Domes Are An International Star
They are a tourist and architectural attraction. Yet there’s talk of tearing them down.
At last week’s public hearing about the Mitchell Park Horticultural Conservatory, Linda Carlson spoke about seeing articles on Milwaukee’s iconic “glass bubbles” while visiting Australia and Japan. Both features, she noted, urged readers to try to experience the Domes, in one case if traveling “anywhere in the United States.” Carlson was among many citizens who pleaded that the county preserve the horticultural oasis.
Few buildings ever become widely cherished or architectural icons. E-architect, a comprehensive website about worldwide architecture, lists the Domes among 10 significant Wisconsin buildings “that are either of top quality or interesting, or ideally both.” Others include “the Calatrava” at the Milwaukee Art Museum, Eero Saarinen’s War Memorial and four Frank Lloyd Wright projects.
And the Domes’ appeal is not just highbrow. The Wisconsin State Journal’s Barry Adams wrote in 2013: “For many, the name requires little explanation and is part of the Wisconsin vernacular that also includes ‘The Pack,’ ‘brats,’ ‘Up North’ and ‘bubbler.’” PlanetWare, a “travel guide by experts,” lists the Domes as number seven among Milwaukee tourist attractions. And Trip Advisor ranks the Domes 14th on the list of things to do in Milwaukee.
They are also included on a worldwide roster of “prominent conservatories.” It’s among 31 in the U.S, along with the Missouri Botanical Garden’s Climatron, a traditional “geodesic dome.” Architect Donald Grieb tweaked Buckminster Fuller’s geodesic model for the Domes to accommodate taller plants and other features. They are 15 feet higher than the Climatron. Built during the 1960s’ Space Age, the Domes are often termed otherworldly “space ships.”
Mary Louise Schumacher, the Journal Sentinel’s art and architecture critic, recently wrote, “While they share an aesthetic kinship [with Fuller’s geodesic domes], Grieb’s beehive-shaped Domes were distinct and fundamentally more fussy, adding layers of inventiveness.” She adds that its “design wobbles are part of the charm of the Domes, adventurous structures that remain unique in the world. They represent a fascinating moment in architectural history and an idealism about the future and technology that stands in powerful contrast to today’s world.”
Yet, despite their uniqueness and renown, the Domes may be within sights of a wrecking ball. County Executive Chris Abele has made it clear his administration is willing to consider razing them and starting over from scratch, depending on how county residents feel about it. All three glasshouses were closed on February 6, after a piece of chipped concrete was discovered in the Desert Dome in January.
When Abele announced plans for a temporary fix to prevent further problems with the concrete-encased steel frames, he warned that permanent repairs or complete rebuilding could cost up to $71 million. He’s clearly pushing citizens to consider replacing the domes.
“It’s important,” he said, “that we give ourselves the opportunity 50 years after the creation of the Domes to ask ourselves as a community: is this what we want to do going forward; replicate the Domes again?” He later 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.”
Were Folaron’s remarks merely prescient musings or part of a planned campaign to put demolition on the front burner? Parks director John Dargle reassured hearing attendees that the Domes are “structurally sound,” and that needed repairs relate only to the surface, not the steel framework. But Abele has noted the Domes operation is an annual money loser and his director of community relations, Claire Zautke, read a statement at the recent hearing saying there will be a community-input process, a “once-in-a-generation” opportunity “to build a vision for the future.”
More than 250 citizens attended the February 24 hearing hosted by the county board, and nearly all who spoke urged officials to save the Domes.
Arthur Kapps, a passionately eloquent 12-year-old from Fox Point, said the Domes’ are as important as the County Zoo. “It’s like a zoo with plants” that most people could not otherwise see first-hand, the boy said. “It’s also a work of art and a historic structure–and many plants are historic themselves.”
Citizens called the Domes “a treasure,” “a community meeting place” and “the best classroom in Wisconsin.” Andy Andre said they help him stay sane during winter. Others spoke warmly of attending family-friendly New Year’s Eve celebrations, “Ghosts Under Glass,” holiday displays, concerts, ethnic festivals and the Winter Farmers Market. Roger Krawiecki, president of the 1,600-member Friends of the Domes, called them “magical” for people on dates, field trips and family outings, as well as for international students and those with special needs. Someone described enjoying the Domes from afar, when they’re lit up in the dark.
Mayor Tom Barrett told the Journal Sentinel: “The Domes are very special to anybody who’s been in Milwaukee for any period of time. I wouldn’t want to be the one to tear down the Domes.” State Sen. Chris Larson, Abele’s opponent in the April election, has pledged, “As county executive, I will work with our neighbors to do what it takes to ensure our Domes and other parks are available for future generations.”
“I would argue that everything should be done to preserve the Domes, despite the price tag,” Schumacher concluded. “Sometimes threats of a wrecking ball deliver angels and champions.”
Milwaukee historian John Gurda also discussed the Domes’ past and present in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, writing that “We could tear down the Domes, I suppose, but that, in my opinion, would be an admission of abject and premature defeat. The real question is not one of resources but of will…if we can spend $250 million in public funds on a basketball arena whose owners will charge us dearly for the privilege of entering, surely we can invest a much smaller amount in a green wonderland that’s truly public.”
Deep-sixing the Domes would also contradict the current push to create compelling “destinations” with taxpayer subsidies. That buzzword has been applied recently to the proposed “Lakefront Gateway Plaza” and Couture streetcar terminal, and to the planned Bucks 4th Street entertainment center and pedestrian mall.
Folaron cited a historical precedent for a Domes do-over: “In the mid -1950s, the Victorian-styled 1898-built Mitchell Park Conservatory was deteriorating and public dialogue of replacement had begun.” The Journal Sentinel’s Chris Foran recently recapped that decline; long-deferred maintenance was a major cause. Foran noted a 1946 Milwaukee Journal story which reported that ”although the Mitchell Park conservatory was ‘probably the most frequented spot in the county park system,’ not much had been done to improve its condition since the county took over the park from the city in 1937.” After massive windstorm damage, the county razed it in 1955.
Deferred maintenance is probably also the cause of the Domes decline. One glaring difference between then and now, though, is that the original conservatory, while impressive, was not architecturally unique. Rather, it was one of many showplace greenhouses created during the “golden age” of conservatory building. Many bit the dust. The “nation’s largest Victorian-era glasshouse,” is the New York Botanical Garden’s renowned Enid A. Haupt Conservatory. Built in 1902, it has undergone several renovations, most recently in 1997.
The Show Dome is scheduled to reopen around May 1; officials hope the other two will reopen by fall. County officials have said “temporary” fixes to wrap concrete-covered steel frames with protective mesh could cost up to $1 million and last up to 10 years. That gives the community plenty of time to evaluate restoration options before talking about bulldozers and replacing the Domes. The process of determining what to do with Milwaukee’s most-lauded mid-century marvel will say much about how this community views its past—and its future.