10 Reasons To Save The Domes
Their impact on city culture and image is immense.
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.”
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.