A proposal that would have seen $19 million in federal funding go toward the rehabilitation of the deteriorating signature glass structures at Milwaukee’s Mitchell Park Horticultural Conservatory—better known as simply the Mitchell Park Domes—was unanimously shot down last week by a task force charged with overseeing how the $183 million in American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) funding received by Milwaukee County is allocated.
Led by Supervisor Juan Miguel Martinez, four Milwaukee County supervisors supported the proposal to use ARPA funds to restore of the trio of landmark conoidal glass domes; the fate of the beloved indoor botanical garden has been a cause for concern for preservationists since 2016 when a chunk of concrete fell from the frame of the Arid Dome, which first opened in 1967, following the staggered debuts of the Show Dome (1964) and Tropical Dome (1966). The conservatory, a modernist Brew City marvel designed by Milwaukee-based Donald L. Grieb and Associates, was previously closed for several months in 2008 to replace cracked glass panels and carry out other upgrades. But in 2016, when all three domes were temporarily closed for emergency repairs due to structural and public safety concerns, it became clear that a much more extensive work to restore the Mitchell Park Domes—and safeguard visitors—was needed.
The decaying state of the Mitchell Park Domes made national news that same year when the conservatory was named to the 11 Most Endangered Historic Places list released annually by the National Trust For Historic Preservation, which has been tracking the situation and advocating for a “preservation solution where all three Domes are rehabbed and reused, as a community resource, with programming and sustainable financial operations.” And while all three Domes remain very much open to visitors six years later, funding that would support a major rehabilitation plan ensuring that the Milwaukee County Park System-owned and -operated facility will remain accessible to future generations has yet to materialize.
As for the ARPA funds that could have gone toward the effort, $20 million will be used for the Center for Forensic Science and Protective Medicine, a new, purpose-built facility that will house Milwaukee County’s Office of the Medical Examiner and Office of Emergency Management.
“This Task Force has spent millions of dollars on initiatives to ensure that houses in suburban Milwaukee aren’t falling into disrepair, potentially rushing foreclosures. They have taken care of our golf courses. Additionally, they’ve appropriated $20 million dollars for our Medical Examiner’s office to build a new facility. While I support Milwaukee County constructing a new facility for the Office of the Medical Examiner, and the Office of Emergency Management, pitting these two items against one another was a calculated way to justify not funding our Domes,” said Martinez said in a statement, adding: “I fear that this historic structure will ultimately not be funded despite the incoming federal dollars. We need to do more to ensure its future.”
Supervisor Dyango Zerpa echoed Martinez’s dismay with the task force’s decision, noting: “I am disappointed that our historic domes weren’t guaranteed a future today. This landmark is not only beloved by the south side of Milwaukee, but it is an iconic structure that is enjoyed by visitors from around the world.”
As detailed by Milwaukee-based NPR affiliate WUWM, the decision by the task force to reject federal funding for rehabilitation efforts at the Mitchell Park Domes came despite the urging of local preservation groups, namely Save Our Domes and the Milwaukee Preservation Alliance.
“Our organization has been working with our partners at the National Trust for Historic Preservation and many in the community for seven years under the Save Our Domes banner. The cost of restoring The Domes and lack of available funding has been consistently raised as the primary obstacle to moving forward,” explained Jeremy Ebersole, executive director of the Milwaukee Preservation Alliance, in a statement shared by WUWM. “The requested amount of $19 million is based a 2019 County commission estimates of the cost of the most critical long-term need at The Domes, the glazing or glass replacement.”
James Tarantino, deputy director of the Milwaukee County Park System, clarified to WUWM that the department was not advocating for the ARPA funding proposal and said that a feasibility study led by a structural engineering firm is now underway to see if replacing the glass is a viable option at the aging facility, which needs a more comprehensive—and costly—revamp beyond just the restoration of its namesake beehive-esque forms.
In a Facebook statement, Save Our Domes said that it was “certainly disappointed that this once-in-a-generation funding opportunity was not supported” but also “encouraged by comments from Supervisors and Parks staff that the opposition to this resolution is not an opposition to saving the Domes and that the Domes should in fact be saved. MPA will continue working with the County and members of the public toward a long term preservation solution.”
The Milwaukee County Committee on Parks and Culture is also now considering a resolution to seek inscribing the midcentury Milwaukeean landmark on the National Register of Historic Place, a move that enables the county to apply for up to $7 million in tax credits for rehabilitation efforts.
A recent op-ed penned by Frank Schneiger and published by Urban Milwaukee suggests that the best way to ensure the survival of the Michell Park Domes is the creation of a nonprofit conservancy for long-term stewardship needs. In 2019, a study recommended demolishing the Domes and replacing the existing conservatory with a new horticultural facility combined with a relocated Milwaukee Public Museum. The recommendation was ultimately dismissed.
In addition to the ongoing concerns regarding their survival, the Mitchell Park Domes have also made dispiriting headlines in recent weeks after a vandal broke into the conservatory complex and made off with alcohol, tools, and a safe containing $5,000 in cash. The conservatory, one of the most popular attractions in Milwaukee among locals and tourists alike, was closed for a short period after the break-in. The domes nor their prized horticultural specimens were damaged.