Milwaukee’s Domes Conservatory

The Mitchell Park Botanical Conservatory, more popularly known as “The Domes”, is a county-run botanical garden in Milwaukee. The collection is housed inside three large domes, each one containing plants from a particular climatic and geographical zone (domestic gardens, tropical forests, and deserts).

The Domes

This place has to be one of the coolest-looking buildings I have ever been in. It looks like it ought to be in a scifi movie … and it almost was. One of the gardeners here told me that just after they had been built the Domes were originally selected to be the background set for the 1970s classic scifi movie Silent Running starring Bruce Dern, but the producers ultimately decided to build their own dome set out in the desert and use that instead.

In 1839, a banking mogul named Alexander Mitchell left his native Scotland and settled in Milwaukee, where he built a big mansion on Spring Street and quickly established himself as the city’s wealthiest resident. His wife Martha had a passion for horticulture, and she surrounded the house with 1,500 square feet of greenhouses, gardens and conservatories, and often donated flowers and potted plants to local organizations. When Alexander died in 1887, Martha continued to live in the house for three years, then sold it to a local community group called the Deutscher Club (which would eventually change its name to the Wisconsin Club during the anti-German hysteria that surrounded the First World War).

By 1890, the county government had decided to establish a number of public parks, and one good area for this was the land that had formerly belonged to Alexander Mitchell. Mitchell had set up around 30 acres of private park around his mansion, and now the county bought 24 acres of it, turning it into six public parks: Mitchell, Lake, Washington, Kosciuszko, Humboldt and Sherman. A few years later the Mitchell family donated another five acres and another 90 acres came from some more purchases, and these parks were expanded.

To reflect Martha Mitchell’s love of plants, Milwaukee officials made plans to add a public conservatory to one of the parks. The project was assigned to Henry Koch, an engineer who had served with the 24thWisconsin Regiment during the Civil War. Koch (who also designed the Milwaukee City Hall) drew up plans for a series of glass and iron-frame greenhouses, based loosely on the grand Crystal Palace in London, at Mitchell Park. Construction was finished in 1898 and the Mitchell Park Conservatory opened to the public.  It featured a wide variety of plants and trees in an outdoors sunken garden, and the “Glass House” offered a pleasant “outdoors” experience even during Wisconsin’s brutal winters. The Conservatory was run by the county for over half a century.

By 1955, however, the glass and iron structure was showing its age, and was suffering from a lack of money and a lack of maintenance. It was decided that a remake was in order. Milwaukee officials announced plans for a new Conservatory and launched a competition for new designs. A total of 33 architects from around the world submitted plans.

The one that was selected came from a Milwaukee resident named Donald Grieb. His design was both innovative and reflected the traditional glass building of the original Conservatory. It called for three beehive-shaped glass-and-frame domes which would be connected by a futuristic-looking atrium that served as a lobby. The glass plates would be held together by an aluminum framework; they would transmit 85% of the light that hit them, would provide all the heat needed by the buildings in winter, and would accommodate huge fans that would draw out heated air in summer. The complex could be built in six distinct one-year periods, which would allow for yearly budgeting and save the expense of a single bond issue.

Construction began in 1959, and the finished project would cost $4.5 million. Although the Conservatory was dedicated in 1965 in a ceremony headed by First Lady “Lady Bird” Johnson, it was not actually completed until 1967. The project was done in stages with the Lobby finished first, the Floral Dome in 1964, the Tropical Dome in 1966, and finally the Desert Dome in 1967. Each Dome was 85 feet tall and 140 feet wide at the base. Officially known as the Mitchell County Park Botanical Conservatory, it was quickly given the nickname “The Domes”.

In December 2006, a propane leak at the Falk Corporation’s complex in Milwaukee’s industrial area resulted in an explosion that killed three people and wrecked several buildings. The shock wave from the blast was strong enough to break over 800 of the glass panels at the Domes, several miles away.

While repairing this damage, engineers noticed that the aluminum structure was beginning to degrade, and a fierce debate broke out over whether to renovate the Domes or to tear them down. This was heightened in 2016 when a chunk of concrete fell from one of the ceilings, leading to a temporary closure. It was found that the Domes, like the old Conservatory, was suffering from a lack of maintenance.

Thanks to a half-million dollars in private donations raised by the Friends of the Domes, some of the structure was updated and repaired, but the basic frame is still in trouble, and the debate over its future continues. In 2017 The National Trust for Historic Preservation declared the buildings to be a “National Treasure” and “a unique engineering marvel, a nationally significant example of Mid-century Modern architecture”, and argued for saving them. The Cultural Landscape Foundation in Washington D.C. cited the Conservatory as a “threatened cultural landscape”. The local Milwaukee Preservation Alliance has presented a plan to the county to save and restore the buildings, and in 2019 a County Task Force approved a plan for a complete overhaul of the Domes, at around $66 million. Another consulting firm, however, concluded that the structure should be razed. The county is also still considering plans to relocate a new Conservatory elsewhere in Milwaukee, perhaps near the Zoo.

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