The Demoting of the Domes
Once a Milwaukee icon, the horticultural oasis is barely being promoted to tourists.
When three conical glasshouses were built in the 1960s they soon became a striking Milwaukee landmark—and gateway to the South Side. Uniquely modernist, the Mitchell Park Conservatory, nicknamed “The Domes,” appeared on countless postcards and promotional pamphlets. A source of civic pride, the Desert, Tropical and Show Domes provided warm experiences and memorable photo backdrops. They became hugely popular.
Thus, metro-area residents may be surprised that the county-owned icon barely gets a nod in current Milwaukee tourism platforms. Once emblematic stars, the Domes now could be headed for history’s dustbin. Their dimming in status appears calculated.
The Domes Disappearing Act
Scan Visit Milwaukee’s 2016 Official Visitors Map and you won’t find the Domes listed among 25 “attractions” pitched in contracted five-line descriptions. (However, the Milwaukee County Zoo and county-owned Charles Allis Art Museum and Villa Terrace Decorative Arts Museum are included.) Nor are the Domes featured in “Things To Do” or “Milwaukee Hot Spots.” The sole mention of “Mitchell Park Conservatory (The Domes)” is in a visual key to the map, which includes a small Domes sketch. If you’re not already familiar with the Domes, the map offers no information about them.
Visit Milwaukee’s Official 2016 Visitors Guide also snubs the Domes. No photos showcase the photogenic Domes. No blurbs about them grace sections on “Family Fun,” Milwaukee Hot Spots,” the South Side or “Historic Architecture.” However, the National Trust for Historic Preservation recently named the Domes among America’s “11 Most Endangered Historic Sites,” acknowledging their significance—and peril. In March, The Cultural Landscape Foundation pronounced the Domes an “at-risk cultural landscape.”
Finally, on page 60 of the 84-page guide, the Domes are among 29 “Downtown Attractions, Museums & Galleries,” each described in small print. The Domes’ “Menomonee River Valley” location is noted.
Visit Milwaukee’s website also gives the Domes short shrift. The Domes are missing among 23 “Green Leisure Activities,” six featuring Milwaukee County Parks. They’re not on a “Bucket List” of 11 places that “capture the spirit of Milwaukee,” including the Milwaukee County Zoo, or among 14 “Local Favorites.”
The Domes’ main claim to fame on Visit Milwaukee’s site is as #12 in “13 Family Friendly Activities.” They’re also tucked away in a lengthy catch-all “Attractions” roster. The Domes are searchable by “Gardens” but not by “Nature Centers” or “Historic Places of Interest.”
In the “Winter Fun” section, the Domes are obliquely mentioned in a blurb about the Winter Farmers Market held at “the Mitchell Park Domes, a must-see horticultural destination in its own right!” However, Milwaukee’s premier winter oasis gets the cold shoulder in a “Winter Fun” listing about Milwaukee County Parks.
There are currently no Domes events on the “Milwaukee365” searchable calendar, Visit Milwaukee’s free event-posting service. There’s nothing about the Domes Holiday Show, the New Year’s Eve Family Festival or “Model Train Garden Extravaganza” coming to the Show Dome in January.
In E-ttractions’ 2016/17 Milwaukee Map, a for-profit enterprise, the Domes are completely absent. However, other county-owned facilities are featured: Boerner Botanical Gardens and the Charles Allis and Villa Terrace museums. Milwaukee County Zoo is highlighted in two listings and an ad.
How to Explain the Domes’ Demotion?
County parks staff make most decisions about marketing park facilities, although some special events are jointly or independently promoted. Targeted Visit Milwaukee placements can be secured through contractual agreements.
Milwaukee County Parks’ tight budgets likely play a role in limiting marketing expenditures. Nonetheless, the Domes are often inexplicably omitted even in listings featuring County Parks. (Keep in mind that 2016 materials were planned and published before the Domes were abruptly—and temporarily–closed in February.)
In any case, Visit Milwaukee is supported by local tax dollars. It seems reasonable to expect that a prime public attraction deserves some prominence in tax-supported promotions, especially in features, as opposed to paid listings.
It’s mystifying that a public-owned attraction that drew 240,000 visitors in 2015 is getting “stepchild” treatment in Milwaukee tourism promotions—regardless of who is calling the shots. After all, PlanetWare, “travel guides by experts,” lists the Domes as seventh among Milwaukee’s “Top Ten Tourist Attractions.” In 2014 the Domes ranked 12th among Milwaukee attractions by attendance.
Other factors could be influencing the Domes’ loss of limelight. Online commenters sometimes say the Domes are located in the wrong place—that they should somehow be moved or rebuilt on the Lakefront. That Downtown-centric notion implies that visitors cannot—or should not–be drawn to the ethnically rich and centrally located near South Side.
County Officials Propose Options for Domes
Options presented in an active County Parks survey include demolishing the Domes and possibly abandoning Mitchell Park as a horticultural hub. Six of eight survey scenarios involve razing one or more Domes–with or without replacement. Others include repurposing them:
- “New Conservatory at Other Location…: The three Domes would be demolished… horticultural operations would continue in the greenhouses and Annex to support Boerner Botanical Garden. The conservatory…would be moved to another location.”
- “Remove & Reinvest in Another Asset…: The three Domes would be demolished and related activities would cease at Mitchell Park. Horticultural operations would continue in the greenhouses to support the Boerner Botanical Garden in Hales Corners. The money that would be used to rebuild or relocate the Domes would be invested in an existing or new County community asset.”
- “Repair with New Uses: Repair all three Domes in their current locations and use the structures for new purposes. The Domes would be used as a different indoor, recreational space managed by Milwaukee County Parks, while the greenhouses would continue horticulture operations to support the Boerner Botanical Garden.”
Ditching a Long-term Urban Anchor
How might abandoning the Domes as a horticultural destination impact the Clarke Square neighborhood and entire South Side? Except during Domes’ construction, a horticultural conservatory has been an economic and community anchor in Mitchell Park since 1898.
Also, how would the Domes’ demise affect countywide residents who depend on them for rejuvenating respite? How many people would have trouble accessing horticultural displays if they were offered only at Boerner Gardens in suburban Whitnall Park? Four bus lines serve the Domes. The nearest bus stop to Boerner Gardens is a 45-minute walk, according to MCTS.
Have powers-that-be quietly decided to let the luminous Domes slowly fade to black?
“Music Under Glass,” Milwaukee County Parks’ only winter concert series, was attracting new audiences and “Friends of the Domes” members. Pulling that plug seems financially short-sighted at best—to say nothing of other impacts. Annual Domes attendance had doubled in the past decade following renovations and increased programming. But now, oddly, the Domes are no longer being vigorously pitched to tourists. That leaves them to be visited by loyal locals or discovered by happenstance. Despite paltry promotion, rising attendance demonstrates the Domes’ persistent popularity.
Nonetheless, county officials refer to taxpayer support for the Domes—a park amenity–as a “$600,000 deficit”—not a quality-of-life investment. Milwaukee County Zoo got $7.5 million in public funding in 2015; nonetheless officials call the zoo a must-see attraction, not a “big loser.” In any case, well-maintained public assets make cities appealing and livable. Milwaukee County disinvesting in parks and cultural anchors will not help attract and retain residents.
Will a policy of neglect lead to the Domes crumbling into oblivion?
A Victorian-era Mitchell Park Conservatory had been the city’s most-popular destination until it was razed in 1955 after chronic neglect pushed it past the point of saving. Insidious present-day reductions in Domes’ programming marketing and maintenance will surely decrease attendance and revenue. Will bulldozing Milwaukee’s modernist icon also become inevitable–a self-fulfilling death spiral? And will its destruction be viewed as another black eye on Milwaukee’s image?
Is it wise to let the Domes and other public amenities simply go to seed? Nurturing natural spaces and maintaining local landmarks and cultural gems is the concern of all county residents, not just government officials. What will we, as a community, ultimately decide to leave as legacies for future generations?
Upcoming Domes Events:
Domes Task Force Meeting, Wednesday, November 30, 5:30 p.m., Mitchell Park Conservatory lobby. At the chair’s discretion, the public will be allowed to speak briefly to agenda items posted in advance.
Grand Reopening Celebration, Thursday, December 1, 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Free admission. Live music.