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

From The World’s Fair, Buckminster Fuller and Black Mountain College, This Story Has IT All

FORD ROTUNDA
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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.

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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.

FORD ROTUNDA FIRE

FORD ROTUNDA FIRE

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. 

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