Virginia Small

10 Reasons To Save The Domes

Their impact on city culture and image is immense.

By - Feb 24th, 2016 10:07 am
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The Domes. Photo by Dave Reid.

The Domes. Photo by Dave Reid.

The Mitchell Park Horticultural Conservatory, affectionately known as the Domes, comprises three beehive-shaped glasshouses built between 1959 and 1967. They feature tropical and arid habitats and a “Show Dome” with changing displays. All three domes were closed earlier this month after a piece of concrete reportedly fell within the Desert Dome. Since then, there’s been much wrangling about short-term fixes and long-term upkeep.

Milwaukee County Executive Chris Abele has called for public discussion about whether to preserve the Domes for future generations. The Abele administration projected a very-rough estimate of $65 to $75 million to rebuild all three Domes. “It’s not my money, it’s your money,” Abele has said. As if cushioning the public for a wrecking ball, Abele told WTMJ-Radio, “What’s right for the past isn’t (necessarily) right for the future…you can have great memories of the Domes and be excited for what’s next.”

Kim Poehlman skeptically commented in a BizTimes article about the Domes being “near the end of their lifespan.” As she wrote:  “At one time Milwaukee County Parks were known as an emerald necklace…decades of disrepair, short-sighted neglect, and too little concern for a public jewel and the public good and we hear cries of ‘lifespan.’ Seriously? For generations of Southeastern Wisconsin families the Domes have been a beautiful and rare oasis…Fixing what’s been broken through negligence is not a negotiation or a favor. It is the right thing to do for the people.”

The Milwaukee County Board of Supervisors will host a public hearing tonight at the Domes Annex. Informal online polls by the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel and BizTimes both resulted in respondents favoring, by big margins, preservation of the Domes, even for $75 million. The nonprofit Friends of the Domes has more than 1,600 members. BizTimes reported that the group spent $214,872 on “Domes facilities enhancements” between 2012 and 2014, according to federal tax forms.

Why do the Domes elicit such fervent devotion? Why should they be saved? Here are 10 reasons:

1. The Domes are “Milwaukee’s living landmark.” That’s what the county’s website calls them, and it’s true. They’re emblematic, like the St. Louis Arch or the Eiffel Tower. However, they’re more than a postcard image. You can spend hours within these warm cocoons and see something new every time you visit. They’ve graced countless tourism promotions. Centrally located and visible from miles around, the Domes are the peaks atop Milwaukee’s now-repurposed industrial valley.

2. They are a great winter getaway. Residents and tourists flock to the Domes for a warm, green fix. The immersive experience instantly transports visitors from winter doldrums to tropical uplift. West Allis native and former Madison mayor Dave Cieslewicz recently wrote about the Domes in Madison’s Isthmus. “On cold winter Saturday afternoons when I was a kid, my dad would often take me to the Mitchell Park Domes. We’d bask in the humidity of the tropical dome or enjoy the crisp heat of the desert dome…The earthy smell of all those plants on frigid days is something that’s still with me all these years later.”

3. They’re architecturally unique. Designed by local architect Donald Grieb, the Domes are the world’s first—and only–cone-shaped conservatory. Among horticultural conservatories, Milwaukee’s Domes are unique. Greib was inspired by visionary architect Buckminster Fuller, but he significantly tweaked the “geodesic dome” concept. Beautification advocate Lady Bird Johnson, while First Lady, attended the grand opening in 1965. A “grand reopening” was held in 2008 after extensive interior and exterior renovations of the complex.

4. The Domes are affordable and family-friendly. Whether viewed as entertainment or education, the price is right. The $5-$7 admission doesn’t break a family budget.

5. They are a horticultural hub of Milwaukee County. The Domes serve as a year-round showcase and learning center. Plantings are presented in naturalistic settings highlighting rainforest and desert ecology. A large working greenhouse is used to cultivate plants for Domes displays and other Milwaukee County parks.

6. The Domes have universal appeal. It’s hard to find an area resident who has never visited the Domes. They draw people of all ages and backgrounds. Eclectic “Music Under Glass” concerts, LED light shows and scientific programming offers something for everyone. Outings to enjoy seasonal displays, especially holiday extravaganzas with feasts of flowers, have become traditions for many families.

7. They’re a memorable setting for community events. The Domes have hosted countless weddings, nuptial photos and other portraits. They’re in demand for proms, private parties, and convention and corporate gatherings. It hosts programs for school groups from grade K-5 through college, scouts, and adult clubs or groups.  

8. They’re an economic driver and enhance the neighborhood. As a doorway to the South Side, the Domes bring visitors to a part of town with few major attractions. Attendance was 248,000 in 2015.  A new bridge connects the Domes to the Hank Aaron State Trail and Three Bridges Park, creating dynamic environmental connections within the Menomonee Valley.

9. Buildings with strong feminine forms are rare. Although Milwaukeeans like to jest about the Domes’ breast-like shapes, structures with clearly feminine shapes are uncommon in Western culture. In contrast, “phallic” architecture is ubiquitous, whatever the reason—from the Washington Monument to scores of skyscrapers, towers, totems and minarets. Might the curvaceous, light-filled Domes add a comforting element to our hard-edged urban skyline?

10. Mitchell Park is rich with history. It was the first park created in 1890 as part of a planned system, by Milwaukee’s original park commission. Others were what are now known as Humboldt, Kosciuszko, Lake, Riverside and Washington parks, the latter three designed by the renowned Frederick Law Olmsted. According to founding commissioner Christian Wahl, the goal for the new parks was to acquire parcels “that had not yet been entirely denuded of timber by the ruthless axe of speedy Western civilization.” The original park was about 30 acres and named for John Landrum Mitchell, father of General Billy Mitchell. A Milwaukee County Parks history calls the elder Mitchell “a wealthy and highly respected citizen” who was elected to local, state and national offices and donated a five-acre tract to the park. Later acquisitions increased the park to 61 acres. It featured horticulture from the beginning and has been beloved for more than a century.

The Domes

Categories: Politics, Real Estate

16 thoughts on “10 Reasons To Save The Domes”

  1. Sam says:

    I’ve never been to the Domes. I’ve lived in the area on and off for 14 years. That being said, I can appreciate other’s fondness for them and the unique qualities they bring to the city.

    Like many things in this city/county/state/nation, we refuse to pay for keeping the things we have built. The Domes have been neglected and now we are reaping what has been sown.

    If it will ultimately be more cost effective to build something new and equally beautiful, let’s get on with it.

  2. Vincent Hanna says:

    The Domes are a treasure. We take our kids there at least five times a year. We were there to see the trains with monsters right before they closed down. Another wonderful exhibit that the kids loved (though not as much as I did). Losing them would be a tragedy.

  3. Rae Nell Halbur says:

    People keep blaming “whoever” the domes were not taken care of and granted they probably need the once over again but it said right in the article there was “extensive interior and exterior renovations of the complex done in 2008.”

  4. AG says:

    I fully support doing whatever we need to do to keep the Domes. The value of those buildings are more than the dollars and cents needed to fix them.

    At the same time, I do want to know how they got to this stage. If renovations were made less than 10 years ago, were there no signs at that time of the issues? I read that the damage was caused by clogged drain holes by the panes of glass. Were they clogged by the renovations? If not, did no one notice the clogs during all the inspections over the years? Why do we have to wait for something to become an emergency before we do something about it? But most importantly, if the issues were caused by the renovations, wouldn’t the contractor be responsible for the damage?

  5. Dave says:

    We were married in the Domes a few years ago. It’s sad to see another County property neglected to the point of causing a danger to the public. If it really would $75 million to repair, though and that number isn’t just a number Abele came up with to make repairing them financially unfeasible and therefore politically safe, I say build something because certainly you could build what are essentially 3 large greenhouses for less than that price. As an engineer, that really is a poor design due both to geometry and environment.

  6. Virginia Small says:

    Rae Nell and AG: To clarify, the renovations completed in 2008 were upgrades to various elements of the Domes themselves, adding LED lighting for light shows, improving the lobby and restrooms, etc. There was also the addition of a working greenhouse, new parking lot, etc. There’s no indication of any connection between those refurbishments and current issues, which are more structural. That’s been talked about over the years, but separate from these enhancements.

    I have not researched the issues about repairs currently needed. However, the recent renovations, which were initiated by former parks director Sue Black and Sandy Folaran, the Domes director since 2006, have much improved the Domes and visitor experience. That’s a success story.

    Any building needs both ongoing and long-term maintenance. Conservatories are often needy, but they also serve a special niche especially in cold climates.

  7. David says:

    So Abele we can come up with $75 million for the Bucks but not the Domes?

  8. Sean says:

    I don’t understand the argument “we can come up with $75 million for the Bucks but not the Domes?” These things take time to work out. The domes haven’t even been closed for 20 days, give it time a solution will be found. It is irritating how everything turns into a political witch hunt in Milwaukee. It exposes another very ugly side of this community.

    Aside from that, lets work smarter with these things. The park is named after the family that donated the land to it, wouldn’t it be logical to try to solicit a large donation and name the domes after the philanthropist. There are several companies/ people in this community that could step up, Kohl and Cudahy will not be around forever and we’ve already lost some very generous people to this community.

  9. blurondo says:

    The billionaire Bucks owners are receiving taxpayer money. It’s time for them to give back. The benefits obtained by the broad spectrum of people experiencing the domes year ’round, far exceeds the narrow appeal of the NBA.

  10. Barbara Cooley says:

    If the Dome don’t have some sort of state of national landmark or historic status, they certainly should. Who would be in a position to make such a proposal? Where do we start?

  11. AG says:

    blurondo, don’t be one of those people to make this an arena vs domes issue.

    Besides, the arena hosts 1.2 million visitors each year to the domes 200,000. The NBA has 41 homes games but the arena hosts over 160 events a year. The domes employ’s a few dozen people but the arena provides hundreds of jobs. They’re on a different scale but BOTH are important to the city.

  12. Jeremy says:

    Blurondo, appeal and benefits are completely different issues. See AG above. Everyone that loves The Domes so much should have gone there more than once a year (and not on the free day!). The Domes as a property will never be on the tax roll. Everything in the Park East eventually will be and will also help drive up the value of nearby development (The Brewery & Haymarket Square). The Domes were a fantastic experiment that lasted 50+ years. It’s ok to let go and replace it with something more efficient and economical.

  13. AG says:

    For the record, just because I think the arena and Domes are separate issues, I still support repairing the domes. We shouldn’t just throw away our historical or important landmarks just because someone didn’t maintain them. They should be brought back to proper condition and maintained for future generations. We have lost too much of our history already.

  14. Virginia Small says:

    Barbara Cooley,
    The organization that would have information about potential historic preservation designations is Milwaukee Preservation Alliance: mpa@milwaukeepreservation.org

    Mary Louise Schumacher tracked down Domes architect and looks at their significance:

    ww.jsonline.com/entertainment/arts/the-singular-vision-and-big-ambition-of-domes-architect-donald-grieb-b99672239z1-370261501.html

  15. Barbara Cooley says:

    Virginia Small, thanks. I was able to confirm that the Domes are a designated national landmark. I’m now trying to find out what protections that designation confers. I’m pretty sure it rules out tearing them down or possibly even abandoning them.

  16. Barbara Cooley says:

    Correction: My source for that information was incorrect, I believe. The Domes do not have national landmark status, but certainly should. This needs more exploration.

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