Why is Milwaukee County considering demolishing the Mitchell Park Domes?
Drone video of the domes of the Mitchell Park Horticultural Institute
Drone video of the domes of the Mitchell Park Horticultural Institute.
Chelsea Lewis and Mike De Sisti, Milwaukee Journal Sentinel
As has been the case several times over the past decade, the future of the old Mitchell Park Horticultural Domes — a Nearby South Side landmark that is a dilapidated nuisance to some and a beloved Milwaukee treasure to others — is once again in question.
Tuesday, Sept. 12, the Milwaukee County Parks Department, which manages the domes, will provide a final report on next steps for the domes. The presentation is expected to consider multiple proposals, including demolishing all or some of the three domes.
Here the issue stands.
Why is the county looking to demolish the domes?
The main reasons the province is considering demolishing the domes are infrastructure and financial related.
Even Friends of the Domes, an organization dedicated to ensuring “Milwaukee always has a world-class conservatory,” admits that “the Domes face some serious maintenance challenges.”
An article by the National Trust for Historic Preservation reported that after decades of “wear and tear, the domes need renovation.” Mesh safety nets line the ceilings after a piece of concrete fell inside a building in 2016.
The wire mesh installation was expected to last no more than five years before more work was needed to keep the domes open and ensure public safety.
After the concrete fell, the city and other organizations considered a number of plans to address infrastructure problems with the domes, but continually ran into funding issues and were unable to reach a decision.
- In 2018, the Milwaukee County Museum Task Force commissioned a study on the feasibility of combining the Milwaukee Public Museum and the Domes into one new building.
- The following year, Gallagher Museum Services submitted a report that recommended demolishing the domes and building a 222,000-square-foot structure to house both the public museum and horticultural exhibits on the footprint of the domes, connecting them to the existing greenhouse. The estimated cost of the project was $300 million, and the plan faced opposition from officials and residents.
- In 2019, the Domes Task Force submitted a $66 million restoration plan to the County Council, which was ultimately not approved. A report heard by the county council’s parks committee in June 2022 revealed that the 2019 plan was proposed with a range of “deeply unfeasible” funding sources.
- In late 2022, the county’s American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) task force unanimously rejected a proposal to allocate $19 million of the county’s $183 million in ARPA funds for restoration purposes.
- A petition to nominate the domes and register them in the National Register and State Register of Historic Places for historic status was rejected at the last minute in early November 2022. Supervisors unanimously abstained from voting on a veto override during last year’s budget session.
Before the end of the decade, the Domes, and all of Milwaukee County’s parks, may face an even more uncertain future.
In November 2021, the Journal Sentinel reported that as rising costs exceed the county’s annual revenues, the county may run out of property tax money to support park services by 2027. The county is not mandated by the state to provide park services.
What has been proposed so far?
Investors in the Domes saga will likely have to wait until the September 12 meeting to hear the latest proposals on what to do with the Domes. However, one recent suggestion has received some attention.
Suggestion or offer? Demolish two of the domes and collect money to renovate the remaining domes.
Supervisors have not discussed which of the three domes would survive if the plan goes ahead.
Discussion of this proposal included other options, including demolishing all domes and focusing solely on Mitchell Park, making repairs to address deferred maintenance, or rebuilding or building a new conservatory facility. All of these plans can be very expensive.
more: Two of Mitchell Park’s three domes could be demolished under the county’s plan
What are the costs of demolishing domes?
In 2022, Milwaukee Preservation Alliance Director Jeremy Ebersol estimated that demolishing the domes would cost $15 million.
In addition, supporters of the domes say there are uneconomic costs to demolishing them. Friends of the Domes wrote that the Domes represent a “powerful tool” to help Milwaukee County address equity and health issues.
Research shows that spending time in nature reduces negative emotions, blood pressure, heart rate, muscle tension and stress hormones, Friends of the Domes wrote. The group says the domes provide a space that people who may not have access to natural spaces, due to weather or living in an urban environment, can access year-round. Spending time in a natural space like domes is also an effective way to combat seasonal affective disorder during the winter months.
Furthermore, the Domes’ location in the heavily Latino neighborhood of Clarke Square is notable. Studies have shown that majority-white neighborhoods have more parks and natural spaces than majority-non-white neighborhoods. Not only does Domes provide year-round natural space for the Clarke Square community, Domes and its gift shop—featuring products from neighborhood residents—provide economic benefits to nearby residents.
How can I attend the September 12 meeting?
The Parks Department will present a final report, including construction cost estimates and other remaining information requested, on next steps for the domes at a Parks and Culture Commission meeting on Sept. 12, at 9 a.m.
The meeting will be held at the Milwaukee County Courthouse in Room 203R and online through the county Legislative Information Center. Members of the public may attend the meeting and ask to speak or provide comments.
What are Mitchell Park Domes?
The Mitchell Park Horticultural Institute—often known as the Mitchell Park Domes or just “the Domes”—consists of three “conical, honeycomb-shaped glass domes” located on the city’s near south side at 524 S. Layton Blvd.
The conservatory describes the domes as a “living plant museum” featuring more than 1,800 species from around the world. Each dome represents a different theme. The Tropical Dome features rainforest plants, fruit trees, hibiscus and other tropical flowers, birds and koi fish. The Desert Dome features giant cacti, succulents, cactus flowers, and Steve the Bearded Dragon. The Flower Dome hosts five seasonal shows, including a holiday show and a spring flower show.
As part of the Milwaukee County Parks System, the conservatory’s “mission is to inspire people through plants.” In addition to the main domes, the Mitchell Park campus includes six greenhouses and a greenhouse for special events.
When were the domes built?
Construction of the domes began in 1959 and continued until 1967. The total cost of the project was $4.5 million.
In 1955, a design competition was held for the new conservatory, won by Milwaukee architect Donald L. Grebe with his dome design.
According to the Domes website, Mitchell Park was “one of the first five parks created as part of the Milwaukee Parks Commission, which was formed in 1890.” Tulips, willow trees, a lily pond, and a boating lake were soon added to make the park a “horticultural destination.”
The park’s first conservatory, a glass structure “inspired by London’s famous Crystal Palace”, opened to the public in 1899, and features year-round plants, seasonal flower displays, a sunken garden and cultural events. The Conservatory was a “popular attraction for decades”, but after visitor numbers declined in the 1940s and 1950s, it was decided to demolish the Conservatory building and replace it with a more modern facility.
Journal Sentinel reporters Don Beam, Meg Jones, Vanessa Swales and Isaac Yu contributed to this report.