Mitchell Park Domes are one of the most fantastic places to see in Milwaukee.
History Of The Domes
The current Domes replaced the original Conservatory which was built in 1898. The original conservatory exhibited flowers in a “greenhouse” setting and served the public until 1955. Because it was determined to be unsafe and impractical to repair, the conservatory was demolished.
A design competition, won by a local architect, produced the plans for the new conservatory. Donald Grieb’s winning entry called for three beehive-shaped (not geodesic) glass domes, 140 feet in diameter at the base and 85 feet high, offering 15,000 square feet of growing space for plant display. Each dome would have a distinct climate and exhibit plants in a naturalistic setting. These are the Desert, Tropical, and Floral Show domes.
Construction began in 1959 and proceeded in stages. This allowed for the building to be paid in yearly appropriations, thus avoiding the cost of bonding. The total cost was $4.5 million when it was completed in 1967.
The Desert Dome’s fine collection of succulents (plants that can store water) and water-conserving trees, shrubs, and bulbs are grouped by geographic regions. Your tour will take you from Madagascar to southern and eastern Africa, the Canary Islands, South America, and finally North America.
Each area is characterized by unique plant species able to survive drought and intense hot sun. Although many of these plants look like cacti, cacti are native only to North, Central, and South America. Regional signs as well as individual plant labels will help you recognize these extraordinary plants.
In our microcosm of the rainforest, you’ll encounter over 1,200 species of tropical plants as well as some tropical birds. Rainforest products you’ll see in the Tropical Dome include so much more than our favorite houseplants!
Perhaps the most familiar plants of the rainforest are those we have incorporated into our homes and offices for decorating — plants such as philodendrons, peperomias, bromeliads, orchids, ferns, marantas, and calatheas. Other flowering plants that provide vibrant color to the tropical exhibit include amaryllis, hibiscus, anthurium, calliandra, clerodendron, crinum, and heliconia.
Unusual tropical life forms are also apparent. A rainforest ecosystem develops vertically as well as horizontally. Our favorite houseplants are often found growing as ground covers in the tropics; their adaptation to low light enables them to survive in our homes. A wide array of epiphytes (plants that use other plants for physical support) such as orchids, bromeliads, and ferns are growing overhead on tree branches. Indeed, it is in the forest canopy, along tree branches that much of the plant productivity and diversity occur. Vining plants that scramble up trees to gain more light include vanilla, passiflora, quisqualis, and aristolochia. The tallest trees of the rainforest are called “emergents” because their canopies rise above all others. Here in the Tropical Dome, our emergent is the kapok (Ceiba pentandra), reaching 85′ tall. Look at its base and you will discover an important adaptation to the shallow tropical soils – buttressed roots that afford additional support for the tree.
Floral Show Dome
Each show has a specific theme, generally categorized as historical, cultural, or fantasy, and chosen at least a year in advance. We select plants specifically for a particular floral exhibit and grow them at our Horticulture Division’s Greenhouse Center. Once in place, a show must last from six to fourteen weeks. We change potted flowers as needed. For a long-running Summer Show, there can be 3-4 complete changes of plantings.
It takes many talents to make these themes realities. A landscape architect, horticulturists, arborists, artists, carpenters, electricians, plumbers, and welders work together to create each show. The actual process can take 8-10 working days. Props are modular and thus, versatile; they can be modified and reused. One building could be an Italian villa and then be transformed into a Spanish hacienda, Williamsburg mansion, or southern plantation home in future shows.
The Floral Show Dome provides serene settings to be captured by artists and photographers, duplicated by visitors in their gardens, and used by students learning about flowering plants. Simply put, the Floral Show Dome offers beauty and inspiration for all.
As a cultural and educational facility of the Milwaukee County Park System, “The Domes” offers programming for school groups from grade K-5 through college, scouts, and adult clubs or groups.
- Programs for School Groups, K-5–College, youth groups, and summer school groups
- Programs for Scout & Youth Groups
- Now your class or group can Adopt-an-Animal in the Domes
- Programs for adult clubs or groups
- Programs for School Groups
Students will focus on rainforest and desert ecology, and plant and animal adaptations. Discussions will be appropriate for the grade level. To help you prepare for the program, a Teacher Information Packet/Worksheets are available. Each discussion/hands-on session will last 30–45 minutes. Afterward, students will complete worksheets during their exploration of the domes. Allow a minimum of 1-1/2 hours for this program. Programs meet state DPI standards and MPS standards for science content. One adult chaperone is required for every 8 students.
Weddings at The Domes
The Domes are available for rental for weddings. No matter what the time of year, you’ll be surrounded by the beauty of live plants and flowers when you select the Mitchell Park Horticultural Conservatory for your wedding site.
- Floral Show Dome – Themes of shows are subject to change
- Tropical Dome – A lush environment, complete with a waterfall
- Desert Dome – A light-filled landscape with the sculptural forms of succulents
During normal operating hours, none of these sites is completely private, because the domes are open to the public.
Private after-hour rentals are available.
The plant areas of the domes are not air-conditioned and can get very warm in summer.
Available year-round during normal operating hours except on days when special events are scheduled. Private after-hour rentals are also available.