© 2024 Milwaukee Public Media is a service of UW-Milwaukee's College of Letters & Science
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations
WUWM's Susan Bence reports on Wisconsin environmental issues.

Milwaukee Domes move step closer to national historic status, despite uncertain future

Mitchell Parks Domes
Joy Powers
Much planning and funding is needed to ensure the future of the horticultural conservancy.

Updated Thursday, September 22, 2022 2:37 p.m. CDT:

The Milwaukee County Board of Supervisors voted 15-3 Thursday to move forward with National Register of Historic Places status for The Domes, a promising step for advocates hoping to restore the conservatory. But much work remains. Milwaukee County has not yet created a comprehensive plan. That's expected to come up at the parks and culture committee meeting in December.

Original post:

The future of the Mitchell Parks Domes took a baby step forward Tuesday, September 13 when the Milwaukee County Committee on Parks and Culture agreed to apply for National Register of Historic Places status.

If the full board approves, this means The Domes will join other significant buildings around the country, and might qualify for historic credits to help fund The Domes much-needed restoration.

Milwaukee County Supervisor Juan Miguel Martinez grew up in, and represents, the 12th District in which the glistening, but clearly deteriorating Domes dwell.

“I grew up — since I could walk and talk in the shadow of The Domes at barbecues there. My district has always been part of me. This is a passion of mine,” Martinez said.

He told fellow parks and culture committee members Tuesday that this was not his first nor would it be his last resolution to help preserve the huge, beehive-shaped horticultural structures that Martinez and so many others cherish.

The three domes, built in the 1960s, hold unique plant habitats — one tropical, one arid and the third evolves with seasonal shows.

But in recent years as county funding for park system upkeep decreased, The Domes became one the casualties of deferred maintenance. Public safety concerns rose when a bit of concrete reporting fell from within the desert dome.

Last week Martinez’s attempt to use $19 million in ARPA funding for repairs failed.

Tuesday’s resolution simply would signal applying for National Register of Historic Places status.

County Supervisor Juan Miguel Martinez at Tuesday meeting of the parks and culture committee.
Milwaukee County Supervisor Juan Miguel Martinez at Tuesday meeting of the parks and culture committee.

Martinez said the move would demonstrate Milwaukee County’s commitment to The Domes’ restoration, and “pushing forward this resolution will really jumpstart the ability to attract donors and for possible other credits to be able to bring the Domes to where it was."

If Milwaukee County pursued historic place designation and The Domes did qualify, more than $7 million in historic tax credits might be available to help restore them.

Confusion among board members around the potential tax credits took on a life of its own in the ensuing committee debate. James Tarrantino with the parks department cautioned members about what he called inherent risks of pursuing historic designation.

“Being designated on the national or state registry is not just a matter of being on a list. It’s a commitment to an approval process with a separate governing body that I think we should understand a little bit more before pursuing this action,” Tarrantino said.

County research and policy analyst Ken Smith gave a concise description of what the proposed resolution allowed: "The resolution itself just has the board approving the policy of applying for the National Register of Historic Places."

But that failed to appease committee members, including Supervisor Steve Taylor. “If we move forward today and we’re just listed on this registry, but then it comes down to whether we apply for the credits and who applies for the credits, is it the county board that applies for the credits?” he asked.

Tarrantino said he couldn’t answer Taylor’s question and didn't know where that authority would lie.

Jeremy Ebersole knows a lot about historic designation. The executive director of Milwaukee Preservation Alliance told the committee his organization stands ready to assist Milwaukee County if it decides to pursue historic tax credits. He explained, “Which does involve working with partners in order to apply. But it is a fact, indisputable, that the county, even as a government agency, can benefit from historic tax credits through partnership. ... There are experts in Milwaukee who can help the county to do so."

Supervisor Taylor remained skeptical. “We don’t even know who the individuals are that are going to be applying for these tax credits. There are individuals in this community on this topic that are punch drunk on this and would spend and spend and spend,” he said.

The resolution did pass, and will need to be OK'd by the full county board, but Committee Chair Sheldon Wasserman said small steps aren’t enough. There is still no firm plan on The Domes' future.

“We have to take a bold step. I’ll work with you Supervisor Martinez and Supervisor Zerpa and anyone else, I think we need to come up with a resolution that directs the county executive’s office to come up with a plan with all options on the table — keeping The Domes as is, different shapes and sizes, anything.” Wasserman added, “Also with the preservation of Mitchell Park. That’s my primary thing."

Wasserman said he’ll introduce the resolution at the next parks committee meeting.

Have an environmental question you'd like WUWM's Susan Bence to investigate? Submit below.


Susan is WUWM's environmental reporter.
Related Content