On this day in 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. Today, a satellite campus of the Michigan Technical Education Center stands in its place.