Op Ed

Why the Domes Must Be Saved

The repair cost is less than first projected. They’re a national treasure and local landmark.

By - Jun 24th, 2018 07:33 pm
The Domes. Photo courtesy of the Park People of Milwaukee.

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

Along with the soaring wingspan of the Milwaukee Art Museum, and the iconic breweries throughout the city, the Mitchell Park Domes are an essential and defining part of Milwaukee’s urban landscape. When the National Trust for Historic Preservation named the Domes one of America’s 11 Most Endangered Historic Places in 2016 and then declared them a National Treasure in 2017, these actions recognized the Domes not only as an engineering marvel and a nationally significant example of midcentury modern architecture, but also as fixtures of the Milwaukee community that have played a role in the lives of area residents for over 50 years.

As organizations dedicated to saving important historic places, we applaud recent efforts by Milwaukee County to develop a long-term plan for the Domes, and to involve the community in this vital discussion. While we welcome these steps and understand they are meant to be a starting point for a community-wide conversation, we can’t ignore that one idea—demolition of one or all three of the Domes, an option that remains highly unpopular with Milwaukeeans— has yet to be taken off the table.

As the public continues to weigh in on the future of the Domes—including at a public meeting on June 26 from 6:00 – 7:30 p.m. at the Domes—we suggest some key premises to help guide these discussions.

First, the Domes are an iconic landmark of the community that must be preserved. Over the past several months, the Save Our Domes coalition has encouraged finding a thoughtful, long-term preservation solution that ensures the Domes remain a beloved Milwaukee icon and world-class conservatory for generations to come. As we’ve spoken with hundreds of community members and many civic leaders, it’s become clear how important the Domes are to Milwaukeeans, as well as how eager people are to see them restored.

There is good news on this front. An engineering analysis conducted by Wiss, Janney, Elstner Associates, Inc. in 2017 found not only that a comprehensive and long-term preservation solution for the Domes was possible, but also that it could be done for approximately one-third the cost of previous estimates. We were heartened to learn that this innovative approach for dealing with water infiltration at the Domes could be undertaken in such a cost-effective manner, and believe this information can add value to the public debate.

The other key premise for this conversation is the understanding that the Domes need a more robust, long-term and sustainable business model. An enhanced approach to programming and a new governance model could involve deeper public-private partnerships, utilizing a combination of operating funds, bonds, tax credits, private fundraising, and other creative sources. We acknowledge the severity of the financial challenges facing Milwaukee County and understand that a multi-year, phased approach with a wide range of partners will be necessary as a long-term plan for the Domes is implemented.

With this in mind, we welcome the County’s vison in developing proposals to reinvest in the Domes and fully realize the extraordinary asset they could become. New and expanded uses, ensuring the Domes remain relevant to new generations of residents, should be compatible with the core mission of the conservatory, and the ideas proposed by the County are encouraging. The current proposals may not be the answer, but they are an ideal starting point for reimagining a more relevant, vibrant, and financially sustainable future. By truly opening this decision to the community through a robust, transparent, and thorough process, these proposals can be refined and improved upon by the people who know this place the best—the hundreds of thousands of people here who have been visiting them for over a half century.

When First Lady Ladybird Johnson attended the official dedication ceremony for the Domes in 1965, she honored their one-of-a-kind futuristic design by calling them “Milwaukee’s exciting new astrodomes for nature.” Now, after more than five decades of steady use and enjoyment by generations of Milwaukeeans, it’s time to come together and rededicate ourselves to deciding what the next 50 years of Milwaukee’s distinctive national treasure will look like.

The Domes

Peter Zanghi is the President of the Milwaukee Preservation Alliance. Stephanie Meeks is the President and CEO of the National Trust for Historic Preservation.

Categories: Op-Ed, Real Estate

9 thoughts on “Op Ed: Why the Domes Must Be Saved”

  1. Jeremy says:

    A more robust, long-term and sustainable business model starts with a brand new, more energy efficient redesigned space with education in mind. Keeping the Domes in any form or function as-is is a complete waste of time. If the Preservation Alliance or Historic Trust want to put up the 50 million to reimagine the domes as an adventure destination feel free. Once the check is cashed they can also take over operations of the facility. The county is battling to keep bus routes running and parks system above water. It can not afford a frivolous endeavor like this.

  2. DAG999 says:

    As a kid, I remember them assembling the Domes by hand and pouring many of the individual concrete forms in the park. At one time, when energy was cheap, this was probably considered state of the art…but since the early 1960’s, there are other, better ways to replace these. The expense of maintaining these has to be astronomical. The concrete is crumbling, the glass is inefficient, and they leak like a sieve. Has the county ever given us a cost breakdown…for expenses like heating and cooling…the cost per year to maintain vs revenue, etc.? Mitchell park (and the Domes) once had many fountains along the building, and sunken water gardens to the South of the Domes, but those too, were abandoned because of repair, maintenance, and safety concerns (as well as costs). This park, and the neighborhood, was once a jewel in the Milwaukee County Park system…today, I to have question if it is worth it anymore.

  3. scrp says:

    Milwaukee County owned infrastructure is seriously at risk, if the Domes will be saved it will need to be done by a private venture. A systematic problem the county has is all of the good old boys coasting to retirement and that massive backdrop. These folks have been in the system for the last couple decades and have let the buildings deteriorate beyond repair. If you’ve been to any county owned facility, it’s a sad site. The courthouse, parks facilities, domes, airport, safety building are all out of date and dysfunctional. Sadly, it appears that the parks are going to take the brunt of the mismanagement, including the domes.

  4. frank schneiger says:

    Here is a useful analogy. Thirty-five years ago, Central Park was The Domes of New York. It was physically worn out, in many areas wrecked. It was often empty and devoid of life (something that is never true of The Domes) and seen as being dangerous, mostly because it was dangerous. Pessimism among political leaders and the park’s managers was the norm. Nothing could be done. It would be too expensive to fix. We are doing our best with scant resources. Look, nobody even uses the park, which, in fact, was true, a perfect example of the self-fulfilling prophesy.

    Flash forward three decades and an investment of some $200 million: Central Park is now considered the pre-eminent urban park in the world. It attracts some 40 million visitors a year, increasingly a problem of too much of a good thing. Its beauty is possibly New York City’s greatest asset. And it is self-sustaining, throwing off money that is now used for other parks.

    The inaction related to the Mitchell Park Domes is driven by the same mentality that let Central Park fall into decrepitude. Political leaders who have no vision for a better future. Management and staff who can’t imagine something better and have convinced themselves that nothing is possible. An insular attitude that fails to see all of the potential partnerships that would make The Domes one of Milwaukee’s top destinations. Isolation from the communities that the park and The Domes ostensibly serve, and indifference to visitors.

    All of the negative ingredients are there, but so is the same potential for fulfilling a great vision that drove a group of people to transform Central Park and make it a vital part of the neighborhoods that surround it. Just as Mitchell Park and The Domes could be the anchor for a revitalized south side, a process that is already underway. Without a vision, the entire focus is on front-end costs, and the think-small mentality that is Milwaukee’s curse becomes the driver. The analogy to Central Park is not a stretch. It begins with a vision for a much brighter future.

  5. Patricia Jursik says:

    Excellent opinion and agree that demolish should be taken off the table as an option. When the Counties Association was last in town about 4 years ago, the group was taken to the Domes. It is asked for! Our out-of-county cousins understand the significance of the Domes. Another point: no one discusses: the iconic collection. The legacy collection of botanical s held by Milwaukee County is comparable to the Milwaukee Museum’s insect and plant collections. One day such archival collections may offer a blueprint to unknown medicines or food production. Because of the dome shape, this landmark houses plants that no other collection can boast about. We must redouble our efforts as citizens of Milwaukee County and help teach our children that, like our Parks, these landmarks were a legacy entrusted to us. Let’s not be a generation that drops the ball.

  6. frank schneiger says:

    Another useful analogy. When you don’t want to do something, the projected cost always turns out to be way higher than it actually would be. (When you do want to do it, it’s going to be cheaper, or even pay for itself.) Isn’t it interesting that the cost of restoring The Domes seems to be so much lower than originally projected? So, here is the analogy. At the depths of the New York City fiscal crisis – and the decline of Central Park – a man named Gordon Davis became Parks Commissioner. At that time, Bethesda Fountain, one of the park’s crown jewels, had not worked for at least a decade, a bone dry fountain.

    Davis asked his management team what it would cost to fix the fountain. Whoa, Whoa, Whoa!!! a fortune, probably millions, can’t be done, ancient technology, etc. Davis had already become suspicious of the culture of negativity that he had inherited, so he called up his plumber, an immigrant named Tony. He told him, Tony, there is this fountain in Central Park, it doesn’t work. Come to my office and get a pass, take a look at it and tell me how much it would cost to repair the fountain. A week later, Commissioner Davis’ secretary buzzed him and said, “There’s a man named Tony on the line. He says you know what it’s about.” “Put him on.” Tony comes on the line and says, “Hey, Mr. Davis, it’s Tony. I fix fountain. It’s working now.” “How much do I owe you?” “Make it $50.” And Bethesda Fountain has been working ever since.

  7. Jim M says:

    If you are a Domes history buff (or engineer type) you might want to take a look at this listing from the Parks Department on the repair history for the Domes:


    The structure as been studied to death with every outcome ending in tens of millions of dollars that the CNTY did not have in 1994, or 2000, does not have in 2018 and will not have in five years to completely rebuild the domes. There is no shortage of ideas, just a shortage of funds. As borrowing costs continue to rise (bonds) so will the future costs of repair/replace. Any downturn in the economy that reduces tax collections (recession) will further complicate future repair/replace.

    The 2000 Master Plan for Mitchell Park & Horticultural Conservatory parts 1-3 are a must read for anyone following the recent solutions.

    Visit now.

    “Rust never sleeps”

  8. PMD says:

    Won’t stop me from visiting the Domes.

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