A few months ago I took a behind-the-scenes tour of the Mitchell Park Domes. The tour was a primer for a forthcoming consultant report on just what the hell to do with the troubled Milwaukee landmarks. Yes, the Domes are troubled. Just how troubled? Per my tour: very, very troubled.
I assume you know some of the background. In early 2016, crews discovered a fallen chunk of concrete in one of the Domes. Emergency closures, emergency netting, endless task forces and studies, wasted money, far-fetched proposals, hemp, calls to “Save The Domes,” and absolutely no feasible plans to “Save The Domes” followed. Did one of the now-obsolete studies recommend transforming the Show Dome into an “Adventure Dome,” complete with an indoor zipline? Hell yeah.
Seven years later, a real-deal, once-and-for-all, we’re-serious-this-time consultant report will spell out (and assign dollar figures to) all options for the future of the Domes. Repair them with tens of millions dollars the County doesn’t have? Raise the money from private donors? Repurpose the Domes? Just knock them down? The report is due September 12. A “Future Of Mitchell Park” campaign is live now. We’ll find out soon, apparently.
In the meantime, I’ve been preparing for the inevitable and thinking the unthinkable: the Domes as we know them are not long for this world.
Yeesh. Even typing that was painful. But it was (sadly) the main takeaway from my behind-the-scenes tour. The Domes were built between 1959 and 1967 as something of a “world’s fair” project. According to my guide, they were meant to last roughly 20 years, after which they would be replaced or updated with new technology. Nearly 60 years later, that new technology hasn’t materialized. Single-pane glass, rotting and cracking concrete, and a boiler room that may or may not have been salvaged from the Titanic (or my last apartment building) are just a few of the Domes’ ancient features.
When it comes to energy consumption and sustainability, the Domes are wildly inefficient. They don’t do what they’re supposed to do—house various plants and ecosystems—particularly well; in fact, they never did what they were supposed to do particularly well. When they were first built, my guide explained, the exterior latticework included a gutter system for collecting rainwater. The gutters instantly clogged up. The solution? Have a guy stand on the top of the Domes and blast the gutters with a high-pressure hose. I’ve unclogged my parents’ rooftop gutters with more advanced techniques.
Incredibly, the beloved-but-decrepit Domes are situated next to a Domes-like facility that does work: the greenhouse annex, built in 2013. A tour of the various greenhouses revealed gleaming and pristine homes for growing the Domes’ plants. Modern technology, energy efficiency, and fewer leaky basements stuffed with old Show Dome models were just some of the highlights.
The Domes aren’t the only Milwaukee institution I’ve been preemptively mourning. The Milwaukee Public Museum is running on borrowed time, too. [begins Jay Leno voice] Have you heard about this, folks? [ends Jay Leno voice] Yeah, you’ve heard about this.
MPM first announced its intention to move to a new home way back in 2017. “It’s time to admit that it’s (nearly) the end of the Milwaukee Public Museum as we know it,” I wrote in 2019. It’s been nothing but calm, reasonable discussions on the fate of the Streets of Old Milwaukee ever since. (Note: The discussions have been anything but calm and reasonable, and the Streets of Old Milwaukee will be “reimagined” as “Milwaukee Revealed.”)
The new museum plans to open in late 2026 or early 2027; the current museum will remain open until then. In a way, I appreciate that approximate expiration date. We know when something we love is going to go away. We know we have time to appreciate it while it’s still here. We can plan—and say goodbye—accordingly.
And that’s what I’ve been doing with MPM and the Domes: visiting a lot, and appreciating them while they’re still here. It may sound simplistic, but I highly recommend it!
Am I dreading whatever ends up replacing these beloved Milwaukee things? Not really; in fact, the thought of new beloved Milwaukee things excites me. But for now, I’m happy to enjoy the things we have, if only for a little longer.
Exclusive articles, podcasts, and more. Support Milwaukee Record on Patreon.