The Mitchell Park Domes: Milwaukee's Public Modernist Marvel


Virginia Small


Regional Spotlight, Milwaukee, Wisconsin, Advocacy
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Beyond Cream City Brick Part Two
The Mitchell Park Domes: Milwaukee's Public Modernist Marvel

The Mitchell Park Horticultural Conservatory, known as the "Domes," was designed in 1959 and constructed over the next eight years. Architect Donald L. Grieb's proposal for the cone-shaped domes was selected following a national competition. Its patented design has never been replicated, making the Domes unique in the world.

Former First Lady "Lady Bird" Johnson attended a dedication ceremony. In 2017 The National Trust for Historic Preservation named the Domes a National Treasure and joined with Milwaukee Preservation Alliance in advocating for a preservation solution. Other organizations, including Docomomo have recognized their significance. The public consistently expresses their appreciation for the Domes and the exceptional experiences they provide.

A trio of glass domes gleams by day and by night along a bluff overlooking Milwaukee’s Menomonee Valley. The Mitchell Park Horticultural Conservatory, affectionately known as the Domes, lets visitors immerse themselves year-round within abundant plantings. A living museum filled with plants from across the globe, the Domes offers opportunities for a health-promoting “nature fix.”

An eye-catching South Side landmark and source of civic pride for generations, the Domes are the world’s only cone-shaped glasshouses. Milwaukeean Donald L. Grieb’s design was chosen in 1959 among proposals submitted by 33 architects in a national competition. Grieb’s son has said that his father awoke one day with the design in his head and proceeded to craft models with toothpicks and balsa wood.

In 2017 the National Trust for Historic Preservation declared the Domes a “national treasure” for being “a unique engineering marvel, a nationally significant example of Midcentury Modern architecture...a center of community life and an international tourism destination for more than 50 years.”

Grieb (1918-2018), studied other conservatories in his quest to increase access to sunlight and accommodate taller plants. Each dome is 140 feet in diameter and 85 feet high. “The conoidal design was patented, and that patent has never been used, so they are unique in the world,” said Dawn McCarthy, President Emeritus of the Milwaukee Preservation Alliance, the local nonprofit organization leading efforts to find a long-term preservation solution for the Domes.

Other prominent organizations, including Docomomo US, have lauded the Domes' significance. The Cultural Landscape Foundation (TCLF), based in Washington D.C., named the Domes a “threatened cultural landscape” in its 2016 Landslide program. TCLF wrote that the Domes “are recognized as a Modernist marvel” and compared it to the recently restored Arch in St. Louis, which opened the same year as the Domes.

A Zoo for Plants

The Domes showcase diverse horticultural climates in what an avid young student at a public hearing called “a zoo for plants.” The Domes’ horticultural staff tends a collection valued for millions of dollars, which includes thousands of plant species, in addition to changing floral displays.

The Show Dome, Tropical Dome and Desert Dome were constructed one at a time between 1959 and 1967. U.S. First Lady “Lady Bird” Johnson attended a dedication ceremony in 1965.

The Domes have received acclaim since their opening and remain a popular destination for locals and tourists. Before a temporary pandemic-related closure in 2020, nearly 250,000 people visited the Domes annually. (The Domes have since reopened with social distance protocols in place.)

Many people have spoken publicly about why they treasure the Domes, including as an antidote for “Seasonal Affective Disorder.” Intergenerational outings, including to enjoy seasonal holiday displays, have become traditions for many families. The Domes are a popular setting for weddings and other special events, and memorable photos.

West Allis native and former Madison mayor Dave Cieslewicz wrote about the Domes in Madison’s Isthmus. “On cold winter Saturday afternoons when I was a kid, my dad would often take me to the Mitchell Park Domes. We’d bask in the humidity of the tropical dome or enjoy the crisp heat of the desert dome...The earthy smell of all those plants on frigid days is something that’s still with me all these years later.”

Darlene Wesenberg Rzezotarski, a Shorewood artist and teacher, said, “Our children always watched for the Domes from the expressway whenever we returned from a trip. They knew we were home again when the Domes came into view.”

Deep Layers of Civic History

The Domes grace Mitchell Park, one of Milwaukee’s venerable green spaces. Mitchell Park and the Domes are economic and cultural anchors of Clarke Square, one of Milwaukee’s most diverse, storied and populous neighborhoods. The park originally comprised about 30 acres when it was created in 1890--one of seven original parks developed by Milwaukee’s nascent park commission.

When Mitchell Park was expanded to 61 acres nearly a decade later, Warren H. Manning (1860-1938), a nationally renowned landscape architect, redesigned it. He accentuated its rolling hills and designed a scenic lagoon and a Sunken Garden with a spectacular “water mirror” reflecting pool. Manning consulted for nearly a decade with Milwaukee’s park commission after he assisted landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted in master-planning three of Milwaukee’s first parks.

Completed in 1901, the Sunken Garden was placed on axis with a Victorian-style glass house designed by Henry C. Koch, the architect for Milwaukee’s towering City Hall. Mitchell Park became nicknamed “Flower Park” for its cherished indoor and outdoor horticultural displays. The original conservatory was razed in 1955, after deterioration caused by neglect was aggravated by a hailstorm. The Sunken Garden was gradually removed in the 1990s without fanfare or any significant public discussion.

Manning's influence and legacies, including Milwaukee parks, are chronicled in Warren H. Manning: Landscape Architect and Environmental Planner, published in 2017.

Threatened Demolition

Former Milwaukee County Executive Chris Abele repeatedly expressed a willingness to demolish the Domes. He told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel in March 2016 that razing the Domes was “a realistic option. When the Domes replaced the Victorian conservatory. . .I'm sure there were plenty of people who bemoaned the loss of the Victorian conservatory and saw these new, modern McDonald's-y domes as, oh, it was heresy," he added. 

In 2018 Abele told OnMilwaukee, “We’ve also thought about having the zoo fill these [horticultural] needs...there’s a ton of parking that’s highly visible” at the zoo in suburban Wauwatosa. Other options offered in a study commissioned by Abele's office included razing the Domes and consolidating countywide horticultural activities at Boerner Botanical Gardens in Hales Corners--a suburb not accessible by mass transit.

Walter Wilson, a retired principal architect for Milwaukee County, considers that approach misguided. “The Domes should not be relocated. Period.” In a 2016 article, he said that “the conservatory and its South Side neighborhood are interdependent.”

Wilson, a fellow of the American Institute of Architects and member of the National Organization for Minority Architects (NOMA), asked in response, “Why would anyone want to give up something that’s truly a defining feature of Milwaukee?” He said that this debate also reflects larger urban-planning issues playing out in Milwaukee. “Look where the Domes are located. Part of the reasoning behind talk of moving them is that they are in a neighborhood that gives some people pause,” with some low-income residents. He notes Milwaukee’s tendency to “try to put a mask on poverty, as Matthew Desmond’s bestseller Evicted describes.”

Wilson said it would be better to explore ways to restore both the Domes and surrounding neighborhood.

Challenges Continue

Long-deferred maintenance of the Domes must be addressed to ensure that the facility continues to serve as a community and educational asset. The Milwaukee County Task Force on the Mitchell Park Conservatory Domes (AKA, the Domes Task Force) met for three years to evaluate options for moving forward. At its final meeting in August 2019, the task force endorsed the business plan and conceptual design prepared by ArtsMarket, Inc., a third-party contractor. The $66 million re-envisioning of the Domes and Mitchell Park over the next 50 years includes a multi-faceted funding structure combining federal tax credits from multiple sources, private philanthropic donations and approximately $13.5 million in County bond funding.

Rejuvenation of the Domes and Mitchell Park will require that civic leaders and elected officials generate sufficient political will--such as has been leveraged to consistently fund local arena, stadium and convention-center projects. The uncertain future of the Domes also has economic and environmental-justice implications, since it anchors one of Milwaukee's most under-resourced neighborhoods.

One woman at a Domes hearing in 2019 asked attendees to consider what it would be like to return to Milwaukee “and not find our Domes. . . That would be like St. Louis without their Arch.”


About the Author

Virginia Small is an award-winning independent journalist who writes about parks and other landscapes, urbanism and historic preservation issues, and environmental topics. She conducts tours of historic landscapes and has presented lectures about landscape history at state and local conferences. The Wisconson Chapter of the  American Society of Landscape Architects honored her in 2019 with its "Visibility Award" for increasing  awareness of the landscape architecture profession."


Beyond Cream City Brick: Modernism in Milwaukee is part of the Docomomo US Regional Spotlight on Modernism Series, which was launched to help you explore modern places throughout the country without leaving your home. Previous spotlights include Chicago, MississippiMidland, MichiganHoustonLas VegasColoradoKansas, and Pittsburgh. Have a region you'd like to see highlighted? Submit an article.

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Beyond Cream City Brick Part Four
Milwaukee Roots: Frank Lloyd Wright’s Seminal Designs for the Modern American Home