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Historic Belle Isle Aquarium Doesn't Need Fish to Impress

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[Photography by Chris and Michelle Gerard]

Don't visit Belle Isle Aquarium for the fish. The animals present—a small band of common fish and reptiles along with a few exotics—aren't likely to wow you. Instead of marine life, several tanks display advertisements or dioramas. Some contain only dust.
But the visitors that crowd the aquarium each Saturday don't mind, and the volunteers who tirelessly keep the building afloat aren't making any apologies. Like so many gems in Detroit, the Aquarium is beautiful, underfunded, and was once among the most advanced buildings of its type. Unlike much of Detroit, it's still standing.

Modern aquariums make a show of mastering the ocean, impressing guests with walls of glass, training whales and dolphins for Sea World-style performances. The Belle Isle Aquarium opened in 1904, when Belle Isle was an Eden of venetian canals, picnics, and weeping willow trees. The Titanic wouldn't sink for another eight years. Diving suits looked like this. Back then, the ocean was a murky, unpredictable place.

The aquarium's architecture (an Albert Kahn design) reflects that mystery, with an elaborate ocean-themed engraving dominating the entrance. Submerged glass tunnels weren't an option back then, so Kahn had the interior lined with green tile to replicate the light/color of being underwater. The eerie hue is perfect.

The original, more extensive fish collection was transferred elsewhere when Kwame Kilpatrick closed the aquarium in 2005. It took volunteers until 2012 to get the building reopened, scoring grants to renovate the roof and windows. More recently, volunteers salvaged supplies from the recently shuttered National Aquarium in Washington DC, one of the few aquariums that opened before Belle Isle's. Admission is free, though donations are accepted. Open 10am-4pm, Saturday and Sunday only.
· Full History: Belle Isle Aquarium [Historic Detroit]