A Desert Crumbles in Dairyland by Justin Kern

Travel Essay: 

Milwaukee’s only desert – tucked under a mid-century glass dome 5 miles from Lake Michigan and two blocks from a Honeydip Donuts – is crumbling.

A temperate backdrop for softening concrete and Midwestern civility, Milwaukee is surrounded by Wisconsin, a state with a snooze button repeat geography of cow pastures and produce fields, punched up with a handful of kettles and moraines, all sewn in by three great waterways, extemporaneous Michigan and just-fine Illinois. One desert defies this landscape, for now, in conjunction with tropical and seasonal environs that are part of a half-century old visionary park known as The Domes.

The Domes, officially part of the Mitchell Park Horticultural Conservatory, are three gems in the jewelry of parks that weave throughout Milwaukee County. Two distinct, remote climates – desert and tropics – persist under architect Donald Grieb’s “beehives” of glass, aluminum and concrete. A third, outwardly identical glass dome is interchangeable, culturally or seasonally, or, in the case of the colonial Williamsburg herb gardening exhibit, historically.

The Domes house their minor global atmospheric samples in the world’s first conoidal bubbles (a claim that may still stand alone, especially if you’re fearful of throwing it around in front of fervent Buckminster Fuller purists). Technical terminology aside, there are obviously other botanical gardens and arboretums around the U.S. For reference, though, Milwaukee’s domes resemble the national bontanic gardens in Washington, D.C., much more closely than they do the Greater Des Moines Botanical Gardens in Des Moines and, to a lesser extent, its greater areas. For 120 years, Mitchell Park Horticultural Conservatory and The Domes have provided greater Milwaukee (and okay-northern Illinois) with a nearby architectural biodome shell game that obscures seasons and norms along the Great Lakes. However, this magic has waned of late as The Domes themselves have started to drip and crumble in tiny bits onto walking paths and visitors.


Furry cactus and ceiling

In the early 2000s, The Domes began to experience leaks in its lattice-work of aluminum and questions on the integrity of its unifying concrete. As the Great Recession stumbled forth, city fathers and park supporters rallied shy of $1 million for temporary fixes to keep The Domes safe and open. A grand “re-opening” featured an LED light show and a return visit from Grieb, the architect. There were also discussions on what would come next. A long-term rehab would be inevitable for the future of The Domes, important people told the papers and TV stations. A bizarro glass cone desert with declining attendance that operates on an annual deficit can test a county budget, cranky councilmembers warned.

By 2015, the Domes counted a recent high-water mark of 232,082 visitors, 89% of those people paying customers. Then, in 2016, repairs from eight year’s prior started to give way. Threat of crumbling concrete led the county to briefly close The Domes, and this same structural scare kept people away, with attendance hitting less than half its 2015 mark. In the mounting damage, it became clear that the worst wear threatened the Desert Dome.

A flight away in any direction from an expansive desert, Milwaukee’s Desert Dome serves as a mini museum of the dry, arid and semi-arid reaches of the planet. Through institutional doors, a visitor enters a sort of hollowed out Faberge egg, where the temperature climbs to comfortable and a walkway invites you to a tiny, surreal constitutional. The deserts on display along this walk are divided by a renowned collection of the succulents and shrubs, of the peppers and cacti of continents – Africa, South America, North America – plus isolated deserts of Madagascar and the Canary Islands.

Into the Desert Dome, hardscrabble sand and pebbles drift over floorspace, in some spots beneath plants that kind of look like stones. The majority of these plants, however, look like nothing else. Welwitschia mirabilis unfolds on itself, an Army green compost pile of wilted leaves that exudes a deeper understanding of death than held by most of its onlookers. At a shaded portico halfway through, you can sit and try to out-lazy an Australian bearded dragon lizard named for famed zookeeper, Steve “The Crocodile Hunter” Irwin (R.I.P.). A 16-count Crayola box of colors of chili peppers wire their way over the Dome’s tan faux terra firma, an occurrence never naturally available in the Milwaukee outdoors.

As the Domes website puts it: “An Oasis of desert palms beckons as paths lead you past many plant oddities with intriguing geometric forms, subtle coloration and unique adaptations to hot, dry habitats.” (In one spot, an aluminum and cartoonish cactus almost blends in to serve as comic relief or a supply shed for its organic cousins.) Other Desert Dome marvels have included a cycad native to south-eastern Africa that sprouted a rare double red-colored cone in 2006; and a visit in the ‘80s from the ambassador of Madagascar, carrying seeds and good tidings.


Cactus and ceiling

A step back: this whole place has been a 50-plus year visual invasion. On existing rolling park land partly overlooking Milwaukee’s worn manufacturing soul, The Domes were built in stages over eight years, with the Desert Dome the last to be completed. First Lady Ladybird Johnson came to dedicate The Domes in 1967. (At 51, the Desert Dome contends for the title of youngest global desert, millions of years the junior to the world’s oldest hot desert, the Sahara.) For two generations, the three glass bulbs of The Domes have marked a surprise decision on the landscape, a place where two-family homes and blocks-long tanneries conceded a landing strip for a spaceship. Like Epcot Center or LAX, The Domes have been a reminder of the past’s curious and peaceful architectural hope for the future.

The original bill to build and fill the 45,000-square foot structures was $4.5 million. Adjusted for inflation, that cost would register about $34 million today, putting it partway between two very pricy and pressing repair options for the crumbling structures. Early estimates from preservation experts and construction consultants range from $16 million (for broken windows and re-coated concrete) to upwards of $80 million (to entirely replace the concrete frame and window structures, plus finally meet ADA requirements). The frames of The Domes are such that they would need to be dismantled for full concrete repairs, with removal and storage of all flowers, plants and a few animals. The county estimates approximately $2 million worth of cacti alone at the Desert Dome. Demolition, another option, would certainly be cheaper than all of the above. Its risk is a serious one: the National Trust for Historic Preservation placed The Domes on its 2016 “11 most endangered historic places” list, along with a Louisiana steam boat, the since-reduced Bears Ears cultural landscape, and the whole downtown of a New Jersey city where they held the Lindberg baby trial.

The county, which runs the park and property, has bought itself time, with bureaucracy and a net. An $800,000 protective netting with a five-year warranty was installed in 2016, which enabled The Domes to fully re-open, albeit with some exposed rebar and visible leaks from the relentless winter-spring-summer-fall outside.

In the political climate change around the decaying Domes, the atmosphere isn’t too far from that of a neighborhood bank, in a town you just moved away from. There is action to come, for certain. Into 2018, the Domes Task Force, an 11-member group of elected leaders and community doers, had reached a familiar limbo to any bureaucratic body in the midst of paperwork and chin-scratching. With a charter to bring “no preconceived outcome,” this Task Force took on the weight of bringing together input, estimates, plans and a vision for The Domes by 2020. Still awaiting that big vision, members have pushed for the addition of a café and classrooms for grade school student visits.

Meanwhile, the Task Force faces new, small problems. During meetings, they can’t get microphones that work. County meeting minutes shared online after-the-fact include 27-minute chunks of public comment audio entirely made up of people distantly milling around. A county board supervisor with The Domes in her district advocated for the Task Force and then missed her first 10 meetings due to a night job and one family emergency.

Answers from the past serve as scary or promising guideposts, depending on your worldview. Mustachio’d historian John Gurda, a member of the Domes Task Force, wrote the signature book on our city, “The Making of Milwaukee” (1999). In it, Gurda said the original Mitchell Park Conservatory was considered a “glass palace” when it was built in 1898, and for decades after was part of one of the most visited green spaces in the city. By 1955, the anchor greenhouse at that conservatory was deemed unsafe and too weird to try to repair, so it was razed. The Domes were set in its place, beginning four years later.


Domes through the park

On a January 2018 weekend afternoon, I visited The Domes with Jess, my wife, to leave, temporarily, the blustery freeze of the past weeks. We drove a warbly local’s street with few stop signs – the Polish Highway or the Mexican Highway, depending on the age of the townie you talk with – through the city’s Southside. Turned past a dead cat on the street to reach the entrance. (By the time we exited 90 minutes later, the cat was gone, removed by something, someone.)

It was one-dollar off for county residents, and too early for the Miller Genuine Draft and wine for sale at the ticket counter. Near loaded coat racks, foamboard posters on easels presented the plight of The Domes. On one, Gantt charts in institutional muted pastels promised an adequate, three-phase process. That puts us, the public – the public in The Domes at that moment, in particular – waiting through the next stages, to gather “info” and “study elements.” Later, but soon, when opportunities have been determined, the Task Force, or maybe consultants, will “assemble scenarios.” In spring, finally, formally, feedback will be compiled, from the full public. Into summer, we reach a mauve box, ominously designated for “implementation.”

Jess called me away from these bureaucratic displays to thaw in the divinity of an encompassing zoo of environment. In the Desert Dome, we mosey into a warmth so opposed to the winter outside that it’s difficult to fathom a daily life casually mixed with sneaky flowers or the pleasant roundness of cottony barrel cacti. A ripe and foreign dragon’s blood tree haunts the fake desert sky, with bonus shade on the notion that deserts are barren. Spikey branches of the candelabra tree juke toward the dome’s lid, commanding a view that hints at how far removed this tree is from Wisconsin’s firs and maples. Two yellowish birds chirp with cheer; they haven’t met the muddy house sparrows dying for sunflower seeds at our home feeder 20 blocks away, sounds like. I, reflectively, am elsewhere in my own city.

Follow the census map movements and you’ll find Wisconsin as a state where people stay put more than most, in small towns but Milwaukee or Madison if they’re driven to city things. New or consistent, the Desert Dome is rarity on display, in what Milwaukeeans would ever see in nature, much less be able to buy as office décor from the home and garden section of Menard’s. The desert in The Domes could be the main desert people here see, minus a day trip from grandma’s palliative place in Sun City or Milwaukee Brewer’s spring training.

On this Saturday afternoon, the netting seemed to be the primary change in the Desert Dome’s condition. Attendance was fine, too, with a front parking lot full and a steady stream of attendees who paced the park. Among us, children, strangers to each other, pointed at flowers and rocks, then to each other. Adults associated with one of the children spoke Ukrainian and farther down the path another full family commented to each other in Spanish. Milwaukee is sadly, doggedly segregated, so glimmers of other languages and melanin levels in the same place stand as refreshing.

To the end of the Desert Dome path, and into the lobby for a sip of water and to look up the name of that one Earth album to listen to later. Save the gift shop for the end, there’s more immediate warmth available in the Tropical Dome, with its full air and smutty flowers. A couple of buckets off to the side of the entrance catch teardrops from the ceiling. A palm reminds me of Vieques (which reminds me of Puerto Rico’s wider pains). Jess stops for pictures at every syrupy orchid.The corpse flower hadn’t yet bloomed; it chose June for its once-every-seven-to-ten-year 48-hour stank show to many visitors in this dome. One lucky American robin has snuck its way into the Tropical Dome, like its human visitors. This robin is an astronaut for its species, should it ever mistakenly return to the native community of four-season schizophrenia outside this glass.

Closed was the third dome, the Show Dome, the one reserved for a rotation of themes and events. Through the Show Dome’s entrance door, one worker was visible, surrounded by the red-and-green backdrops for gone garland, trashed trees and a disassembled North Pole display. She fidgeted with a toy train track. Train season already? No, National Train Day is months off, not to mention a celebration much more enjoyable outdoors on account of the train fumes, I’d imagine. A failing biodome is no place to be woozy from train fumes. Regardless the holiday (or its fumes), this third dome’s dress-up theme (and availability for weddings) is a necessity, perhaps, in that unending march to offset tax-burdens on those broadbrush bastards, The General Public.

But, the generality of this third dome reminded me of the unapologetic, thriving places under the Desert and Tropical Domes. Buried in another Wisconsin winter that veered toward arctic, there remained a place to escape among the “oddities” and “intriguing geometric forms” of the desert. Encapsulated and crumbling, the Desert Dome affords us the mental geography to believe in a world so absolutely gigantic, lived in such different ways, where every person, pepper, cacti, fake cacti, lazy lizard, etc. belong as their own sliver in the wider moment of warm and weird qualities plainly called life.


Desert Dome interior shot

BIO: Justin Kern is a writer and nonprofit marketing human who lives in Milwaukee with his wife and cats. A former daily news reporter, his words have appeared in Utne Reader, Great Lakes Review, Forth, Longshot Island, Milwaukee Record and in a trio of anthologies from Belt Publishing. He’s also a lifelong amateur musician who throws horseshoes as a phony spiritual exercise. For words and music: justinallankern.com

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