midMOD monday: mitchell park domes
The world celebrated Earth Day on Saturday, so I thought it would be appropriate for today’s midMOD Monday to cover the great glass bubbles of Milwaukee.
Milwaukee's Mitchell Park Domes, officially known as the Mitchell Park Horticultural Conservatory, have served as a unique tourist destination for more than fifty years, drawing nearly 250,000 visitors in 2015. A Modernist marvel, the coned shaped domes exemplify the inventive, optimistic, and (sometimes) eccentric nature of mid-twentieth-century architecture.
Visionary local architect, Donald L. Grieb designed the futuristic beehive-shaped domes for a 1955 design competition, beating out more than thirty other architects. Construction began on his intricate conoidal domes in 1959, proceeding 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 (show dome, tropical dome, and desert dome) each support a unique setting and climate.
Although the trio of glass beehives are often likened to the famous geodesic domes of Buckminster Fuller, the Mitchell Park structures remain distinctive in their complex structural system, composed not of steel (like Fuller's) but cast concrete. Each dome's intricate shell of glass and aluminum guttering floats above a concrete skeleton, leaving a 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.
The inventive nature of Grieb's design is what also makes the domes so structurally fragile, and like many midcentury resources (especially those with adventurous engineering), the domes have fallen into a state of disrepair. In early 2016, the domes temporarily closed due to a piece of falling concrete. After Milwaukee County threatened to demolish at least one of the structures, the National Trust of Historic Preservation (NTHP) named the site to its 2016 'Most Endangered' list, later designating the domes as a National Treasure. Even with national support from the likes of the NTHP, preservation of the complex will not be easy. An initial cost estimate to repair and preserve the domes of $75 million spurred heated public meetings and ample finger pointing. The NTHP later stepped in with its own $18.6 million plan for rehabilitation, quelling some of the local contention and offering hope for the domes' future.
As a modern architecture lover and preservation professional, I'll be watching this story closely over the next year or so. But today, I'll just appreciate Donald Grieb's domes for their technological ingenuity, inherent beauty, and bold optimism.
Wishing you all a little of that same optimism this rainy morning.
Image at top of page: Carol M. Highsmith photographer. "The Domes," as residents of Milwaukee, Wisconsin, commonly call them, house examples of different world ecosystems at the Mitchell Park Conservatory. Milwaukee, Milwaukee County, United States, Wisconsin, 2016. Courtesy of the Library of Congress, 2016631134.
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