Once in a Great City
THE NINTH OF NOVEMBER 1962 was unseasonably pleasant in the Detroit area. It was an accommodating day for holiday activity at the Ford Rotunda, where a company of workmen were installing exhibits for the Christmas Fantasy scheduled to open just after Thanksgiving. Not far from a main lobby display of glistening next-model Ford Thunderbirds and Galaxies and Fairlanes and one-of-a-kind custom dream cars, craftsmen were constructing a life-size Nativity scene and a Santa’s North Pole workshop surrounded by looping tracks of miniature trains and bountiful bundles of toys. This quintessentially American harmonic convergence of religiosity
and consumerism was expected to attract more than three-quarters of a million visitors before the season was out, and for a generation of children it would provide a lifetime memory—walking past the live reindeer Donner and Blitzen, up the long incline toward a merry band of hardworking elves, and finally reaching Santa Claus and his commodious lap.
The Ford Rotunda was circular in an automotive manufacturing kind of way. It was shaped like an enormous set of grooved transmission gears, one fitting neatly inside the next, rising first 80 then 90 then 100 then 110 feet, to the equivalent of ten stories. Virtually windowless, with its steel frame and exterior sheath of Indiana limestone, this unusual structure was the creation of Albert Kahn, the prolific architect of Detroit’s industrial age. Kahn had designed it for the Century of Progress exposition in Chicago, where Ford’s 1934 exhibit hall chronicled the history of transportation from the horse-drawn carriage to the latest Ford V-8. When that Depression-era fair shuttered, workers dismantled the Rotunda and moved it from the south side shore of Lake Michigan to Dearborn, on the southwest rim of Detroit, where it was reconstructed to serve as a showroom and visitors center across from what was then Ford Motor Company’s world headquarters. Later two wings were added, one to hold Ford’s archives and the other for a theater.
In the fullness of the postwar fifties, with the rise of suburbs and two-car garages and urban freeways and the long-distance federal interstate system, millions of Americans paid homage to Detroit’s grand motor palace. For a time, the top five tourist attractions in the United States were Niagara Falls, the Great Smokey Mountains National Park, the Smithsonian Institution, the Lincoln Memorial, and the Ford Rotunda. The Rotunda drew more visitors than Yellowstone, Mount Vernon, the Statue of Liberty, or the Washington Monument. Or so the Ford publicists claimed. Chances are you have not heard of it.
To appreciate what the Rotunda and its environs signified then to Detroiters, a guide would be useful, and for this occasion Robert C. Ankony fills the role.
Ankony (who went on to become an army paratrooper and narcotics squad officer, eventually earning a PhD in sociology from Wayne
State University) was fourteen in November 1962, a chronic juvenile delinquent who specialized in torching garages. Desperate to avoid drudgery and boredom, he knew the Rotunda the way a disaffected boy might know it. Along with the Penobscot Building, the tallest skyscraper downtown, the Rotunda was among his favorite places to hang out when he played hooky, something he did as often as possible, including on that late fall Friday morning.
“The Highway” is what Ankony and his friends called the area where they lived in the southwest corner of Detroit. The highway was West Vernor, a thoroughfare that ran east through the neighborhood toward Michigan Central Station, the grand old beaux arts train depot, and west into adjacent Dearborn toward Ford’s massive River Rouge Complex, another Albert Kahn creation and the epicenter of Ford’s manufacturing might. In Detroit Industry, the legendary twenty-seven-panel murals at the Detroit Institute of Arts painted by Diego Rivera and commissioned by Edsel Ford, the founder’s son, among the few distinguishable portraits within the scenes of muscular Ford machines and workers is that of Kahn, wearing wire-rim glasses and work overalls. Ankony experienced Detroit industry with all of his senses: the smoke and dust and smells drifted downwind in the direction of his family’s house two miles away on Woodmere at the edge of Patton Park. His mother, Ruth, who could see the smokestacks from her rear window, hosed the factory soot off her front porch every day. What others considered a noxious odor the Ankonys and their neighbors would describe as the smell of home.
On the morning of November 9, young Bob reported to Wilson Junior High, found another boy who was his frequent collaborator in truancy, and hatched plans for the day. After homeroom, they pushed through the double doors with the horizontal brass panic bars, ran across the school grounds and over a two-foot metal fence, scooted down the back alley, and were free, making their way to West Vernor and out toward Ford country.
It was a survival course on the streets, enlivened by the thrill of avoiding the cops. Slater’s bakery for day-old doughnuts, claw-shaped with date fillings,
three cents apiece. Scrounging curbs and garbage cans for empty soda bottles and turning them in for two cents each. If they had enough pennies, maybe go for a dog at the Coney Island on Vernor. Rounding the curve where Vernor turned to Dix, past the Dearborn Mosque and the Arab storefronts of east Dearborn. (
Ankony’s parents were Lebanese and French; he grew up being called a camel jockey and “little A-rab.”) Fooling around at the massive slag piles near Eagle Pass. Dipping down into the tunnel leading toward the Rouge, leaning over a walkway railing and urinating on cars passing below, then up past the factory bars, Salamie’s and Johnny’s, and filching lunches in white cardboard boxes from the ledge of a sandwich shop catering to autoworkers on shift change. Skirting the historic overpass at Miller Road near Rouge’s Gate 4, where on an afternoon in late May 1937 Walter Reuther and his fellow union organizers were beaten by Ford security goons, a violent encounter that Ankony’s father, who grew up only blocks away, told his family he had witnessed. Gazing in awe at the Rouge plant’s fearsomely majestic industrial landscape from the bridge at Rotunda Road, then on to the Rotunda itself, where workmen were everywhere, not only inside installing the Christmas displays but also outside repairing the roof.
To Ankony, the Rotunda was a wonderland. No worries about truant officers; every day brought school groups, so few would take notice of two stray boys. With other visitors, including on that day a school group from South Bend, they took in the new car displays and a movie about Henry Ford, then blended in with the crowd for a factory tour that left by bus from the side of the Rotunda over to the Rouge plant, then the largest industrial complex in the United States. Ankony had toured the Rouge often, yet the flow of molten metal, the intricacies of the engine plant, the mechanized perfection of the assembly, all the different-colored car parts coming down the line and matching up, the wonder of raw material going in and a finished product coming out, the reality of scenes depicted in Rivera’s murals, thrilled him anew every time. The Rouge itself energized him even as Rivera’s famed murals frightened him. The art, more than the place itself, reminded him of the gray, mechanized life of a factory worker “in those dark dungeons” that
seemed expected of a working-class Detroit boy and that he so much yearned to avoid.
When the Rouge tour ended in early afternoon, Ankony and his pal had had enough of Ford for the day and left for a shoplifting spree at the nearby Montgomery Ward store at the corner of Schaefer Road and Michigan Avenue, across the street from Dearborn’s city hall. They were in the basement sporting goods department, checking out ammo and firearms, when they heard a siren outside, then another, a cacophony of wailing fire trucks and screeching police cars. The boys scrambled up and out and saw smoke billowing in the distance. Fire!—and they didn’t start it. Fire in the direction of the Rotunda. They raced toward it.
Roof repairmen since midmorning had been taking advantage of the fifty-degree weather to waterproof the Rotunda’s geodesic dome panels. Using propane heaters, they had been warming a transparent sealant so that it would spray more easily. At around 1 p.m., a heater ignited sealant vapors, sparking a small fire, and though workmen tried to douse the flames with extinguishers they could not keep pace and the fire spread. The South Bend school group had just left the building. Another tour for thirty-five visitors was soon to begin. There was a skeleton staff of eighteen office workers inside; many Rotunda employees were at lunch. A parking lot guard noticed the flames and radioed inside. Alarm bells were sounded, the building was evacuated, the roof repairmen crab-walked to a hatch and scrambled down an inside stairwell, and the Dearborn and Ford fire departments were summoned, their sirens piercing the autumn air, alerting, among others, two truant boys in the Monkey Ward’s basement.
By the time firefighters reached the Rotunda, the entire roof, made of highly combustible plastic and fiberglass, was ablaze. Two aerial trucks circled around to the rear driveway. From the other side, firefighters and volunteers stretched hoses from Schaefer Road and moved forward cautiously. It was too hot, and the water pressure too limited, to douse the fire with sprays up and over the 110 feet to the roof. The structure’s steel frame began to buckle. At 1:56, fire captains ordered their men away from the building, just in time. Robert Dawson, who worked in the Lincoln-Mercury building across the street, looked over and saw a “ball of fire” on the roof but at first no flames below. “Suddenly the roof crashed through. Everything inside turned to flame. Smoke began sifting through the limestone walls. Then, starting at the north corner, the walls crumbled. It was as though you had stacked dominoes and pushed them over.” The fire had reached the Christmas displays, fresh and potent kindling, and raged out of control, bright flames now shooting fifty feet into the sky. The entire building collapsed in a shuddering roar, a whirlwind of hurtling limestone and concrete and dust.