The Mitchell Park Horticultural Conservatory, or the Domes, is a place I had been to on countless field trips during elementary school.
Even though I'd heard that the Domes were one of the most fascinating places to visit in Milwaukee, I never understood why they were such a big deal back then. For that reason, I never had the desire to go back since my school bus riding days. But what could I have possibly known at the age of five anyway? If I had trusted my childhood impressions 20 years later, I wouldn’t be addicted to coffee either…
The Domes have been part of the Milwaukee scene for decades since the first conservatory was built in 1898, but that was pretty much just a green house that held flowers. In 1959, construction began on the new beehive shaped domes and the last of the three finally opened in 1967. And VOILA! Here we are today.
After an eventful weekend, Eric and I decided to cool our jets and take Sunday at a leisurely pace. After debating what to do, Eric suggested the Domes since he’d never been there before. Considering it would be a tranquil retreat, I was up for it.
It was another warm and sunny autumn afternoon as we headed there. Driving from the city, the three seven-story glass Domes could be seen from miles away, and upon pulling into the driveway, they were an even more daunting and impressive sight.
Because it was 3 p.m. by the time we got off the couch and made our way there, we had less than two hours to explore all three Domes. Once inside, I was surprised to see that the conservatory was quite empty – it was so quiet that you could probably hear the leaves drop from the trees. I imagine this was due to the unseasonably warm October day, which people probably wanted to enjoy before winter arrives. And since the Domes are open 365 days per year, it’s unlikely that the 200,000 people reported to visit each year would visit all at once and on such a gorgeous afternoon. Regardless, this meant smooth sailing for us with minimal delays and just enough time to see the sights and for me to realize what all the fuss was about.
Eric and I headed into the Tropical Dome first, which always had been my favorite, and after seeing it again, it held its spot at numero uno. As we entered the Tropical Dome from the air conditioned conservatory, we were hit with a burst of thick, humid air. Beads of sweat immediately surfaced onto my brow as I marveled at the varieties of trees, plants and flowers, and strolled along the jungle-like trails. It wasn’t hard to imagine that I was somewhere else besides Wisconsin.
According to the brochure, the tropical plants came from the rain forests of five continents, but I recognized many from homes and offices that incorporated them into their décor – plants such as orchids, ferns and hibiscus, which made-up this microcosm of rain forest and were included in the 1,200 some species grown there.
It was a beautiful site of vibrant floras and lush green canopies and vines that scrambled up trees to gain more light from the sun shining through the huge glass panes. There were cool zigzagging vines, a super tall thorny tree and another with roots that came down from the branches to make it look like a weird organic prison cell.
Hidden beneath the orchids and ferns were wooden benches where other couples sat to enjoy the climate and to escape Milwaukee for a day. But Eric and I continued along the winding paths as birds chirped and flew overhead. We spotted bananas, star fruits, avocados, cocoa and vanilla plants, nuts from Macadamia and spices like cardamom, turmeric and black pepper. The multitude of showy flowers, fruits, nuts and spices made the vivacious exhibit feel like a trip to paradise, minus the sandy beaches.
Next, we headed to the Arid Dome. It was obviously dry, but unexpectedly cooler in comparison to the Tropical Dome. I couldn’t help but think I was in a western film as there was an abundance of cacti and desert sand with a ton of fake cattle skulls and rocks scattered around to add to the desert scene.
The oasis of grasses, desert palms and cacti beckoned as paths led us past many plant oddities. As we walked along the trails, I kept reaching out to feel each plant because they were unlike anything I’d seen around here, and even though you’d think all desert plants were prickly, many actually bore stiff, leathery leaves or woolly hairs. Most of the bizarre plants looked like some type of cacti; I wouldn’t know the difference had I not stopped to read some of their labels, which indicated the origin and type of plant.
The majority of the desert plants came from other collections or were grown at the Domes from a seed sent directly from places like South America, said the brochure. I tend to think of tropical rain forests when I think of South America rather than deserts, but many of its countries do indeed have extensive dry areas with the entire cactus family well represented. It was cool to see plants growing here like they would in Africa, Madagascar or other parts of North America.
The third Dome was the Floral Show Dome, which currently housed thousands of deep jewel-colored chrysanthemums. The Show Dome features five different floral displays each year with themes generally categorized as historical, cultural or fantasy. Sunday was one of the final weeks for the fall floral show “Past Times in the Parks.” It took us back to the early 1900s as vintage photos gave us a look into Milwaukee’s past and offered us a glimpse into the parks during a time in history when days were more relaxed.
Amid the beautiful surroundings were scenes of a formal picnic, a golf course and several model boats sailing in a lagoon. Both the Victorian scenes and black and white photos were a great way to remind us of how the parks have added value to our lives and to the community, and also why they are some of my favorite places to go around Milwaukee.
The benches that lined the walkway offered us the perfect seat to unwind and enjoy the colorful display. We claimed a bench next to some elderly folks who were watching kids dip their hands into the stream or play tag around the flowerbeds. I couldn’t stop taking in deeps breaths just to smell the fresh perfume of the seasonal flowers.
I recalled the days I used to help my mom in her garden and the years I worked in landscaping when I came home from college, and then I imagined what my garden would look and smell like one day when I have my own house. At that time, I discovered what other Milwaukeeans and tourists had realized long ago, that the Domes are in fact, pretty cool.
Besides the three Domes, there was a gift shop that we quickly peeked into and an educational center for classes or families who wanted to learn more about the Earth’s ecosystem, which actually is pretty interesting.
Eric and I spent about an hour walking through the three Domes, though I can see how you could stay much longer if you had the time or weren’t as lazy as us. Each Dome had a distinctive climate and exhibited plants in a naturalistic setting; and on our trip we experienced a tropical jungle, a desert oasis and a special floral garden all in one short afternoon.
The Domes were a very interesting place that reminded me of how incredibly diverse our Earth is and how fortunate we are to have it showcased in such a unique way here in Milwaukee. Therefore, I’m pretty ashamed for claiming the Domes were nothing to brag about. I had it in my head that they were boring, so I never wanted to visit them. Maybe it was because I was always forced to go and this time I went on my own. Either way, I’m glad I gave them another shot because they weren’t boring, not at all.
Evidently, you can’t base your opinions on those you had as a child.
Mitchell Park Horticultural Conservatory
524 S. Layton Blvd., Milwaukee
Hours: Daily 9 a.m. - 5 p.m.
2007 Admission Rates:
Age 18 & up $5
Age 6–17 $3.50
Free to all Milwaukee County Residents with proof of residency
Monday 9 – 11:30 a.m. (Excluding major holidays)