In honor of Earth Day on Sunday, here's another look at the Mitchell Park Domes.
Milwaukee's Mitchell Park Domes (officially known as the Mitchell Park Horticultural Conservatory) have served as a unique tourist destination for more than 50 years, drawing nearly a quarter million people annually. A modern wonder and one of the city's most identifiable landmarks, the coned shaped domes exemplify the Atomic Age, their imaginative forms and eccentric swagger a symbol of postwar optimism and innovation.
Visionary local architect, Donald L. Grieb (who sadly passed away last month at the age of 99) designed the futuristic beehive-shaped bubbles for a 1955 competition, beating out more than thirty other architects from around the world. Construction began on the intricate glass domes in 1959, continuing in six stages over the next several years. Covering 45,000 square feet of exhibition space and connected by a central lobby, the three domes each support a distinct climate, exhibiting an array of flora in a naturalistic setting.
Although the glass beehives are often likened to the iconic geodesic domes of Buckminster Fuller, the Mitchell Park structures remain unusual in their complex structural system, composed not of steel (like Fuller's) but of cast concrete. Each dome's intricate shell of glass and aluminum guttering floats above a concrete skeleton, leaving space for air circulation. The unique conoidal shape allows room for taller trees, while also permitting 85% of available light to reach the conservatory's notable plant collection.
But the inventive nature of Grieb's engineering is also what makes the domes so structurally fragile, and like many mid-twentieth-century resources (especially those with adventurous engineering), the domes have fallen into a state of disrepair. In early 2016, the domes temporarily closed due to safety issues related to a piece of falling concrete, while ongoing leaks continue to cause a host of problems for the infrastructure. After Milwaukee County threatened to demolish at least one of the structures, the National Trust for Historic Preservation (NTHP) named The Domes to its 2016 'Most Endangered' list, later designating the site as a National Treasure. Even with national support from the likes of the NTHP, preservation of the complex faces a tough future with the initial cost estimate to repair the structures ($75 million) spurring heated public debate. A less-costly plan proposed by the NTHP ($18.6 million) managed to quell some of the controversy, offering hope (and maybe a way forward) for the domes' future.
As a modern architecture lover, I will continue to follow this story. But today, I'll just celebrate Donald Grieb's domes for their technological ingenuity, inherent beauty, and bold optimism- a true midcentury marvel.
A version of this post was published on April 24, 2017.
Image at the top:
Carol M. Highsmith, photographer. Concrete window elements at "The Domes," as residents of Milwaukee, Wisconsin, commonly call them, 2016. Courtesy of the Library of Congress, 2016631136.
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