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What’s Next for the Mitchell Park Domes?

Reinventing the landmark conservatory for the 21st century

Jan. 10, 2017
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Save them? Supplement them? Or scrap them altogether?

Milwaukeeans have about a year in which to decide what to do about the beloved Mitchell Park Horticultural Conservatory, affectionately known as the Domes.

Last year, all three Domes had been shut down for a time after small chunks of paint fell onto the plant collection, the result of leaks throughout the structure. Since then, the county has installed wire netting just under the glass frames, a stop-gap solution that will last for about five years. 

After the Domes closed, county leaders set up a task force to look into the Domes’ future. Options include repairing the Domes, upgrading the Domes or building a new horticultural conservatory altogether. Cost estimates from Graef engineering consultants range from a low of $14 million to replace glass panes and up to tens of millions more to restore all three Domes or to build a new, state-of-the-art structure. 

After allowing county residents to weigh in on their options, the task force will send a recommendation to the Milwaukee County Board of Supervisors and Milwaukee County Executive Chris Abele for the final decision.

A Changing Mission

Believe it or not, horticultural conservatories are big draws throughout the country. According to Casey Sclar, executive director of the American Public Gardens Association, botanical gardens and conservatories attract visitors of all ages with a mix of programming, such as holiday light shows, art exhibits, classes and conservation initiatives. Sclar said his member gardens, which include the Domes, collectively attract 100 million visitors annually, “more than every other major sport except the NFL, combined.”

Milwaukee’s Domes can capture that excitement with its restored or revised facility, one that reflects the needs and interests of the next generations of plant enthusiasts. 

In many ways Milwaukee is having the same dialogue we had in the mid-1950s, when the Victorian-era horticultural conservatory, built in 1898 in Mitchell Park, was at the end of its life. Back then, the county decided to scrap the old facility and erect a one-of-a-kind, Space Age-style set of beehive-shaped domes designed by architect Donald Grieb, which would house exotic tropical and desert plants, as well as provide a showcase for rotating exhibits. The Domes also kept the sunken formal gardens that surrounded the old conservatory in Mitchell Park, a complement to the indoor plant collection.

Local historian John Gurda, a member of the county task force, said county leaders had earmarked $1.2 million for the new conservatory when they decided to tear down the old structure, showing that they were committed to having a conservatory in the community. Not only did the new landmark carry on the previous facility’s legacy, but it allowed a thriving Milwaukee to show some civic pride and make a long-term public investment in state-of-the-art cultural amenities.

“This was a time in post-war Milwaukee when you have the public museum, the zoo, County Stadium,” Gurda said. “It really was kind of a high point in terms of civic infrastructure. I was not surprised that they said let’s tear the old one down and build something new. There really was kind of a motion to spring things into the 20th century.”

The public flocked to the new Domes. Admission was free and in its first year it attracted more than 600,000 visitors, according to Domes Director Sandy Folaron. In 2015, when all three Domes were open year-round, it drew about a quarter million visitors, about two-thirds of which live outside of Milwaukee County.

Folaron was hired by then Parks Director Sue Black in 2006 to revitalize the struggling Domes and breathe new life into them. Folaron said the Domes originally catered to plant lovers, who were awed by the Domes’ rare and exotic plants and flowers.

“When it was built it was a conservatory,” Folaron said. “That’s it, nothing else.”

But that original mission wasn’t creating the same sense of wonder in the 2000s, Folaron said.

“People today aren’t entertained in the same passive ways they were in the ’60s,” Folaron said. “For example, you could come here and see a Martha Washington geranium. Wow. You could see an orchid. Well, now you can buy orchids at the checkout at Walgreens or Walmart. You don’t have to go to the conservatory to see that.”

Folaron quickly realized that she needed to reach out to Milwaukeeans who weren’t hard-core plant enthusiasts and broaden the Domes’ base of attendees. Folaron’s Domes began hosting ethnic festivals on the weekends to draw visitors who likely hadn’t stepped foot in the Domes since they were kids on a school field trip or warming up on a winter weekend with their parents and grandparents.

The first festivals, which highlighted the Chinese, German, Irish, Polish and Turkish communities, were a hit, bringing in thousands of attendees in one or two days. Folaron then launched events to draw in young families, holistic health enthusiasts, steampunk fans and music lovers. The Education Center has expanded its class offerings and now serves about 8,000 people a year. On Saturdays during the cold months, the Fondy Food Center sponsors a well-attended, free-of-charge Milwaukee Winter Farmers Market in the new greenhouse annex. And, of course, the holiday and train shows are annual institutions and the Domes can be booked for after-hours events and weddings.


An Opportunity for Renewal

When the Domes were threatened last year, the community rallied around saving the Domes, and there’s still a robust push to restore the Domes in their current shape and size to preserve this unique, iconic structure. Dawn McCarthy, president of the Milwaukee Preservation Alliance and a member of the county’s task force, said her organization would like to see the Domes restored if possible.

“Our official position is to first pursue a preservation option, to explore whether restoration and retrofitting is feasible, because we do think it is a significant architectural and engineering structure and an iconic Milwaukee landmark,” McCarthy said. “We feel that there’s a lot of historic significance. If restoration or retrofitting is a possibility we’d like to see it fully explored.”

Folaron said she understands the community’s love for the local landmark, but she’d like them to be open-minded about their future.

“If people are in love with the structures and want them to stay, OK,” Folaron said. “But we’ll never get more than 250,000 people here a year. We’ll never be able to expand our education program. We will still have to operate with all of the limitations with renting the facility out after hours with not having a kitchen, not having a lunchroom for the kids, not having an additional classroom. So you have the 1960s philosophy limitations on the structure and we are done. It’s business as usual.”

What does Folaron envision? She said she’d like to make the Domes relevant for the next generation, with immersive exhibits that make visitors say wow, just as they had in the 1960s. 

“In other facilities, you’ll see more interactive exhibits, because that’s how kids learn now,” Folaron said. “They don’t come in to look at the flowers. Here, we say, ‘Don’t touch, just look at them. Isn’t that great? But don’t touch!’ That’s what we do here because we don’t have a facility that’s exciting for a child to discover. It’s a very passive environment.” 

One Dome could be preserved as an “ode to the past,” as Folaron puts it, but with a new focus, such as urban farming, or reinvented as a water park. The rest of the conservatory could be reimagined, to allow the collection to grow and be appreciated in a new way. For example, Folaron suggested installing a catwalk of sorts that allows visitors to view the rainforest canopy from above as well as from below. Another idea is to bring art into the plant collection. For example, glass sculptor Dale Chihuly’s touring exhibit was a blockbuster draw at other conservatories around the country. She’d also like to see a kitchen and an expanded education center and gift shop. 

Folaron said the outdoor gardens need to be addressed as well. The sunken, formal gardens dating back to the original Victorian conservatory were removed in the 1980s because they were too hard to maintain. But Folaron said the Domes would benefit from having a reason to draw visitors during the summer months, not just when it’s cold and Milwaukeeans need to warm up and see something green. She said adding a beer garden to Mitchell Park, adorned with hops grown onsite, would bring in new visitors during the summer, for example.

“Originally, and the best business prototype, is that you have a conservatory and botanical gardens outside,” Folaron said. “It makes it a year-round destination.”

Folaron said she’d like to stay in the current location, saying it’s important to have a cultural institution in the heart of the South Side. Milwaukee County Supervisor Jason Haas, the chair of the Parks, Energy and Environment Committee and a member of the task force, said the Domes’ neighborhood is undergoing a renaissance and a revitalized Domes could spark something even more exciting there.

“This is a great opportunity to bridge communities within the county that have been separated, naturally or artificially,” Haas said.

Overall, Folaron said that throughout this community conversation about the Domes she’d like Milwaukeeans to be open to new ways of thinking about the facility’s future.

“I want Milwaukeeans to be open minded,” Folaron said. “I want them to want to leave a legacy to the next generation that is not a burden, but something to be proud of, something that is sustainable. And yes, I’ll say it, something that is state of the art, just like this was in the ’60s. I would like that to be our legacy.”


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