Ford Rotunda was magical place before fire destroyed it 60 years ago

It was a magical place drawing visitors from across the globe and even got its start on the world stage.

But nothing was as magical as Christmas at the Ford Rotunda, from Santa's workshop to a lifesize nativity.

The once-popular Ford Rotunda hosted millions of guests in the decades before its tragic collapse after being engulfed by fire on Nov. 9, 1962.

Let's take a closer look at the Rotunda and its impact on generations of metro Detroiters.

How it got started

The Ford Rotunda was designed by architect Albert Kahn for the 1933-34 Chicago World's Fair, or Century of Progress International Exposition. Ford's impressive exhibit totaled 11 acres, featuring a 5-acre park, and a daily light show. Five exhibits in the Rotunda showcased the history and progress of Ford Motor Co. in line with founder Henry Ford's vision. Displays included a reconstruction of the original Ford work shed and Ford cars suspended from a steel-lined tire on the ceiling. Visitors enjoyed the engaging displays. The electricity required for the exhibition accounted for over a third of the total energy at the World's Fair that year.

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A new location

Following the success at the World's Fair, officials decided to move the Rotunda to a new permanent location in Dearborn, Michigan. The building was deconstructed and reassembled on its new site, with additional updates made. The grand opening was held on May 14, 1936, at its new location on Schaefer Road. The ceremony included performances by the Fred Waring Band and other festivities. Upon opening, the Rotunda served as a visitor center for Ford, hosting about 1 million yearly visitors.

The wartime pause

The Rotunda closed to the public in early 1942 due to World War II gas rationing. The site remained open in a limited capacity, serving as office space and a school for the Army Air Corps. During this period, soldiers enjoyed the site, using the theater as a movie hall. In the aftermath of the war, the space continued limited use for business purposes.

The tourist boom begins

The Rotunda reopened to the public on June 16, 1953. It soon became a highly popular spot, particularly for its annual Christmas Fantasy. The holiday festivities featured a Christmas tree, a lifesize nativity scene, and Santa's workshop. Many families came to the celebrations and children enjoyed the activities. At its peak, the Rotunda was the fifth-most popular tourist spot in the nation, bypassing sites like the Statue of Liberty.

The tragic collapse

On Nov. 9, 1962, a fire sparked during repair work on the roof of the Rotunda. The fire quickly spread, destroying the entire building within an hour. It happened during preparations for the 1962 Christmas Fantasy. The fire first burned through the roof onto the Christmas decorations below, then spread throughout the building. Visitors and workers were evacuated, with one employee sustaining burns.

The fallout

The fire resulted in the destruction of the building, including the decorations for the upcoming Christmas Fantasy display and 1963 Ford model vehicles. Damages estimated $15 million and the loss of a significant tourist attraction for metro Detroit. The Rotunda housed the Ford archives, which were salvaged due to a fire protection system.

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A legacy lives on

Today, the Ford Rotunda marks an important part of metro Detroit and Ford Motor Co. history, a reminder of the auto industry's impact on the region. The site remained empty until 2000, when the Michigan Technical Education Center opened. Part of Henry Ford College, the center provides proctored professional certifications and tests and houses the Workforce and Professional Development programs.

This article originally appeared on Detroit Free Press: Ford Rotunda fire destroyed building 60 years ago