Virginia Small

The Demoting of the Domes

Once a Milwaukee icon, the horticultural oasis is barely being promoted to tourists.

By - Nov 26th, 2016 11:35 am
The Domes. Photo courtesy of the Park People of Milwaukee.

The Domes. Photo courtesy of the Park People of Milwaukee.

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.”

No Domes events are listed among the visitors guide’s 178 “Major Events” during 2016. There are no mentions of Music Under Glass (which Domes director Sandy Folaron recently announced has been cancelled by the Parks Department), Winter Farmers Markets, Ghosts Under Glass or any seasonal exhibits. The sole Domes shout-out is in a sidebar–“10 under $10,” illustrated as a whimsical game-board-jaunt highlighting free and low-cost excursions. “Mitchell Park Conservatory” and its admission fees ($5-$7) are cited.

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?

It’s not just the Domes. Our once-esteemed Milwaukee County Park System has been diminished by 30 years of defunding and “deferred” upkeep. Parks budgets have been slashed beyond bare bones.

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.

The Domes

More about the Future of The Domes

Read more about Future of The Domes here

Categories: Op-Ed, Real Estate

14 thoughts on “Op-Ed: The Demoting of the Domes”

  1. MidnightSon says:

    Hi, Virginia. I always enjoy reading your pieces, this one included. You are frequently the evenhanded, informed eye of a sometimes stage-3 hurricane of Urban Milwaukee comments.

    That said, you ask a lot of questions in this piece. I’m curious to know what you think about these developments, especially about the County-proposed options you mention. Is a new botanical garden at a different location viable? Fundable? Advisable? (As an aside, I have noticed that others who write Op-Ed pieces on Urban Milwaukee sometimes ask more questions than offer opinions. What’s up with that, peeps? If you believe it, say it.)

    My personal opinion is that, while I enjoyed the Domes as a youth in Milwaukee, they may have moved beyond their useful life. (I say this not knowing how popular they still are or the extent of their economic or social impact on the neighborhood.) While I wouldn’t go as far as to claim, as Tom Bamberger did recently, that the Domes are not domes (!), What is the real cost-benefit analysis of their future use?


  2. Gary says:

    Demoted from authentic Conservatory status years ago, the Domes can be viable as an winter indoor playground. Why not keep them for that? Music series was canceled, and after all that the lighting glam was added?
    I was surprised to find out that events at the Domes were solely Milw. Co. Parks’ funded – like the “Germany Under Glass” program that I participated in. I remember that the ticketed event appeared to be well attended, but maybe most attendees were comp.’d in.

    Is it possible that the State Fair Park org. has influenced shutting down event activity and promotion at the Domes?
    It wouldn’t surprise me with the history of battles between fiefdoms within Milwaukee County.

  3. Casey says:

    Demolish and rebuild something bigger and better. I enjoy going to the domes but they’re tiny. Time for a 21st century upgrade.

  4. Virginia Small says:

    Thanks for the kind words, Midnight Son. I will address your questions as best and briefly as I can.

    “Is a new botanical garden at a different location viable? Fundable? Advisable?” Each question raises complex issues without easy answers. Just asking pertinent questions is crucial at this juncture. The Domes are not just a unique landmark with big maintenance needs. I have previously analyzed reasons people love the Domes and consider them significant—and hurdles to preserving them. Of course, not everyone values them equally but I hope discussions will seriously address more than just quantifiable fiscal “cost-benefit” data. Harder-to-measure community values and public-health benefits are equally relevant (and some experts do quantify such factors). Milwaukee County citizens—not just public officials—will have to decide if the Domes, and what they provide, are worth preserving. Communities only preserve what they value. If not, I seriously doubt whether the county would invest in a new conservatory when deferred parks maintenance totals hundreds of millions.

    Nearly all major American cities have at least one botanical garden within the city proper, many with a horticultural conservatory. Many, if not most, are public. For example, Chicago has two Victorian conservatories (in Garfield and Lincoln parks), the Lurie Garden in Millennium Park, and the University of Chicago Botanic Garden–all in the city. Additionally, the newer Chicago Botanic Garden in suburban Glencoe is a renowned horticultural center with excellent public-transit access, free admission (and paid parking). Cincinnati, Minneapolis, St. Paul, Detroit and Madison all have publicly owned urban glasshouses (and the list goes on). Conservatories provide an uplifting “immersive” experience, beyond being educational resources and public spaces.

    Proposals to demolish the Domes and not rebuild a plant conservatory in Mitchell Park involve complex “environmental justice,” economic and quality-of-life issues–for a metro area struggling to address deep-seated inequities. Public amenities are not like business campuses–where all operations can—or should—be “consolidated for efficiency.” I grew up near Boerner and value it—but it’s a car-dependent suburban destination.

    “Useful life,” an accounting term, is not germane here. According to Investopedia, “The useful life of an asset is an estimate of the number of years an asset is likely to remain in service for the purpose of cost-effective revenue generation. The Internal Revenue Service (IRS) employs useful life estimates to determine the amount of time during which an asset can be depreciated.” The Business Dictionary defines “useful life” as the “Period during which an asset or property is expected to be usable for the purpose it was acquired. It may or may not correspond with the item’s actual physical life or economic life.”

    It’s become common in Milwaukee to conflate this accounting term when proposing demolition of public assets, including historic landmarks that could be repaired and remain functional. Furnaces, cars and many other machines inevitably must be replaced. However, buildings frequently remain in use for hundreds of years, if valued and maintained. Also, while some park amenities generate revenue that’s not the purpose of parks.

    The Domes exemplify Milwaukee County’s challenges in addressing some big civic issues. They were built in an era of optimism and there’s much more defeatism now. Milwaukee has not yet engaged much in what’s being called a national “renaissance of public spaces” so it’s hard to predict how this process will go.

  5. Virginia Small says:

    Gary, all Domes events are NOT funded by Milwaukee County Parks. “Music Under Glass” was a Parks-hosted event but also had major sponsors. Last season Friends of the Domes underwrote all band fees. As for “Germany Under Glass,” a 2015 county press release called it “a family-friendly celebration of German culture…presented by German-American Societies and various German clubs of Milwaukee, in partnership with the Milwaukee County Parks.”

    Other entities sometimes rent park facilities, including the Domes, to host public events with or without an “official” partnership with County Parks. As for concerts in the parks, many are underwritten by friends groups or others who sponsor them “in partnership with Parks,” which promotes all the summer series under one banner.

    One more thing about Visit Milwaukee’s Official Visitors Guide. A busy ad titled “Golf & Gardens in the Park” jointly features “15 Golf Courses and 5 FootGolf Courses,” along with Boerner Botanical Gardens, Wehr Nature Center and the Mitchell Park Horticultural Conservatory. Milwaukee County Zoo and the Milwaukee Public Museum each have prominent single-subject ads.

  6. MidnightSon says:

    Thank you, Virginia. You do not disappoint! 🙂

  7. Mary says:


    Something in your piece reminded me of a book review I saw recently in the Financial Times entitled

    “How to encourage children to love plants — and why”

    “A new illustrated books aims to show young people how important botanical science is to their lives and their future”
    Within the review there is a quote:
    “As director of science at the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew in west London, my mission — and my passion — is to make people understand how important plants are to their lives and their future.”

    This review alluded to the fact that it is easier to interest children in animals than plants…..

    My husband and I are friends of the Domes. We go there especially in winter. We took my now deceased elderly mother there. Invariably we see families, grandparents with grandchildren, young couples, out of town visitors, and people who look like they probably can’t afford to go south for a mid-winter vacation……I suspect that those who want to demolish the Domes may not be thinking about kids from the south side may not otherwise get to see exotic tropical plants or a desert……
    The seasonal shows are a delight. The Domes are priceless. They are a good investment in civic quality of life for people of limited means in particular….

  8. Doug Johnson says:

    Thank you for your very thoughtful and thorough editorial. I participated in the survey that you referenced in your editorial but have not heard anything about the results of that survey. Have you seen the results?
    I don’t understand why the Domes haven’t been promoted, although you submitted your thoughts on this. When we’ve traveled to othe cities we often found that they’ve promoted their conservatories and gardens prominently of which we try to visit. Hopefully Milwaukee County will make the necessary efforts to do a better job.

  9. PG1946 says:

    As usual, Virginia Small has posted an excellent exposition-critique ifrom historic, geographjic, and social/moral perspectives. Her treatment of the idea of “useful life” is needed and on the mark. Likewise her comparison of amenities serving the public and those of private business campuses.

    Ms. Small’s mention of the Garfield Park Conservatory in Chicago is instructive and relevant to Milwaukee. That conservatory’s physical; condition had deteriorated tremendously from its glory days, and it was/is in a less-than-pedestrian-friendly, none-too-safe area. Nevertheless, the city, with popular support, restored not only the building and its contents, but, eventually,after rebuilding the old Green Line elevated (the old Lake Street “l”) merged two former “L” stations into a new Garfield Park elevated station, with a head house mimicking the architecture of the original stations from the 1890’s and early 1900’s, albeit with the addition of ADA-compliant elevators. The Conservatory has regained its status as a tourist attraction and is now mentioned in numerous guidebooks.

    Yes, the tax base of the City of Chicago dwarfs that of Milwaukee County

    Given the scarcity of funds for park maintenance, including the Lake Park concrete-arch bridge, it is hard to imagine that funding for a new conservatory would be available, so that listing of replacement of the Domes with another facility of similar purpose does not seem to be a serious option. A full restoration, perhaps with updating or revision of exhibitions,if the consensus desires this, could be done with a strong fundraising effort, seeking large naming gifts from individuals and corporations, as well as smaller individual contributions (named pavement bricks are useful in attracting these smaller donations). Raising money for a new facility is far more problematic without a significant contribution from the County, which would not seem to be in the cards. Restoration would seem to be more feasible. Letting a civic asset with a substantial constituency–and many benefits to the community- decay by treating it with non-benign neglect, allowing it to deteriorate to the extent that demolition without replacement is the inevitable result.should not be among the options available for the future of The Domes.

  10. Virginia Small says:

    Doug, Results of the Domes survey have not yet been released and the survey still seems active for anyone who wants to complete it.

    Results will be eventually be reported to the Domes Task Force. The agenda and reports for the 11/30 public meeting are posted here.

    Mary, thanks for the link. A great book about children and nature is Richard Louv’s “Last Child in the Woods,” in which he talks about “Nature Deficit Disorder.”

    PG1946: That’s heartening about Garfield Park and its neighborhood. I suspect you know that pioneering landscape architect Jens Jensen, “father of the Chicago Parks,” designed the Garfield conservatory as well as the park. Jensen was later Frank Lloyd Wright’s frequent collaborator and founded The Clearing, a “school of the soil” still based in Door County where Jensen retired.

  11. wisconsin conservative digest says:

    This is real sad to let these go to hell. We have been there many times and taken many people there. They are poorly promoted like the Pabst was for years, Govt. employees are poor promoters.

  12. Christine says:

    Why would the community invest in another horticultural site when the County does not maintain what it has (with regard to the entire park system)? Perhaps the County should shift its vision to a park system that requires a lower level of maintenance and seek greater financial support through very active friends groups. For example, replacing grass that requires frequent mowing with no mow grass in appropriate areas. With the current funding problems, we need to rethink what we have and how we can have parks we can maintain.

  13. gary says:

    Another of Milwaukee County’s properties has been demoted. I’m thinking of the Milwaukee County Historical Society building at N. 3rd and W. Kilbourn Ave. which now functions as an old fashioned wedding hall (+ library).
    At the Domes, you could have 3 weddings going simultaneously.

    (I’ve previously posted suggestions for renaming rights/sponsorship: Johnson Controls Corp., McDonald’s or Chuck E. Cheese franchisee, or a hip rock climbing outfit.)

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