The Belle Isle Conservatory in Detroit, also known as the Anna Scripps Whitcomb Conservatory, is the country's oldest continually running conservatory. It is separated into five different sections: the Show House, the sunken Fernery, the Cactus House, the Tropical House, and the Palm House. There are several other features scattered throughout the grounds, such as the Levi Barbour Memorial Fountain, designed by Marshall Fredericks. Other features include the Peacock Sundial, placed in 1927, and a Japanese tohro, donated to Detroit by the city of Toyota in Japan in 1985.
The collection of plants displayed at the Belle Isle Conservatory is divided among several "houses" located across the grounds. Changing displays of various flowering plants are showcased in the Show House, while the Tropical House features several different food plants, such as figs, oranges, and bananas. In order to provide more humidity and cooler conditions, the Fernery at the conservatory is sunk into the ground. Cactus and succulents are displayed in the Cactus House, while palms and tropical trees can be found in the Palm House.
Construction of the Belle Isle's Horticultural Building, as the conservatory used to be called, as well as the Belle Isle Aquarium began in 1902. Both buildings were designed by Albert Kahn and opened in 1904. Originally joined together, visitors could at one time explore both structures without having to go outside. In 1936, the Lily Pond was constructed between the conservatory and the aquarium, and the pond's rockery walls were built using 200 tons of limestone boulders, now covered in moss.
The Belle Isle Conservatory was originally built with a wooden frame, but in 1949 the dome and wings of the structure were reconstructed with a frame of aluminum and steel. The dome, part of the Palm House, has a height of 85 feet. Unfortunately, it isn’t possible to prune the palms to fit the height of the building, so they have to be cut down once they reach the ceiling. The conservatory has already had to remove one palm tree.
The Belle Isle Conservatory was dedicated to Anna Scripps Whitcomb on April 6 in 1955. She donated her orchid collection to the City of Detroit, which consisted of six hundred plants. In 1981, the Show House was remodeled, housing changing displays each season, such as poinsettia and orchid shows. The Lily Pond was restored in 1988, after the founding of the Belle Isle Botanical Society. The group has supplied volunteers for the conservatory, greenhouses, and gardens for over 25 years, and helps raise funding to keep the facility open.
There are both self-guided experiences and docent-led tours available at the Belle Isle Conservatory for school groups, including curriculum-based, docent-led tours that are suitable for students in third through fifth grade. These tours last about an hour and require a group of at least ten people. Self-guided experiences are available for teachers to engage their students within the environment of the conservatory. Groups are welcome when the conservatory is open to the public, however, it's best to make reservations.
300 River Place Drive, Detroit, MI 48207, Phone: 313-331-7760
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