Life Under Glass: The Mitchell Park Domes

A quiet, alternative experience in Milwaukee for the intrigued

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A relatively short 45 minute drive from Kenosha brought me to the place affectionately known as Brew City — home of the Brewers (because what else would you call your baseball team?) the Bucks (whose new logo resembles more of an elk), Summerfest (come for the music, stay for the food), and perhaps on the more quirky side of things, the Mitchell Domes, all of which are in the city of Milwaukee. “Wait, what?”, you might say. “The Mitchell Domes? Those old, rusty things?”

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Truth be told, there is a lot more to see in Milwaukee than the Domes; if you have the cash and time on hand, going to see a Brewers or Bucks game or the various museums in the city (the art museum is a local favorite) would probably be more worth your time if you’re just in Milwaukee to catch the essentials, but the Domes themselves have a certain luster to them — and what they stand for — that they are certainly worth a look for the wayward traveler or oblivious local who wants to experience a different side of Milwaukee.

The Mitchell Park Domes are three conoidal domes which were the first of their kind in the world, completed in 1964, 1966, and 1967 — the Show Dome, Tropical Dome, and Desert Dome, respectively. They were built atop of — and still occupy — the land that was once known as the Milwaukee Conservatory in the 1900’s. This land was donated to the city by a John L. Mitchell, a Democratic senator from Wisconsin who lived in opulence because his father, Alexander, invested into rail infrastructure at the right time.

His son, Billy Mitchell, is a tad more notable as the Father of the United States Air Force, pioneering the field of American military aviation; naturally, this means that three domes on the south side of Milwaukee share a name with the very bomber that Jimmy Doolittle launched from the USS Hornet to retaliate against Japan for Pearl Harbor, mere months after the attack that brought us into World War II — and now we see just how far the Mitchell name goes.

As small of a world as this might be, the three domes try to make it even smaller by trying to capture the spirit of entire climates very far from Milwaukee or the Midwest, in a space that’s 85 feet high and 140 feet in diameter. Yet, when you’re inside any of the domes, it doesn’t feel small — one might think that the Desert and Tropical domes were strategically planted in the 1960’s specifically to avoid the possibility of this perception. The Show Dome is where one can really experience the breadth of the dome’s size (since they’re just copies of each other, after all) but is also notable for being the only dome that regularly changes in its content.

The other two domes experience natural plant growth and some oddities, but that’s about it — in the Tropical Dome, for example, a large kapok tree dominates the center of the structure and is trimmed to keep it from growing beyond the dome’s height, and two red-colored cones sprouted from an E. ferox plant in the Desert Dome in 2006, which is quite rare as opposed to the usual one cone; it’s only the second time in about 40 years that this has happened.

Taking a step back from the “Conservatory” part of “Mitchell Park Domes and Conservatory”, the Show Dome itself is where most of the action happens, ultimately. Horticulturalists can tend to the tropics or the desert as much as they like, but what will probably bring you back as an attendee will be the special events that are held in the Show Dome. When I went this April, there was a Japanese zen garden that had a number of plants reflecting the chosen culture — among the hundreds of flowers, there were also bonsai displays and Kokedama — spherical formations with moss grown on them. Previously, I had seen attractions like a giant model railway set up there (Alexander Mitchell would be proud) and a light show set to the Star Wars theme, as a nod to The Last Jedi being in theaters at the time. 

As I understand it, it’s also a popular venue for weddings, concerts, and private events, and the conservatory directors are open to anything that will continue to produce revenue; the Friends of the Domes (alongside the Domes Task Force, which is a Milwaukee County organization charged with evaluating the longevity and feasibility of the Domes, they are the local committee that runs the day-to-day operations) will use all of the money and publicity they can get to keep the Domes maintained and open for years to come.

Is there much more to say about the Domes? Not really. It’s truly an experience that you have to go see if you want to have your own opinion on it — mere words fail to describe the beauty of nature (but, in some people’s mind, also the absolute boredom they might experience here). I enjoyed the trip, but of course, touring a horticultural conservatory is not everyone’s thing, and your mileage will certainly vary. For the sake of completion and/or curiosity, though, I think everyone should stop by at least once if they’re in Milwaukee and want to see something very much unlike anywhere else in the city, much less the United States. You had better hurry, though — they might tear these things down in the next few years if their condition gets any worse.

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