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Ford Rotunda Building Burned Down 60 Years Ago

The Ford Rotunda was a grandiose building that is unfortunately now lost to time. Almost exactly 60 years ago, the building caught fire, forcing its closure, but The Blue Oval hasn’t forgotten the unique, brutalist structure and what it meant to millions of people throughout its decades of operation.

The Ford Rotunda was designed and built in Chicago by American industrialist architect Albert Kahn, and was inaugurated in 1933 as a tourist attraction backed by the automaker. Its construction was designed to call mechanical parts to mind, featuring a 110-foot main cylinder with two adjoining wings resembling a concentric gear stack. It served as Ford’s exhibit space for the 1933 through 1934 Chicago World’s Fair, welcoming more than 40 million attendees to take a look at The Blue Oval’s innovative products.

Following the positive reception of the Rotunda at the World’s Fair, Ford elected to relocate the entire building to its hometown of Dearborn, where it was rebuilt brick-by-brick. Many of the exhibits from the World’s Fair remained intact inside the relocated building, including the “Roads of the World” display, and a Ford World Globe. Reconstruction only took about 12 months, and the Rotunda reopened in 1936. More than one million visitors made the trek to the Rotunda annually.

In 1942, the Ford Rotunda was closed as World War II raged. The building was repurposed to serve as office space and even a school for the Army Air Corps, with its movie theater providing much-needed entertainment for soldiers. After the war, the Rotunda reopened to host dealer presentations, press events and other business events, and as a venue for the annual Christmas Fantasy event.

Unfortunately, a fire broke out on the roof of the Ford Rotunda on November 9th, 1962, as workers were waterproofing the building. The blaze caused more than $15 million in damages, and destroyed every single 1963 model year Ford vehicle on display at the center. However, the Ford Archives of over 14 million Ford-related items survived the fire, thanks to a carbon dioxide fire protection system. Today, the Michigan Technical Education Center exists on the site, while the road in front of the Rotunda’s former location retains the “Rotunda Drive” name.

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Alexandra is a Colorado-based journalist with a passion for all things involving horsepower, be it automotive or equestrian.

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Comments

  1. Drew Ford Retiree

    I recall visiting the Rotunda as a little kid during Christmas. It was a magical place. Then the fire immortalized those memories.

    Reply
    1. John

      I lived less than a mile from the Rotunda when I was a kid. When ever I was bored I walked over to spend half a day .

      Reply
  2. Mark B

    I was to young to have experienced this marvel. But know of many who did/have’ and had nothing but great recollections of the place.

    Reply
    1. RWFA

      My experience as well. Older folks who spoke of it spoke with fondness of memories made there and a longing for what was lost.

      Ps Merry Christmas everybody!

      Reply
  3. JoeBryant

    That is sad the fire happened less than eight years before I was born, I would love to seen it.
    Especially knowing that it was just a half hour drive from my home to Detroit.

    Reply
  4. Dave Mathers

    I was lucky enough to visit it twice, once with our family and once with our Boy Scout troop. VERY memorable building.

    Reply
  5. RWFA

    It should be noted that the Rotunda was an example of Art Deco design and not Brutalist design (which came on the scene in Britain 1950, and was typified by angular austere structures.)

    Kahn was far more than just an industrial architect, in fact he may have arguably been one of the most multifaceted architects of his generation designing homes, mansions, skyscrapers, and factories (both in the US and overseas.)

    The innovation and tradition, quality, breadth and endurance of of his designs and output (obviously he didn’t do it all alone) is quite remarkable.

    Reply
  6. Daniel Godshall

    I’m too young to have seen the Rotunda but if I had a time machine, I think this would be my #1 destination! Obviously it will never be rebuilt and I won’t time warp but Lego should make a Rotunda set and Ford a VR recreation…

    Reply

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