great styling. Ford also celebrated its 50th anniversary in 1953 and reopened the Rotunda to the public after 11 years on June 16, 1953. The focus of the celebration was the man who made Ford Motor Company possible – Henry Ford – from the building of his first automobile and the perfecting of mass production of automobiles, which revolutionized the industry. The early displays prepared for the 50th anniversary started with the planning and model building of Hearley Melzian, who was chief designer, along with W. B. Ford of the W.B. Ford Design Corporation, designers of the new interior displays. The exhibits were divided into four groups, all with emphasis on the company’s thorough and constant research into all fields of manufacturing. Another display highlighted the preceding endeavors, revealing how the automotive industry created job opportunities and improved living conditions from the early 20th century to the 1950s. Other displays included automobiles of that time period along with advancements in product engineering.

1957 Styling Exhibit at the Ford Rotunda

In conclusion, the Ford Rotunda was recognized as one of the show places of the nation. On November 9, 1962, the Rotunda was destroyed by a massive fire. I have spoken in the past with many individuals who had visited this great place of wonderful automotive exhibits, and people still talk about the spectacular Christmas displays during the holiday season. Although the Rotunda is no longer around, it provided great memories that will be a part of our automotive history for generations to come.

A Ford Rotunda gallery

Bibliography

Kennedy, William D. “Ford’s 50th Anniversary.” Ford Times, July 1953 Vol., 45 No 7.

Warner, Jim. “Ford Rotunda Wears New Birthday Party Dress.” Detroit News, June 14, 1953.

Ford Motor Company. “As Our Birthday Approaches.” 1953.

Davis, Mike. “Ford Rotunda.” DBusiness Maazine, pubished online on December 11, 2012.

The Henry Ford. “Ford Rotunda Fire, Dearborn, Michigan, November 9, 1962.”


58 years ago: Ford Rotunda, a top US tourist attraction, burns down

If you were living in Metro Detroit in the 1940s or 1950s, there’s a really strong chance you visited the Ford Rotunda in Dearborn.

The Ford Rotunda was a staple of the area for decades, and was at one point the fifth most visited tourist attractions in the U.S., drawing more than one million visitors every year. (Fifth behind Niagara Falls, Smokey Mountain National Park, the Smithsonian, and the Lincoln Memorial).

In November 1962, the Rotunda was destroyed by a massive fire. But the memories live on. Let’s take a look back and the history of the Ford Rotunda.

Origins of the Ford Rotunda

Ford commissioned the Rotunda for the 1934 Chicago World’s Fair. It was to showcase man’s development in automotive innovation.

Henry Ford called Albert Kahn, his favorite architect. Kahn had designed Ford’s Highland Park Plant, Rouge Plant, and the Dearborn Inn. (Kahn is also known for designing several iconic Detroit buildings.)

For this project, Kahn broke from traditional architectural styles and designed an imposing cylindrical structure that simulated a graduated cluster of internally-meshed gears. The Rotunda stood 130 feet high. The building’s steel frame was covered in 114,000 square feet of Indiana limestone.

The Rotunda’s grounds featured 19 “reproductions” of Ford’s “Roads of the World”: the Appian Way, the Grand Trunk Road, the Oregon Trail and Detroit’s Woodward Avenue.

By the time the Chicago World Fair closed its doors in 1934, Henry Ford decided that the Rotunda would be perfect for displaying industrial exhibits back home in Dearborn.

At first, Ford wanted to move the structure to 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 Rotunda found a new home near the Rouge Plant, across from the Ford Administration Building on Schaefer Road.

Christmas at the Rotunda

Many probably remember visiting the Rotunda during the holidays. That’s because Christmas at the Rotunda was something to remember.

In 1953, as part of its 50th anniversary celebration, Ford 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.

Visitors would be greeted by a massive Christmas display, including incredible lighting, a 35-foot Christmas tree, and a wall 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.

And of course, kids would line up to see Santa.

Up in flames

November 8, 1962, was the last day the Ford Rotunda stood.

The Rotunda burned down the next day, 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.

The price to rebuild the Rotunda was near $15 million. The company opted to raze the building’s remains instead.

The site of the Rotunda was vacant until 2000 when the Michigan Technical Education Center (M-TEC) opened.

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The Ford Rotunda: Origins and Mysteries of a Lost Albert Kahn Building

On November 9th, 1962, the Ford Rotunda burned to the ground.

The Rotunda was Ford Motor Company’s Visitor Center in Dearborn Michigan. Today, we might call it Ford HQ.

No matter the name, the building was a tourist destination since its inception. It was designed by the legendary Modernist architect Albert Kahn designed the Ford Rotunda for the 1934 World’s Fair. Kahn, for those unfamiliar, is also responsible for Detroit’s Bonstelle Theatre and The Fisher Building—among any other projects. large at small.

Back to the Rotunda. Originally constructed on the South Side of Chicago, it was a massive hit at the 1934 Fair. Visitors came flocked to the 10 story ode to futurism, constructed of plastic and steel.

It was such a success that Ford had the building shipped to Dearborn to be their calling card to the world. And was it ever! The Rotunda became the 5th most visited tourist destination in the United States. More people flocked to see the Rotunda than the Smithsonian Institution or a Lincoln Memorial.

This building lead a full and vibrant life, full of many stories worth telling that we are skipping here for the unfortunate sake of brevity—

In 1952, the Rotunda underwent a mid-life makeover, and the building’s courtyards were opened up with an expansive roof. Specifically, a geodesic roof.

The Rotunda, as far as we can tell, was the first time maker-at large-Buckminster Fuller, or Bucky Fuller, was commissioned to put his new patent for the geodesic dome to use. And it was sort of an accident

Originally plans for the roof of the courtyard were costly and required bulky materials. Who knows how Bucky caught wind of the situation, but somehow he got in touch with Ford’s people and was like ‘I have just the thing.’ Visually striking and, most importantly, lightweight and easy to install, Bucky’s dome would save the folks at Ford a giant headache and lots of money.

Rewind. If you visit the Henry Ford Museum, find your way to the Dymaxion House—and ask the docent about Bucky.

You’ll hear the story of a man who tried his entire life to get big ideas off the ground with varying degrees of failure and success.

For example, in 1933, he built the first prototype for the Dymaxion car, a spaceship of an automobile made for land, water, and air. It got 30 miles to the gallon. Ok, so it was kind of a death trap…and was killed off in a freak accident that did involve death, but that’s another story…

At the end of WW11, Bucky finally felt the world was ready for a future of cheap and efficient living! Take note: the Dymaxion House dusted itself. ITSELF. Despite its efficiencies, however, Mid-Century America just wasn’t ready for the future. Most critics complained the houses was, well, ugly. After two prototypes, a lot of hype, and even more money, the House went bust.

And, after hits to the bank account and ego, Bucky went to Black Mountain College to teach. Other people might have given up on their dreams after such a defeat, but this person went to work. It turns out school was a great place for Bucky. He spent two summers at Black Mountain College, and it was here that he worked with students to prototype the geodesic dome he would first patent in 1954.

Long story short: Bucky didn’t give up, and thanks to him Dearborn, Michigan got a geodesic dome before Disney World!

But sadly, not for long. On November 9th, 1962, the Rotunda was undergoing repairs to the building’s geodesic dome. It turns out geodesic domes are good for a lot, but they’re not so good for being waterproof.

At this same time the Rotunda’s elaborate, and no doubt hella plastic, holiday displays are being installed. In what might be one of the saddest architectural cases of didn’t-read-the-directions, someone makes the executive decision to heat up the highly flammable sealant for easier distribution. Yes, the sealant catches fire. After most of the dome is covered in it.

And BOOM! The whole mess of plastic and aluminum goes up in minutes.

RIP, Ford Rotunda, your circular body may be lost, but your memory lives on.

To find more interesting facts about Detroit’s lineage and legacy, visit the Secret Detroit section.


History of the Ford Building in Balboa Park

Architect Albert Kahn’s Ford Building, designed for the 1933-34 Chicago Century of Progress, was a simple rotunda, grooved and stacked on the outside to look like an automobile gear. In 1936, the Ford Motor Company moved the pavilion to Dearborn, Michigan. The Company used the building as a display room until 1962 when it burned down.

Industrial Designer Walter Dorwin Teague used Kahn’s designs for the Century of Progress Ford Building and for the General Motors Building as sources for the building put in Balboa Park, San Diego, for the 1935 California Pacific International Exposition. The gear symbolism and circular shape came from the first, the four-door entrance with framing windows above and tall tower came from the second. Preliminary drawings called for a 350-ft. diameter, 41-ft. high ring, surrounding a 186-ft. diameter patio. A 100-ft. entrance tower would stand on the north side. The tower was to rise in three-telescoping stages to 198 ft. Total floor area came to 113,000 sq. ft.

The Ford Company reduced specifications before construction began. Executives told Teague to cut the tower to 90 ft., the diameter of the main ring to 300 ft., and the floor space to about 60,000 sq. ft. San Diego architects Richard Requa and Louis Bodmer prepared construction drawings and work schedules on the spot as Teague had neither the time nor skill to undertake that duty. Newspaper accounts aside, the building was meant to be temporary. Daley Corporation had the contract for grading. Chris Larsen was the contractor in charge of construction of the building. Described as a “$2,000,000 Expo Plant,” construction costs came to $450,000.

Perpendicular blue fins separated gear segments on the tower. Overlapping layers of light, coming from behind the fins, emphasized the curves of the white tower. Some 18,000 hidden electric light bulbs provided lighting to shape the building’s convex-concave surfaces.

According to the San Diego Farm Monthly, the tower had “the appearance of a block of translucent blue ice, surmounted by a rim of gold.” This statement referred to the painterly “Maxfield Parrish” blue lighting of the building in 1936, not to the more precise, black-white sculptural treatment in 1935. To Teague, color and lighting were not ends, but means of attracting attention to more fundamental shapes and rhythms.

The circular Ford Building was not streamlined in the same teardrop or ovoid manner as the automobiles, steamships, and passenger trains of the 30’s.

Though he used a modern, cylindrical design, Teague believed the principles of good design were timeless. As a result, the fluting and indirect lighting of the entrance tower recalled the lines and shadows of a Greek column.

In his Ford Buildings in San Diego, Dallas and New York City, Teague tried to show that the automobile, the machine, and no-nonsense, functional design could produce an era of wealth and happiness. Like the exhibits, his emphasis was upon process rather than upon product. His design was as efficient and flowing as an automobile assembly line or the on-off ramps of a superhighway. (There was no Ford Building as such at the 1939-40 Golden Gate International Exposition in San Francisco, as the Ford Exhibit was housed in the Oriental-style Court of the Pacific compound, designed by Timothy Pflueger.)

Entering and exiting in the rotunda, the San Diego visitors moved along semicircular corridors, starting at the right, viewing exhibits as they went. Guides directed them along their route, while voices from loudspeakers explained the mechanical marvels along the way. Curving walls beckoned the visitor on to see what was coming next. To allow the visitor a brief respite, exhibit managers put refreshment stands in the patio and on the rear terrace, halfway round. Continuing their course, the visitors arrived at the starting point.

In keeping with Henry Ford’s idea that art should promote industry, painted murals and dioramas figured among the building’s furnishings. The entrance rotunda, known as “The Court of Nations,” contained twelve dioramas around the sides, depicting the production of ore, cotton, bauxite, and other raw materials used in the manufacture of Ford cars. In the center, a revolving hemisphere, composed of twelve dioramas, showed the use of motor cars in each of twelve Pacific nations.

Beyond the entrance, two pillars, carrying 40-ft. high murals representing “The Spirit of America” and “The Spirit of Asia,” flanked four glass doors with twelve glass panels above, opening into the patio. Charles B. Falls, assisted by Ralph Rich and Abell Sturgess, painted these murals.

In the first section of the main hall, technicians inspected piston pins with a radio machine and tested parts. In the second section, machinists, using gages they kept accurate to within two-millionths of an inch, made iron and steel castings, rolled and shaped steel, and tore down and built up a V-8 engine. Operators demonstrated the motions of assembly-line workers. An exhibit showed the conversion of soy beans into finishing oils and plastic products. In the third section, the Ford Motor Company displayed a Quadricycle Runabout, the first Ford car built in 1896, the first Model T built in 1908, and the first Model A built in 1927. The San Diego Exposition Company estimated that Henry Ford spent $1,500,000 to advertise his Company’s automobiles.

Workers paved the patio with desert stone. A V-8 figure, made with colored cement and pools of water, provided a central focus. Pepper trees and palms, planted along the sides, added color. Besides twice-daily symphony concerts in the Ford Bowl, east of the Ford Building, a South-American group gave daily concerts in the patio. At night, lighting flooded the fountain and accented the curves of the tower.

At the south end of the building, overlooking downtown San Diego and the harbor, a 220-ft terrace and flights of stairs led to the 2,800-ft. “Roads of the Pacific,” where new Ford V-8 cars took visitors over a continuous route along the sides of a canyon landscaped into fourteen different sections, including the Summer Palace Road in China, the Tokaido in Japan, the Ballarat Road in Australia, the Inca Highway in Peru, the Oregon Trail, the old Yuma Road, and El Camino Real.

“Roads of the Pacific” anticipated the “Roads of Tomorrow” aerial ramp incorporated into the 1939 Ford Building at the New York World’s Fair. The noisy Cabrillo Freeway, which today (1996) passes this site on its west side, did not exist in 1935.

Colonel Ed Fletcher, state senator and a promoter- financier of the old Yuma Road, drove the first car over “Roads of the Pacific,” to mark the dedication of the Ford Building, May 29, 1935.

The contrast of opposing masses and clean appearance of the nautical south deck of the Ford Building so delighted Teague that he included a photograph of this detail in his book Design This Day.

In his design for the Ford Building, as in his designs for mimeograph machines, movie cameras, and self-service stations, Teague tried to reveal pure, self-sufficient geometric forms. Consequently, he would not have liked the trees and shrubbery that have grown up around building, hiding its shapes and disrupting its rhythms. Though he appreciated the value of industrial design, he would have regarded the Convair Sea Dart aircraft placed in front of the facade in 1984, and the A-12 Blackbird, placed there in 1991, as abominations.

Excavation crews broke ground for the Ford Building March 2, 1935. Teams working around the clock, in three shifts of eight-hours each, completed the building in time for the May 29 opening, just 88 days later. When the Exposition closed November 11, 500,694 people had ridden over “Roads of the Pacific,” and 2,722,765 had visited the Ford Building exhibits, making it the Fair’s most popular attraction.

The California Pacific International Corporation opened its 1936 season on February 12 however, the Corporation delayed reopening the Ford Building, which it renamed “The Palace of Transportation,” until March 15. Workers blocked out the tall red letters on the tower spelling out “FORD” and substituted the word “TRANSPORTATION.” The Ford Motor Company had moved its exhibits to the Texas Centennial in Dallas. To make up for missing exhibits, Henry Ford sent historic and modern vehicles from his Dearborn, Michigan Museum for display in the rotunda.

On the inner floor of the main hall, a 20-ft. high, 450-ft. long, 17,000 sq. ft. mural, “The March of Transportation,” by Juan Larrinaga, assisted by Arthur Eneim and Albert McKiernan, depicted the development of transportation from caveman to spaceman.

Murals in the rotunda portrayed horse-drawn vehicles and automobiles in use between 1899 and 1924. P. T. Blackburn, Mahlon Blane, and Nicholas Reveles executed the murals. They replaced giant photographs by Teague representing the Ford River Rouge industrial cycle, and lettered aphorisms by Henry Ford illustrating his industrial and social philosophy.

In the main hall, the overhead March of Transportation mural complemented a floor display of real and model trains, buses, airplanes, gliders, and automobiles. The painting of the National Geographic Balloon Explorer II’s twelve and one-half mile ascent, November 11, 1935, from the Black Hill in South Dakota on the wall of the south mezzanine lent interest to the actual gondola and instruments immediately beneath.

Santa Fe showed a replica of its railroad system from Chicago to the Pacific coast with miniature trains operating on schedule. Southern Pacific installed the “C. P. Huntington” locomotive, which the Central Pacific Railroad had used on short passenger runs in the 1860’s, and Baltimore and Ohio installed the 1835 “Thomas Jefferson” engine and the 1837 Nova Scotia coach “Pioneer.” Union Pacific displayed two miniature trains — a conventional and a streamlined model — passing through dioramas of the Grand Canyon, Boulder Dam, Zion Canyon, and Bryce Canyon. The Russian government mounted a travel-information booth next to the Union Pacific exhibit.

Motion picture studios, individuals, and museums loaned transportation models — including an Egyptian ceremonial boat of the 12th Dynasty, an 1190 A.D. Chinese junk, a 1490 A.D. Spanish galleon, an Eskimo whaling boat, an 1809 A.D. Gloucester fishing schooner, a 1917 A.D. Nieuport scouting plane, and a 1934 A.D. Waco cabinplane.

The 1936 Exposition closed September 9. Attendance figures for specific attractions are lacking however, approximately 2,436,000 people attended the Fair in 1936 as compared to 4,784,811 in 1935. If the ratio of visitors to total attendance was the same as in 1935, approximately 1,388,520 people visited the Transportation Building in 1936.

In the middle of 1936, San Diego businesspeople proposed using the Ford Building as an auditorium. On July 21, architect Louis Cowles wrote a detailed response in which he praised the Ford Building as “the most impressively beautiful of all large buildings in San Diego,” and condemned the plan: “It is beyond doubt that so many sacrifices of ideal design would be induced in effort to accommodate old work not meant for them, the whole would become a lamentable tragedy.”

Proposed uses for the Ford Building over the years include an Indian and Fisheries Building (1936), an exhibit hall and restaurant (1936), a roller skating rink (1937), a public library (1937), an armory (1938), a rifle range (1948), an aquatic coliseum (1950), a trade show building (1957), a home for the Museum of Man (1957), a convention center (1958), a civic auditorium (1959), a fallout shelter (1960), a parkade (1960), a science center (1963), a Spanish pavilion (1968), a Mexican cultural center (1970) and an aerospace museum (1972).

On May 13, 1938, the City Council formally designated the Ford Company’s gift to San Diego as the Ford Building.

The Council, on July 11, 1940, accepted a bronze tablet for placement on the Ford Building bearing the inscription: “The Citizens of San Diego appreciate the gift of this building by Henry and Edsel Ford 1935.” The Ford name having fallen into disuse, the Council, July 1, 1948, reaffirmed its prior designation.

In 1940, the 251st. Coast Artillery used the Ford Building as a technical school. During World War II, the San Diego Vocational School used it as an annex to train aircraft employees.

As the Navy did not use the Ford Building during the war, the City chose not to use the money paid by the Navy in 1948 for wartime use of Balboa Park to rehabilitate the building.

From 1946 to 1977 stage-set designers used the Ford Building for storage and as a working area. The City Park and Recreation Department occupied the basement.

A Balboa Park Citizens Subcommittee examining buildings in the park in 1957 evaluated the appearance of the Ford Building as “fair” and stressed its retention “depends upon use considerations and considerations of the unusual area available for exhibit purposes.” The San Diego Union reported another subcommittee, looking at cultural uses for buildings, favored making the Ford Building “available for the Museum of Man or another exhibit of unusual interest.” This recommendation does not, however, appear in the subcommittee’s final report.

In 1959, the architecture firm of Paderewski, Dean and Associates prepared a design and feasibility study of the Ford Building for the Convention and Tourist Bureau. The purpose of this study was to show how readily the building could be converted into a convention hall. In 100 percent disagreement with Louis Cowles s study of 1936, the new group recommended putting a 3,750-seat, dome-enclosed auditorium in the open-air patio with added seating and committee rooms in the shell. The group estimated costs at $1,304,000 plus costs of furnishings and seating. If the number of seats were increased to 5,000, costs would mount to $1,680,000.

The 1960 Harland Bartholomew Master Plan for Balboa Park went beyond the 1957 Buildings Subcommittee’s instructions to prepare “a master plan for Balboa Park that will preserve present useful buildings and the architectural pattern than has been so long accepted.” The Bartholomew planners found the Ford Building to be lacking in architectural significance, to be thematically unrelated to other 1915 and 1936 exposition buildings, and to be so dilapidated the cost of restoration would exceed the price of a new building. In place of rehabilitating, the planners recommended a large, landscaped overlook with a fountain centerpiece.

Despite their negative appraisal, the structural analysis completed by the Bartholomew firm gave proponents of reuse new hope. The planners found the Ford Building’s reinforced concrete foundations, basement, steel columns, and steel roof trusses in useful condition. To reuse the building new plaster walls and struts, floors, ceiling, roof, plumbing, wiring, sprinkler system, and firewalls would have to be installed, and skylights in the main exhibit area woud have to be repaired.

As part of a convention hall feasibility study, the City, in 1961, paid S. B. Barnes and Associates $662.50 for an engineering report on the Ford Building. The purpose of this study was to reconcile differences in cost estimates for rehabilitating the Ford Building given by the Bartholomew planners and by the Paderewski study group. The report decided rehabilitation would cost more than Paderewski’s estimate, but less than Bartholomew’s. As the City had decided to build a convention center at Second and C Street, reuse of the Ford Building for this purpose had become moot.

On February 15, 1963 Preston M. Fleet, son of the founder of Consolidated Aircraft, and U.S Navy Captain Norvel R. Richardson established an aviation and space museum in the Food and Beverage Building in Balboa Park. The building proved unsuitable, so in June 1965, the museum directors moved its expanding collection into the Electric Building. The move was a temporary measure as the Electric Building was defective on many counts and also an obvious firetrap. So, museum directors began looking for a new and, hopefully, permanent location. As the Ford Building offered 54.000 sq. ft of exhibit space to the Electric Building’s 30,000 sq. ft., directors considered it an ideal replacement.

Meanwhile, the Park Department allowed Artistas del Barrio to use the Ford Building for arts, crafts, music, ballet, and folk dancing. As the Aerospace Museum directors had secured powerful political support for their contemplated move, the Artistas were compelled to vacate the building in 1971. The Park Department found a new home for the group, now called Centro Cultural de la Raza, in a former water tank next to Balboa Park s Pepper Grove.

Paderewski, Dean and Associates submitted a second study of the Ford Building to the City in June 1970. The City paid $21,099 for the study, including $16,000 for the firm’s fee and $5,099 for specialized testing and city force work. Paderewski’s goal was to show how readily the Ford Building could be turned into an aerospace museum. The rotunda, at the myopic request of the Committee of 100, was to be given a Spanish-face treatment, with part of the tower cut off and with massive arches on the outside. The mezzanine space at the south was to be contracted and rearranged, tunnel exits were to be dug from the patio to the exterior, tenant space was to be provided in the main ring to the left of the rotunda, and the rotunda was to be separated from the rest of the building by firewalls and by large, open, receding doors. Costs for the transformation would come to $1.8 million, with $19,000 of this sum used to restore The March of Transportation mural.

Voters turned down ballot propositions to restore the Ford Building in 1971 and 1972. Cost of repairing came down from $2.1 million in 1971 to $1.67 million in 1972. In 1973, voters bypassed a third opportunity to reconvert the Ford Building when they rejected a $25.0 million general obligation bond to get and develop city parks, which included Ford Building restoration among its programs at a cost to the city of $850,000. Private donors were to match the city’s contribution.

In January 1973, San Diego architect Robert D. Ferris nominated the Ford Building for listing with the National Register of Historic Places. After being reviewed by the staff of the California Parks and Recreation Department, a Landmarks Advisory Committee, the California Historic Preservation Officer, and the staff of the keeper of the National Register in Washington, D.C., the Ford Building was placed on the National Register, April 26, 1973.

Undeterred by voter reaction, a Priorities Subcommittee of the Balboa Park Committee placed the repair of the Ford Building first in a list of priorities in May 1974.

Also in 1974, the City Council tried to get $2.6 million out of the balance of a 1966 voter-passed park bond issue to convert the Ford Building. The City Attorney ruled against the request because Ford Building restoration was not included in the 1966 bond issue package.

On April 27, 1976, the San Diego Port Commissioners rejected an attempt to relocate the Aerospace Museum to the B Street Pier.

In August 1976, a nine-member Balboa Park Master Plan Review Committee recommended demolishing the Ford Building if commitments to refurbish it do not appear “within the next few months.”

In October, consultants Atkinson, Johnson and Spurrier, Inc. studied the feasibility of using the Ford Building as an aerospace museum. This study cost the City $9,000 with another $1,000 for City Engineering Department review. Because the Ford Building had achieved architectural landmark status in the National Register of Historic Places, April 26, 1973, its appearance could no longer be drastically altered. There were, nonetheless, some alterations required, including removal of the roof screen atop the rotunda in favor of strengthening the walls, and removal of skylights in the main exhibit hall in favor of roof supports. The rotunda and inner circle were to be separated to conform to building code requirements and to speed rotunda conversion into an Aerospace Hall of Fame. Cost of structural rehabilitation would come to $430,178. The study did not go into the cost of making the building usable by the Aerospace Museum however, Colonel Owen F. Clarke, the museum’s director, estimated the expense would be around $3 million.

Still trying to help the Aerospace Museum obtain a new home, the City Manager submitted an application to the U.S. Commerce Department’s Economic Development Administration for $2,550,000 to improve the Ford Building in November 1976. The Economic Development Administration did not include the project in its list of projects eligible for public work’s grants published December 23, 1976.

In September and October 1977, the Economic Development Administration agreed to give San Diego $1.78 million for work on the California Building and Fine Arts Gallery, $4.99 million to demolish and rebuild the Electric Building, and $2.64 million to restore the Ford Building. In all, the City received over $9 million from the federal government to reconstruct buildings in Balboa Park.

A fire on the night of February 22, 1978, destroyed the Electric Building, valued by the City at $275,000, and the Aerospace Museum collection, valued by museum officials at $4 million. Despite the loss of the collection, the renovation of the Ford Building and the rebuilding of the Electric Building went ahead. The Aerospace Museum reopened in the Ford Building in December 1978 with a new collection that friends and officials of the museum had purchased from a $4.5 million kitty they had raised for the purpose. So people would not go to the Ford Building looking for Ford automobiles, Aerospace Museum officials persuaded the City Council to change the designation of the building to “Aerospace Historical Center.”

The December 17, 1978 dedication program gave the cost of restoring the building as $3,088,000. According to the San Diego Evening Tribune, the Aerospace Museum used $250,000 of this money to restore the 450-ft, long March of Transportation mural.

To architecture historians John Ely Burchard and Albert Bush-Brown, Walter Dorwin Teague’s Ford Building in San Diego resembled the same man’s Brownie camera, dynamos, and Texaco gas stations, to writer Hildegarde Hawthorne it was a gigantic white oil-tank with blue hoops to critic James Britton II it was a giant washing machine and to the Bartholomew planners it was a large doughnut.

Richard Requa, supervising architect of the 1935 California Pacific International Exposition, and Arnold C. Lehman, director of the 1930’s exhibit, presented by the Dallas Museum of Fine Arts, thought the plain, contemporary, circular design of Teague’s Ford Building departed from the rectangular shapes and eclectic Pueblo, Aztec and Maya motifs of other buildings around the Plaza de America.

An article in the American Architect, July 1935, contrasted the romantic beauty of Bertram Goodhue’s hallmark California Building with the blunt, austere appearance of the Ford Building.

In 1966, architecture historian James Marston Fitch declared the simplified, curving style, popularized by Norman Bel Geddes and Walter Dorwin Teague in their designs for the 1939 New York World’s Fair, was cold and impersonal and suggested the functional and fluid forms of an assembly line, a diesel locomotive, or a motorcar body. Unlike industrial designers, Fitch was not enamoured of the appurtenances of an industrialized civilization.

Neither David Gebhard and Robert Winters in A Guide to the Architecture in Southern California, published in 1965, nor the San Diego branch of the American Institute of Architects in the AIA Guide to San Diego, published in 1972, mentioned the Ford Building. But this was before Robert Ferris had submitted his nomination to the National Register of Historic Places.

Aaron Gallup, staff historian of the California Department of Parks and Recreation, considered the Ford Building historically significant “as a remaining structure of the 1935 California Pacific International Exposition,” and architecturally important as “a statement of its time and a significant example of the futuristic ‘Modern’ styling of the 1930’s.”

Charles A. Herrington, chief of the Review Unit of the National Register of Historic Places in Washington, D.C. thought: “The serious consideration by critics, whether favorable or not in the past, in itself indicates the significance of the [Ford Building] and in combination with its place as one of the few remaining twentieth century exposition buildings, makes it deserving of listing in the National Register and worthy of preservation.”

David Gebhard, an authority on the moderne architecture of Southern California, believed the Ford Building should be preserved because “it is the only remnant of Fair Buildings of the decade of the 1930’s,” and because “it represents a building type and style which as ‘Fair’ architecture no longer exists anywhere in the country.”

Amazingly, Gebhard did not seem to know of buildings from the 1936 Texas Centennial which still exist in Fair Park, Dallas. Historian David Dillon has described these buildings as “one of the finest collections of Art Deco buildings in the country, rivaled only by Miami’s Art Deco Historical District, and the only major thirties exposition complex still intact.”

Taking a different tack from the writers just cited, architecture historian Dennis Sharp considered “Art Deco,” or “Moderne” or “Jazz Age Modern” to be a superficial, decorative style consisting mainly of zigzag lines, rounded arches, curved corner details, ‘ship-prow’ embellishments, and materials with mirror-like surfaces. He added: “For most serious architects and critics of the ‘thirties’ it was considered ‘not quite’ architecture.”

The 20’s discovered the zigzag or the lighting bolt and the 30’s the oval or the teardrop. The use of one or the other of these shapes, along with ornamental motifs taken from primitive cultures, distinguishes art deco or moderne from traditional Neo-Classical and Baroque designs and from the no-ornament International Style which became the dominant building type of the 20th century.

Far from being rare, the Art Deco or Moderne style of smooth, sweeping lines, interpenetrating cylindrical volumes, and flat, repetitive, two-dimensional ornamentation, derived from the use of French curve and compass, is prevalent in theaters, bowling alleys, and department stores throughout the United States. Commenting on the widespread appearance of these buildings, Marcus Whiffen observed, “Today they are not so much disliked as simply disregarded. Tomorrow they will doubtless be found to have period charm. Some of them — though perhaps not many — must have more than that.”

The “tomorrow” Whiffen wrote about in 1970 has arrived. Historians and preservationists are looking at surviving Art Deco buildings everywhere and are trying to decide which buildings should escape the wrecker’s ball. Art Deco was not Richard Requa’s metier. Larrinaga, his designer, was capable of Art Deco effects, but his efforts were superficial. He went on to Dallas where he painted pictures and built models of Texas Centennial structures for publicity purposes. Measured against the wealth of Art Deco in the United States, the work in Balboa Park is too meager and approximate to measure up. The Ford Building, the most like contemporary, functional buildings at the Texas Centennial, is the exception. Having the chaste lines, stripped-down surfaces, simple proportions, and dynamic expressiveness of a precison-made machine, this building exemplifies Louis Sullivan’s famous dictum “form ever follows function.”

To expect the Ford Building today to look like the efficient, smooth-running machine it was in 1935 is as foolhardy as expecting to recover Walter Dorwin Teague’s confidence that technology would overcome all obstacles and bring in utopia. Yet, how nice it would be to keep the Ford Building around to remind us of that possibility.

Assembly Facilities for San Diego (Stanford, 1955), 54-57.

Atkinson, Johnson & Spurrier, Inc., “Ford Building, Structural Survey and Study, June 4, 1976.”

Austin, Ed, “Night – A Land of Magic,” San Diego Farm Bureau Monthly, May 1936, A-12.

Balboa Park Citizens Study Committee Final Report, May 27, 1957.

Bartholomew, Harland & Associates, Master Plan for Balboa Park, San Diego, June 1960. 55.

Bodmer, Louis, Personal Interview.

Britton, James, “The Center for Potentially the Finest Convention Center in America,” San Diego Magazine, February 1959, 40-41.

Britton, James. “How Good is the Bartholomew Report,” San Diego Magazine, November 1959, 111.

Burchard, John Ely & Albert Bush-Brown, The Architecture of America: A Social and Cultural History (Boston, 1961), 420-421.

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Christman, Florence, The Romance of Balboa Park (San Diego, 1985), 94.

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Cowles, Louis, Letter to Board of Park Commissioners, July 2i1, 1936, Doc. 298737, San Diego City Clerk’s Office.

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Fitch, James Marston, American Building I: The Forces that Shaped It (Boston, 1966). 262.

“Ford at the California-Pacific International Exposition, San Diego, 1935,” Souvenir Program, Compliments of the Ford Company at Dearborn, Michigan, San Diego Public Library, California Room.

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Hawthorne, Hildegarde, Romantic Cities of California (New York, 1939), 33.

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Hiller, Bevis, Art Deco of the 20’s and 30’s (London, 1968).

Keyes, Jacquelene Abbott, “The Fair – demonstration of modern methods of living,’ Art and Industry. December 1936, 233-237.

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Pourade, Richard, The Rising Tide (San Diego, 1967), 224.

Reid, Kenneth, “Walter Dorwin Teague, Master of Design,” Pencil Points, September 1937, 539-570.

Requa, Richard, Inside Lights on the Building of San Diego’s Exposition, 1935 (San Diego, 1937), 56.

“San Diego After Twenty Years: A Study in Contrasts,” American Architect, July 1935, 9.

San Diego Audit Department.

San Diego Evening Tribune, various editions.

San Diego Union, various editions.

“Schoolmaster of Dearborn,” New Outlook, September 1934, 56, 69, 61-63.

Sharp, Dennis, A Visual History of 20th Century Architecture (New York, 1972, 110.

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Teague, Walter Dorwin, “Building the World of Tomorrow – The New York World’s Fair,” Art and Industry, April 1939, 125-141.

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Teague, Walter Dorwin, “The Cash Value of Design,” Arts and Decoration, January 1935, 34.

Teague, Walter Dorwin, “Planning the World of Tomorrow,” Popular Mechanics (December, 1940) 808-810.

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The Ford Building now houses the Air & Space Museum and an Aerospace Hall of Fame.


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