Mitchell Park Horticultural Conservatory, Milwaukee, WI

Task Force OKs Plan to Save Milwaukee’s Mitchell Park Domes

Much has happened since TCLF listed the Mitchell Park Domes as a Landslide site in March 2016. After several years of study and debate, favorable news was delivered on Tuesday, August 13, when the Milwaukee County-sponsored Mitchell Park Domes Task Force unanimously voted to endorse a plan that would save the embattled Mitchell Park Horticultural Conservatory, colloquially known as the Mitchell Park Domes. Titled “A New Urban Botanical Park and Conservatory: Re-envisioning Mitchell Park and Its Domes for the Next 50 Years,” the plan reimagines both the Domes and their 61-acre Mitchell Park setting, which would include a farm-to-table restaurant, events venues, and a “Center for Urban Ag and Health” developed in partnership with the Medical College of Wisconsin.

Rendering of the reconceived Mitchell Park Conservatory
Rendering of the reconceived Mitchell Park Conservatory - Image courtesy A New Urban Botanical Park and Conservatory report, 2019

The work to restore the Domes and reshape the park is estimated to cost a total of $66 million over a ten-year period. A public-private partnership would be charged to manage the park and its programming. According to the proposal, the Domes would be rehabilitated meeting national historic preservation standards and guidelines, while a new Welcome Center would be added, featuring classrooms, research facilities, exhibition space, and retail venues. Bill Lynch, who chairs the task force, told the Milwaukee Business Journal that the proposal “will better connect people and the plant world that strengthens a healthy community and healthy environment.”

Some $30 million of the funds would be used to rehabilitate the aging Domes, while parts of Mitchell Park would also receive much-needed work, including the Mitchell Park pond, which would be restored to support a park-wide water-recirculation system. New paths, trails, and several gardens would be added, tennis courts would be reinstalled, and the park’s amphitheater would be upgraded to accommodate more seating. The boathouse at the lagoon would be reimagined as a center for weddings and catering.

Mitchell Park Horticultural Conservatory, Milwaukee, WI
Mitchell Park Horticultural Conservatory, Milwaukee, WI - Photo by Carol M. Highsmith, 2016

Developed by the firm ArtsMarket, the proposal to overhaul the Domes and add several new attractions to Mitchell Park has the potential to be an economic driver for the surrounding Clarke Square neighborhood, with an estimated 300 new jobs to be created within a decade. The plan projects that some $13.5 million of the necessary funding would be raised from the private sector, with another $13.5 million coming from Milwaukee County—approximately $1 million less than what it would cost the county to demolish the Domes. The remaining $39 million would derive from tax credits and Opportunity Zone Investment. As local ABC affiliate WISN reported, the Milwaukee County Board of Supervisors will likely vote on the proposal in late September.

The Domes were completed in 1967 and designed by local architect Donald Grieb. The three iconic, conoidal structures, each 140 feet in diameter, were built with a cast-concrete undercarriage covered by a steel-and-glass shell. The threat to the Domes materialized after a fallen piece of concrete was discovered in one of the structures in January 2015. Milwaukee County officials responded by temporarily closing the structures and publicly raising the possibility of demolishing them. A recent proposal to demolish the Domes in order to create a new museum facility was summarily dismissed.