12 Things Will Decide Domes’ Future
Politicians will decide their fate, but citizens can lead the way. 12 issues are key.
The Mitchell Park Conservatory faces an uncertain future. The Show, Arid and Tropical Domes are due to reopen by fall. In January, safety concerns and closure were triggered by long-deferred structural repairs. County Executive Chris Abele now considers demolition “a realistic option.” That’s in contrast to goals established in 2006, when Scott Walker was executive, by a broad team of experts and county staff. The two-year study set out “to maintain The Domes as a jewel of the Milwaukee County Parks infrastructure” and a “must-see and must-experience destination for SE Wisconsin residents and visitors.”
In response to the tear-down talk, The Cultural Landscape Foundation of Washington, D.C., has named the Domes to its Landslide program of “nationally significant cultural landscapes and landscape features that are threatened and at-risk.” The nonprofit will monitor and advocate for the Domes from here on out.
Will the Domes remain a Milwaukee “living landmark.” or be replaced?
That will depend on 12 key factors:
1. Abele vs. County Board: As Urban Milwaukee has reported, Abele and the board have created dueling committees and processes to decide the Domes’ future. The board favors repair and preservation, while Abele is open to all options including replacing the Domes. The Abele administration has engaged urban design professional Larry Witzling, a principal of GRAEF USA, to guide a “community engagement process” to determine what to do about the Domes. It could cost as much as $30,000 and would create a “Conservatory Advisory Committee” that will include 14 to 25 members. Names of members have not been released, but according to Abele’s spokesperson Melissa Baldauff will include the parks department’s horticulture services manager, representatives of the Clarke Square Neighborhood Initiative, Friends of the Domes, Journey House, Milwaukee Public Schools, NEWaukee, Potawatomi Casino and Visit Milwaukee.
The board voted (on March 17) to establish an 11-member task force which will be the board’s parks committee chair, the District 12 supervisor, directors of parks and facilities management, the Milwaukee County Parks Advisory Commission chair, and representatives from Friends of the Domes, the historical preservation community and three other community organizations. Members will reportedly be appointed within weeks. A report is due by September 2016.
2. Public input. Public opinion could be quite influential. Meetings of the board’s task force will be public and subject to Wisconsin Open Meetings Law. They are televised if held in county hearing rooms. The county comptroller’s office will staff the task force.
Abele’s committee has so far been more mysterious. His administration said there was an unadvertised “preliminary” meeting of its Domes committee March 23; if so, that may have violated Wisconsin Open Meetings Law. Going forward, the county’s Domes page promises a public process: “there will [be] several community meetings held during and after the Steering Community’s work where the public can participate in the process. Individuals interested in connecting to this public process should contact the County Executive’s Office at 414-278-4211 or Domes@milwaukeecountywi.gov.”
As Charles A. Birnbaum, head of The Cultural Landscape Foundation puts it: “In a quest for consensus on the future of the Domes, which are likely eligible to the National Register of Historic Places, it is essential the process be open and accessible (and) that the information considered be freely shared and carefully vetted.”
3. Hard data. No current repair bids have been obtained. Best practices call for at least three independent estimates. The 2008 Show Dome report concluded that long-term restoration requires replacing its glass-and-aluminum facade. County officials say the concrete-and-steel infrastructure is sound for all three Domes. Only surface concrete is flaking. Five glass replacement options were reviewed. Four fixes would retain “the historical authenticity of the existing structure.” A January 2015 GRAEF report on all three Domes reiterated, “Because the majority of the water causing damage is coming from the glazing system, it is imperative that the glazing system be addressed if the buildings are to remain in operation and in a safe condition…” It further urged: “Because of the accelerated pace at which wet structures can deteriorate, provisions for future inspections and/or repairs should be made within the next two years.” Abele seems to be looking for data showing repair is too expensive, while the board is hoping for more optimistic scenarios.
5. Competing Visions: Abele may argue the Domes have outlived their time and it’s time for some unnamed, all-new, 21st century alternative. Preservationists will take their cue from folks like Linda Keane, a nationally recognized professor of architecture and environmental design at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago and a long-time Domes “friend.” She wrote in an email that the Domes are “an icon of Milwaukee and we have seen the city repeatedly destroy its icons.” She cited the demolished Chicago and North Western Railway depot at the lakefront (once dubbed “the most elegant passenger station in the West”), saying it could have “preserved history…if restored as a public venue and wedding site, restaurant and shops.” In addition to preserving the Domes, Keane thinks Mitchell Park could “showcase indigenous species” as a place to study plants, seeds and wildlife. She envisions collaborations with UW-Milwaukee’s conservation and environmental science program, or other institutions.
6. Champions: High-profile advocates often help save local monuments. In 1968 preservationist Jackie Kennedy Onassis resisted plans to demolish Manhattan’s Grand Central Terminal. Its eventual renovation, completed in 1998, helped revive its neighborhood. The U.S. chapter of Dococomo, which advocates for Modernist buildings and landscapes, has embraced the Domes. They join Milwaukee Preservation Alliance, Preserve Our Parks and individual advocates. Domes fan Adrienne Pierlussi recently hosted a successful fundraiser at the Sugar Maple, a craft-beer bar she owns in Bay View. If Abele’s steering committee does promote a replacement for the Domes, we may see dueling champions of different visions.
7. Shared memories. People from all walks of life in Milwaukee County recount personal stories about the Domes. They describe family visits to Show Dome spectacles, field trips, weddings, concerts, winter wanderings–and even viewing them from afar. Some talk about them as being “part of Milwaukee’s soul.” While Abele acknowledges Milwaukeeans’ “attachment” to the Domes, he philosophically 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.” He told the Journal Sentinel that residents weathered demolition of the original Victorian Mitchell Park Conservatory, which was then replaced by the Domes, and would likely get over being “nostalgic” about the Domes.
8. Consensus & Coalition Building. If the Domes are to be saved, it may require local leaders, nonprofits, grass-roots networks and national advocates to build consensus. To build that consensus, Birnbaum suggests, “the historic and cultural significance of the Domes (must) be quantified and valued in the equation.”
9. Public funding. Abele frames the discussion in fiscal terms: Is it worth it to county taxpayers to spend $75 million to restore or replicate the Domes? (Some have questioned that figure, which gets up back to Factor 3 — Hard Data.) Abele has floated alternatives such razing and replacement with serviceable greenhouses (like the new Domes Annex) or an amphitheater. Is it possible that repair could gain other government (say federal) funding? That may enter into the discussion.
10. Donors. Preservation of landmarks, especially public spaces, often attracts philanthropy from individuals, foundation and corporations. When St. Louis’s Gateway Arch grounds and museum needed revitalizing, citizens mobilized to undertake the project and commissioned an internationally renowned landscape architecture firm. A nonprofit has raised nearly $380 million, mostly from private sources. The Arch opened the same year as the Domes; both are called “Modernist marvels” by Birnbaum’s group.
11. Media. A public discussion depends upon transparency and robust media coverage. Local media have done numerous stories about the Domes since they were closed indefinitely. TCLF’s naming of the Domes as a “threatened” cultural landscape has received local media attention, including CBS 58, Wisconsin Public Radio and Urban Milwaukee; and nationally from the Guardian’s U.S. edition and the influential outlet TreeHugger.com.
12. Time. Short-term fixes—wrapping structural beams with metal mesh to prevent concrete flaking—will reportedly last five years or longer. That buys time to explore long-term options and raise funds. However, this could also result in further stalling–and decay of the Domes. After all, no decisions about long-term restoration were made after the 2008 GRAEF-County team report urged immediate action. Subsequent GRAEF reports reiterated that message. But this time feels different. Ironically, by frankly raising the prospect of tearing down the Domes, Abele may help activate supporters to demand funding their repair. Time will tell.