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Recent Call to Destroy Mitchell Park Domes Dismissed

A recently released feasibility study has recommended the complete destruction of the Mitchell Park Horticultural Conservatory, commonly known as the Mitchell Park Domes, in order to build a $300 million facility to house a new Milwaukee Public Museum. The study was commissioned by the Milwaukee County Museum Task Force and was prepared by Gallagher Museum Services (GMS). The Milwaukee County Museum Task Force is separate and distinct from the Domes Task Force, which continues to explore options other than the Domes’ destruction, in accord with county policy. 

The primary conclusion of the 27-page study is that “the Milwaukee Domes should be demolished.” It further explains that “the content and experience of the Domes could the [sic] be integrated into the Milwaukee Public Museum on the site of the current Domes in a new 222,000 SF building. The new building could be linked into the Greenhouse facility providing a 284,000 SF facility.” The study, however, does not indicate how the “experience of the Domes” can be integrated with a new museum if the Domes themselves are destroyed.

Mitchell Park Domes, Milwaukee, WI
Mitchell Park Domes, Milwaukee, WI - Photo courtesy of Sulfur, 2005

And although the study finds that "the cost of properly renovating the Domes greatly outweighs the benefit of doing so," it does not identify, assess, or address in any way the benefit of renovating the Domes or the loss of a significant cultural and historical resource that their destruction would represent. Rather, it outlines in simple arithmetic how a new, combined facility would “save approximately 200,000 square feet of building space” and contends that doing so would provide “a very efficient yet very strong guest experience for Milwaukee County and its citizens."

The report was immediately rebuked by the National Trust for Historic Preservation, whose senior vice president of field services, Barb Pahl, issued the following statement: “Demolition of the Mitchell Park Domes, an iconic symbol of Milwaukee and a National Treasure, would result in an irreparable loss for the community…The public has overwhelmingly voiced their support for protecting these local landmarks from disinvestment, destruction, and demolition. With support from the County Board of Supervisors, the Domes Task Force is currently preparing detailed reports on two options – targeted investments and destination attraction – neither of which would include demolition of the Domes. This ongoing work is critical to making an informed decision on a preservation solution for the Domes.”

Moreover, comments from the Milwaukee County Board of Supervisors largely dismissed the study’s findings. As Urban Milwaukee reported, Supervisor Jason Haas, who chairs the Committee on Parks, Energy, and Environment, said that the recent study “has no impact on the future of the domes, or the park or the museum. For this to go forward, we would need an agreement from the public museum. I think it is possible for us to fulfill our current policy to repair and restore the domes for a vastly lower price and make them better in the process.”

Mitchell Park Conservatory, Milwaukee, WI
Mitchell Park Conservatory, Milwaukee, WI - Photo by Carol Highsmith, courtesy Library of Congress, 2016

Milwaukee County Board Chairman Theo Lipscomb likewise told the Journal Sentinel that the analysis still underway by the Domes Task Force promises to be more extensive, and that that task force is “charged with drafting recommendations that I believe will lead to the repair and preservation of the Domes." The Milwaukee County Parks Department’s Ian Everett noted that the number of visitors to the Domes has increased over the last year, and that admissions “are really good this year.”

The Michell Park Domes were designed by architect Donald Grieb and built in Milwaukee’s 61-acre Mitchell Park between 1959 and 1967. Given their age, they would likely be eligible for listing in the National Register of Historic Places under Criterion C, as "the Work of a Master." TCLF enrolled the Domes in its Landslide program in 2016 after local officials had closed them temporarily and expressed a willingness to entertain their demolition. Those sentiments were a reaction to a small piece of concrete that was found in the Arid Dome (a.k.a. Desert Dome) in late January of that year—evidence of spalling that triggered a discussion about the Domes’ maintenance. The National Trust for Historic Preservation named the Domes a “National Treasure” in March 2017 and continues to explore ways to fund their rehabilitation.