In Milwaukee History

The Domes are a ray of sunshine, especially in the dead of winter.

In Milwaukee History

The fruit in the Domes is, of course, edible. I got to taste this ambarella.

In Milwaukee History

Horticulturalist Patrick Kehoe cuts some bananas in the tropical dome.

In Milwaukee History

And I got a few to take home and enjoy with my family.

In Milwaukee History

Each dome has a "pit" running around its perimeter. It is where much of the work is done.

In Milwaukee History

This opening allows access to infrastructure beneath the exhibits.

In Milwaukee History

Horticulturalist Marian French has made many changes in the arid dome in her year and a half on the job.

In Milwaukee History

The dome-ish transition greenhouse is a middle ground between the exhibits and the greenhouses on the County Grounds.

In Milwaukee History

The County Grounds greenhouses will be replaced by a new greenhouse behind the Domes.

In Milwaukee History

The orchid room is where experiments are carried out.

In Milwaukee History

Giant cisterns in the basement hold a large supply of water and fertilizer for watering.

In Milwaukee History

This computer controls the automated climate system for all three domes.

In Milwaukee History

Across the hall, this compact system controls the light show in the show dome.

In Milwaukee History

All kinds of props are stored in the sprawling basement.

In Milwaukee History

Also in basement storage is this vintage model of the Mitchell Park Horticultural Conservatory.

Urban spelunking: Behind the scenes at The Domes

If you visit the Domes fairly regularly with some inquisitive little minds, as I do, you'll have found yourself stumped by a number of questions you can't answer. Armed with some of those questions, I got a behind the scenes tour of the Mitchell Park Horticultural Conservatory, better known to all Milwaukeeans as The Domes.

Designed by architect Donald Grieb, the Domes were constructed in stages in the 1960s, based on the geodesic dome designed by architect Buckminster Fuller. They replaced a long-lived "crystal palace" style conservatory that stood on the site for many years.

The show dome (the one to the north) was erected first, in December 1964. The tropical dome (south) followed in February 1966 and in November 1967, the trio was complete when the arid dome (east) opened. Since then, the Domes have become an integral part of Milwaukee's image, both at home and beyond.

But despite their obvious landmark status here, by the 1980s, the Domes were in trouble. In more recent years that decline in attendance led to a conservatory that looked tired and needed a jolt. Former parks director Sue Black provided that jolt by hiring Sandy Folaron as director.

Now, the Domes have changed more in the past five years than they had in two decades before that.

"I think because the writing was on the wall," said Folaron, in her office that was formerly a storage closet. "Maybe it worked in the '60s, maybe in the '70s. But in the '80s there was a huge dropoff in the number of people coming here. They weren't supporting the facility as much as they used to. People are pretty extraordinary at designing and maintaining their own gardens and having access to things that before were the draw here."

Folaron came in and likely upset some apple carts as she decided that anything was ripe for change. She remodeled the lobby, giving it a fresh, airy feel. She moved the gift shop up near the entrance into what used to be the office. She raised private money to install an alluring light show. She got savvy about using events like Music Under Glass and a range of winter ethnic festivals to draw in new audiences.

On the day of my tour, in the middle of a Thursday, the Domes were packed. There were the stereotypical Domes-goers of the past – older folks – but there were tons of families with little kids, too. The place was alive.

Connecting me with horticulturalist in charge Amy Thurner, tropical dome horticulturalist Patrick Kehoe and arid dome horticulturalist in charge Marian French, Folaron promised me a look into every nook and cranny of the Domes and that's what I got.

We started out in the tropical dome, where I immediately wanted to know, "what's under the Domes?" Do the roots of the myriad species of plants in this humid space dig deep down into the Earth or is there a layer of concrete below?

Though none of my tour guides was around when the Domes were built, they say they are built right on the ground. There is no concrete base below.

"We believe there is no concrete floor," says Kehoe. "But there is a network, like a spiderweb, of drain tiles that will take the water and run it off into drains that are in the pit area which surround the perimeter of the dome."

Though pruning is a big job, the main day to day task for the horticulturalists is watering, especially in the tropical dome, which gets watered 365 days a year, Kehoe said.

"The watering is all done by hand," said Kehoe. "If you had all the same plants your were growing you could have an automated system. Every plant is different. Not every plant gets watered the same every day."

Two people do the watering. Each takes a part of the dome so there's no confusion about what has been watered and when.

While you wander through the Domes, you're hard pressed to see any hints of infrastructure. That's because it's all hidden away in a crawl space that accesses systems and in what is called "The Pit." Each dome has a recessed area running around its perimeter that affords access to any spot. Additionally, moisture that collects on the inside of the dome drains along channels in the web of window frames and ends up in the pit, where it drains out.

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