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Friday, Nov. 28, 2008

Domes of Light

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They frequently pop up on Internet searches and peak at you above billboards and byways, but when’s the last time you actually visited the Domes? The day of your high-school prom? Last Christmas? Never? Too long have these structures lain dormant, waiting to be redelivered to their former glory.

Well, the wait is over.

The Domes, or the Mitchell Park Horticultural Conservatory to be precise, are ready to shake off the gloomy pallor cast by years of weathering and neglect and reclaim their rightful place on Milwaukee’s skyline. If you happen to drive by one winter’s evening you’ll notice their suggestively swollen forms have been crowned with bright aureoles of colored light that beckon you to pay homage to these crystalline symbols of the glory days of Milwaukee’s parks.

A Luminous Display

The halos of light are part of a dramatic display that, come nightfall, turns the Domes into dazzling lanterns. Floodlights placed around the base glaze their taut skins with washes of red, violet, green and blue. Inside the Floral Show Dome diminutive “pixel” lights placed at the intersections of the mullions glint and flash in time to pre-programmed computer-operated routines. A glass “moon” suspended from the apex of the Arid Dome adds a touch of playfulness to its desert surroundings.

Although other changes have been made to the facility, such as improved circulation, decorative details and signage in the vestibule and foyer, the lighting is the most noticeable addition. Its importance was singled out early in the Domes’ renovation process, according to Milwaukee Country Parks Director Sue Black.

“It really started with wanting to extend the hours. That was the genesis of the whole thing,” Black says. “When you want to stay open longer in the evening, you naturally have to think about lighting.”

A national competition was held for lighting design and a local firm came out on top: New Berlin’s Creative Lighting Design & Engineering. Another local company, Good Electric, installed the fixtures. According to Creative Lighting’s Marty Peck, the decision to focus on uplighting and pixels highlighting the structure “was our first big idea and we knew it was the kernel of what we were going to do.”

To keep costs down and stay true to the Domes’ spirit of conservation, low-wattage energy-efficient LED lights were employed, which cost much less to power than regular bulbs. Much energy was also devoted to developing light routines that evoke different moods and tempos, from the buoyant and bold to the serene and contemplative.

“The Dome structure is like the canvas and the lights are like paint, but the programming and choreography is what results in the final composition,” Peck says. These computer-operated programs and color combinations (of which there are some 16 million) can be customized for special events. For the next couple of weeks patrons can expect an array of Thanksgiving-inspired lights in red, orange and yellow.

Those craving a more muted transformation may be disappointed, as the light display is anything but subtle. Yet it beat out other ideas that were brought to the table, such as incorporating new artworks into the facility. Doing so might not have had the same universal appeal as a splashy light display. As a young colleague of mine commented, “It’s cool—like Radiohead concert cool.” With increasingly sexy film and video-game visuals competing for our attention, this kind of youthful endorsement speaks volumes.

The visceral immediacy with which the display aims to grab your attention also says much about the state of Milwaukee County parks. It’s no secret that what was once the envy of the nation has been in decline for a number of years, but what part are the Domes expected to play in salvaging the parks’ reputation?

Black says the answer lies in their visibility and their history. “I think you need to look backward to know where you came from… to set your line and pick your priorities,” she says.

The Domes serves as a powerful visual icon that encompasses some of the peaks and troughs of the County Parks System within the past century. Studying their evolution not only helps us understand their significance, but also offers clues to the future of Milwaukee’s relationship with parks.

A Budding Tradition

The decision to build a horticultural conservatory for Milwaukee was made in 1898 during the heyday of the City Beautiful movement sweeping through Chicago, Detroit and Washington, D.C. These and other cities were founding impressive public parks to serve as green lungs, assuaging some of the problems associated with rapid industrialization. Although Milwaukee had a rich network of pleasure gardens, or beer gardens, thanks largely to its European immigrant population, and a handful of public gardens, it lacked a cohesive public park system for a city of its size. The Milwaukee County Park Commission worked swiftly to redress this problem. One of the showpieces for the nascent County Parks System became the horticultural attraction known as the Mitchell Park Conservatory.

The original conservatory building was designed by the local firm H.C. Koch and modeled after London’s world-renowned Crystal Palace, with a sunken garden that turned to European beaux-arts traditions for inspiration.

Anti-German sentiment during World War I and the Prohibition that followed saw the gradual demise of the city’s pleasure gardens, increasing the importance of public parks. However, newspaper reports of this period also speak of the physical deterioration of the conservatory, partly due to the straitened circumstances facing many public amenities around this time. In 1955 the old structure was razed against concerns that the institution wouldn’t be replaced, or would be moved to Whitnall Park.

However, the story of the Mitchell Park Horticultural Conservatory was far from over. Having expended much energy meeting the urgent postwar demand for public housing, Milwaukee was entering an era of renewed civic growth through new public projects such as County Stadium, the County Zoo and the War Memorial Center. Mitchell Park was ready for a new structure that would capture the prosperity and optimism of the period.

The Envy of the Nation

A new age brought with it a different set of objectives. The new conservatory would have to accommodate tall plants, employ modern means of controlling heat, moisture and ventilation, and above all serve as a visual beacon for Milwaukee’s public park system—the envy of the nation.

More than 30 architects were interviewed for the job, including the established firm of Eschweiler & Eschweiler. A young architect named Donald Grieb won the commission. He began work on the project in 1958, and just as the architect of the original conservatory had turned to a symbol of the modern era for inspiration, Grieb looked to a visionary architect/engineer of his day, Buckminster Fuller, whose signature geodesic domes had gained international repute and were already employed in conservatory designs elsewhere.

Grieb, now more than 90 years old, recalls an early attempt to get Fuller’s design team onboard: “I asked them if they’d like to join hands with me in designing these domes,” Grieb says. “They sent an attorney out and he made it clear their system was one they didn’t want to work on with another architect. So they were off the list.”

Perhaps rightly so, for Grieb ended up significantly tweaking Fuller’s design to maximize the Domes’ height and cut out obstructive structural members. His Domes are described as the world’s first glass conoidal domes and were greeted by the media of the day with comments ranging from the exclamatory “revolutionary” and “ultramodern” to the highly descriptive “Eskimo village” and “glass bubble.” Like Fuller’s domes, they somehow stood outside of their time, and continue to do so today. Interestingly, after the first dome was underway, Grieb was reminded of ancient precedents for his structure.

“I got a call from a friend and he said, ‘Is that dome you’re building anything like the domes I just saw in Italy?’” he recalls. “I asked, ‘What dome did you see’ and he said, ‘It’s the Pantheon in Rome.’ Here was this building built 100 years after Christ and the principles of its design matched my own!”

The Domes’ tessellated, reinforced-concrete substructure also nodded to new and innovative uses of this material by architects of the day like Le Corbusier, Eduardo Torroja and Eero Saarinen, who designed the War Memorial. Even the echoing archways of the Domes’ entryway have a Saarinen feel. And like Fuller’s creations, the futuristic, otherworldy form of the Domes speaks to the Space Age’s fascination with unexplored territories. The first dome was completed in 1964, succeeded by the other two in the following three years. The Mitchell Park Domes symbolized a period for Milwaukee that promised hope and change.

The Bubble Deflates

Local historian John Gurda describes the decline of the Milwaukee County Parks System as “a very subtle erosion beginning probably in the 1970s and 1980s” and resulting from a drop in investment in the parks. He traces the Domes’ decline to this period, during which the sunken gardens were filled in. For him it “was a sign that there was some disinvestment going on.”

The future of the under-funded parks continues to hang in the balance. Revenue generated by the recent sales tax referendum may help to alleviate some of the financial pressures, but the question might also be one of public disinvestment. With the sedentary recreational habits of our culture promoting pleasures that increasingly fit the palm of one’s hand, what is the future of parks as a whole?

Though Gurda agrees that the conservatory competed with fewer leisure outlets when it was first built, he believes parks are still a resource valued by the public. “If you go to Lincoln Memorial Drive in the summertime and see how crowded it is, people do appreciate parks. They do appreciate the legacy,” he says. Gurda adds that the Domes’ renovation marks “a very welcome counter-surge against a very powerful pattern of disinvestment and decline in concern for our common wealth.”

However, he also feels it’s foolish to read too much into the renovation. “It’s tempting to look at it in the short term and say, ‘Now we’re getting it; now we’re rediscovering the value of these resources,’” he says. “But the truth is that people forget, remember, forget, remember.”

Parks Director Black also realizes there’s a long way to go before the problems facing Milwaukee parks are solved, but notes that inroads have been made in recent years. “We’re making some significant strides,” she says.

Partly to raise awareness in the community, the facility will host “Music Under Glass” on Thursday evenings beginning Jan. 8, 2009, a wintertime counterpart to summer’s “Jazz in the Park.”

For Black, the improvements don’t stop here. She has many ideas for the future, including an expanded educational facility and an outside seating area that takes advantage of the site’s exquisite views of the city. “You just have to keep working on this,” she says. “I think that’s what our responsibility is: to leave this system in better shape than we found it.” If this selective but effective effort is anything to go by, Black is well on her way. Now it’s up to the public to answer the call and rediscover the pleasures of the Domes.

Log on to ExpressMilwaukee.com to watch our exclusive video of the Domes’ renovation and LED installation. What’s your take? Write: editor@shepex.com or comment on this story online at www.expressmilwaukee.com.