Why the Domes Must Be Saved
The repair cost is less than first projected. They’re a national treasure and local landmark.
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.
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.