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What’s got you scratching your head about Milwaukee and the region? Bubbler Talk is a series that puts your curiosity front and center.

The Origins Of Milwaukee’s Mitchell Park Domes

Michelle Maternowski
The Mitchell Park Horticultural Conservancy has welcomed visitors for more than 50 years.

You’ve probably driven by The Domes many times and even visited them. Whether you love them or hate them, their future’s been hotly debated — should Milwaukee County restore or destroy them? To have a better understanding of their future, let’s take a look at their past.

Pat Faherty is fond of The Domes, officially called The Mitchell Park Horticultural Conservatory, but has one lingering question. So, Pat and reached out to Bubbler Talk:

What was the reason that the domes in Milwaukee were built for? We love them but we can't find why they were built.

The Domes glisten within Mitchell Park, one of Milwaukee’s earliest public greenspaces. Its 61 acres lie west of downtown Milwaukee and stand above the Menomonee Valley.

Dawn McCarthy, with a group called the Milwaukee Preservation Alliance, is among the many people who love the structures. She says The Domes resulted from a competition among 33 architects in 1955.

"It was a nationwide contest and Donald Grieb, a local architect who had designed a number of civic projects, studied conservatories and planned for how the light would come in and created the Domes," Dawn says.

Credit Milwaukee County Parks
This aerial shot, taken in 1968, shows how the sunken garden and surrounding plantings folded into architect Donald Grieb's design of The Domes.

Donald's son reportedly said his dad woke up with the design in his head one morning, and he proceeded to craft models of toothpicks and balsa wood that would ultimately become three glassy beehive-shaped structures. Each dome is 140 feet in diameter and rises 85 feet in the air.

“It’s a unique plan, they’re conidial so that they could be taller and it was patented and that patent has never been used, so they are unique in the world,” Dawn says.

Crews began constructing Grieb’s vision in 1959 — first the show dome, followed by the tropical, and finally the desert dome in 1967.

Credit Milwaukee County Historical Society
Inside Mitchell Park Center Rotunda in 1920.

But the eye-catching structures weren’t the first to showcase plant life on the site. For more than 50 years, Milwaukee’s original horticultural conservatory stood there.  

In 1898 crews began constructing the Mitchell Park Conservatory and greenhouses to propagate its plants. Virginia Small has says it was considered a "Victorian glass house."

“It was built by Charles Koch, who also built City Hall. So it was a very distinctive place,” Virginia says. She's a Milwaukee writer who's researched and written a lot about public spaces.

READ: Milwaukee City Hall Square: A Postcard Reveals More Than 100 Years Of History


Credit Milwaukee County Historical Society
For decades people traveled by streetcar to enjoy a day in Mitchell Park.

Not only could visitors drink in a profusion of plants indoors, but a sunken garden was also added outdoors in 1904. It was complete with a reflecting pool and artfully designed plantings and paths.

The sunken garden was designed by landscape architect Warren Manning, who also had a hand in the landscapes of other Milwaukee parks. Virginia says Warren Manning should be a household name because of his many contributions.

“[He was] renowned and extremely prolific. He was one of the founders of the National Park Service. He was one of the founders of the American Society of Landscape Architects,” Virginia says. “Perhaps his most significant claim to fame was that he was considered the first environmental planner.”

Credit Milwaukee County Historical Society
According to Friend of the Domes website: In 1898 construction began on the Conservatory under H.C. Koch and Company’s supervision. The structure paid homage to the Crystal Palace in London, England.

READ: How Milwaukee County's Parks Came To Be

People gravitated to Warren's design in Mitchell Park, Virginia says.

“Because of the conservatory and the sunken garden and just the flowing pathways, it became known as Flower Park. At one point, it was considered the most popular destination for people taking the streetcar to go and spend an afternoon enjoying the flowers, promenading — that went on for quite a few decades," Virginia says.

As for the conservatory, she says it was well-loved but not well-tended. The structure was demolished in 1955.

The sunken garden continued to be a Mitchell Park fixture as the futuristic domes fascinated new generations. But in the face of mounting budget constraints, the sunken garden was removed in 1994.

Credit Michelle Maternowski
Safety concerns piqued in 2016 when a piece of concrete fell inside one of the domes.

Like other parks facilities, the Domes have suffered under the weight of deferred maintenance. A few years ago, a piece of concrete fell inside one of the Domes, creating a scare.

The incident set a series of events in motion. The Domes were temporarily closed, and a task force was launched to determine the structure's future.

READ: Proposed Plan Restores Mitchell Park Domes And The Greenspace Surrounding It

Dawn McCarthy, who’s with the Milwaukee Preservation Alliance, is on the task force. She says the task force approved a business plan and model. The group then presented it to the Milwaukee County Board of Supervisors.

The board is now mulling over the proposal, which would restore the structures at a projected cost of $18 million to $19 million.

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Susan is WUWM's environmental reporter.
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