Locations

When flames consumed a Christmas fantasy

The Ford Rotunda in Dearborn was once the fifth leading tourist destination in the nation, ahead of such places as Yellowstone Park, the Washington Monument and the Statue of Liberty.

The Christmas light displays along Hines Drive and at Domino’s Farms attract huge crowds and malls and private homes all over the metro area are aglow with holiday lights. But for generations of Detroiters the only place to be at Christmas time was the Ford Rotunda in Dearborn.

From 1936 to 1962, the gear-shaped Ford Rotunda attracted visitors from around the world. It was the fifth most popular tourist destination in the United States in the 1950s.

The building had its roots in the 1933 Chicago World’s Fair, known as the Century of Progress Exposition, which opened in May of 1933 and attracted more than 40 million visitors over its two-year run. One of the major attractions at the fair was Ford Motor Company’s Rotunda, which was disassembled after the fair and brought back to Dearborn, where it was reconstructed using more permanent materials. Designed to be the showcase of the auto industry, the Ford Rotunda was opened to the public on May 14, 1936.

The original steel framework was covered with Indiana limestone, forming a design representing a stack of gears, decreasing in size towards the top. Located on Schaefer Road, across from the Ford Administration building, the circular structure had an open courtyard 92 feet in diameter and a wing on either side.

The Rotunda was designed to resemble a stack of gears with a geodesic dome im the center.

Huge murals on the walls depicted the manufacture of the Ford automobile. Exhibits were changed regularly, but Ford products always took center stage.

The grounds contained reproductions of 19 historic Roads of the World: the Appian Way from Italy, the Tokaido Road in Japan, the Grand Trunk Road in India, a Mayan road from the Yucatan, the Oregon Trail and a wooden plank section of Woodward Avenue.

Besides its own attractions, the Rotunda served as the gateway for tours of the Rouge Plant. In 1960, the Rotunda ranked behind only Niagara Falls, the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, The Smithsonian Institution and the Lincoln Memorial as a national tourist destination. It was more popular than Yellowstone, Mount Vernon, the Washington Monument and the Statue of Liberty.

The building was closed to the public during World War II, and following the war underwent a massive remodeling in 1952, in which the courtyard was covered with an 18,000 pound dome. The weight of a conventional dome, 320,000 pounds, would have crushed the structure, so Ford turned to R. Buckminster Fuller, who came up with the design, the first commercial application of his experimental geodesic dome.

This cobblestone roadway was part of the Historic Roads of the World on the Rotunda grounds.

Described as “ultra-modern,”, the Rotunda reopened as part of Ford’s 50th anniversary celebration on June 16, 1953. A radioactive wand (the tip contained a small amount of radium), said to be symbolic of the arrival of industry at the threshold of the atomic age, turned on golden floodlights and lighted 50 huge birthday candles around the rim of the Rotunda. The wand bombarded a Geiger tube with 44,890,832 gamma ray impulses in 15 seconds. The final impulse (the number signified the number of vehicles produced by Ford since 1903) was said to trigger the electrical system.

With the Rotunda’s new design came a new lure for visitors: an annual Christmas display called the Christmas Fantasy, which first opened on Dec. 15, 1953. That first year, Donner, Blitzen, Prancer and Dancer were there, along with a 37 foot, 6 ton Christmas tree. Santa’s Workshop formed the centerpiece, with Santa’s elves building transportation toys on a miniature assembly line. Three-dimensional portrayals of the Nativity and ‘The Night Before Christmas’ were inside the Rotunda and Santa was on hand taking requests. Nearly 500,000 visitors saw the Christmas show that first year.

The next year, Story Book Land came to life, with Hansel and Gretel, Little Boy Blue, Puss in Boots, Little Bo Peep and Humpty Dumpty animated by machines performing around a vast Santa Claus castle.

Each year the Christmas Fantasy was topped off by a giant Christmas tree.

In 1958, a 15,000-piece miniature circus highlighted the Fantasy, with a parade, a 10-piece band on a wagon pulled by a 10-horse team, a steam calliope and 800 tiny animals, 30 tents, 435 performers and customers, all in a scale of 1/2 inch to the foot. The hand-carved circus was the creation of Jean LeRoy, a former circus clown. Along with the circus, visitors saw a rustic barn dance, a shopping center with a doll beauty shop, animated dolls representing children of all nations, and woodland creatures frolicking in the snow.

The Nativity, always a central theme of the Rotunda Christmas show, included a life-size manger scene set in a lean-to built into the side of a hill, with a huge star in the heavens. In 1958 Ford received a commendation from the National Council of Churches for emphasizing the spirit of Christmas with what the Council determined was the largest and finest Nativity scene in the United States.

The preparations for the 1962 Christmas display were well under way when disaster struck on Nov. 9. While workers applied tar to the dome as weatherproofing, they kept it warm with an infrared heater. Somehow the tar caught fire. Shortly after 1 p.m., an employee saw flames on the ceiling of the main floor, and gave the alarm as workmen raced down from the roof. Sheets of flames shot 50 feet high. The black smoke was visible for miles.

In less than an hour the Rotunda lay in ruins. All employees and display workers escaped injury, except for the engineer in charge of the building, who ran to the roof at the first alarm and suffered from smoke inhalation. The roof collapsed shortly after the fire started, and a shouted warning to the firemen barely got them out of the building before the walls collapsed.

The Christmas Fantasy was completely lost to the flames. All that was saved were the Christmas tree, which had not been put in place, the 2,500 Goodfellow dolls shown yearly which had not been delivered, and the miniature circus, which had been packed into trunks and was ready to move in.

Over the nine years the Christmas Fantasy was held, almost 6 million people visited it. Thousands of Detroiters had their first visit with Santa at the Rotunda, and memories of Story Book Land and the miniature circus mingle with childhood memories of stockings by the fireplace and cookies for Santa.By Jenny Nolan / The Detroit News