MotorCities National Heritage Area
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By Robert Tate, Automotive Historian and Researcher
Images courtesy of Ford Motor Company
Published 4.24.2019

Ford Rotunda RESIZEDThe 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. 

Ford Rotunda outdoor sign RESIZEDThe 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 RESIZEDFord 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
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. 

1959 Styling Exhibit at Rotunda1957 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.

Ford Rotunda gallery RESIZEDA 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.”