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After 110 Years, the Belle Isle Conservatory Still Fascinates

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[Photography by Chris and Michelle Gerard]

One of Detroit's oldest surviving forests covers eastern Belle Isle, but one could argue that the island's most dramatic plant life is actually found indoors. The Anna Scripps Whitcomb Conservatory debuted in 1904, on the same summer day as the Belle Isle Aquarium. Both buildings were designed in an era when civic structures were points of community pride. Today's Belle Isle might rely on porta-potties for restrooms and 55-gallon drums for trashcans, but the Detroit of yesteryear had no qualms over hiring Albert Kahn to design a glass castle for plants. Modeling his design after Thomas Jefferson's Monticello with an 85-foot glass dome, Kahn certainly didn't squander the opportunity.
Over time, the Belle Isle Aquarium would retain its architecture but lose its fish. The conservatory went the opposite direction. In the 1950s, Albert Kahn's original wooden frame was rebuilt using aluminum. An architectural downgrade, the aluminum's durability was probably a smart move in the long-term. The conservatory was never closed down for budget reasons, and is currently enjoying its 110th year of operation. It remains the oldest continuously running conservatory in the country. It's open Wednesday-Sunday, 10am to 5pm.
· Belle Isle Conservancy [Official]
· Historic Belle Isle Aquarium Doesn't Need Fish to Impress [Curbed]