The Belle Isle Aquarium: A Project For The Ages

Enjoy Detroit’s architectural and aquatic beauty.

From the end of the Civil War until the turn into the 20th century Detroit underwent a massive population growth which saw its population rise from under 50,000 to nearly 300,000 residents. As the city grew, tremendous public works projects were undertaken in an attempt to make a positive impact on the economic and social lives of Detroit’s residents. Hazen Pingree installed potato patches for the city’s struggling residents, a state of the art water treatment plant was built, and a Grand Boulevard was built connecting the city’s west and east sides. These developments had a tremendous impact on the city and helped to turn this frontier metropolis into an industrial powerhouse.

The Belle Isle Aquarium’s original tile ceiling.

But not all public works projects can be measured by their impact on economics or infrastructure. Some can only be appreciated for their impact on quality of life. One of these projects was realized in the construction of a grand aquarium on the city’s island park; Belle Isle.

After the residents voted to accept a bond of $150,000 to build both the aquarium and its neighboring conservatory, the young architect Albert Kahn got to work. The building’s price tag would exceed the cost of the bond but the finished product, which opened in August of 1904, was well worth it. The beautiful Beaux Arts style building would be the sixth largest aquarium in the world upon its opening. Inside the facility were five miles’ worth of pipes that carried water into 40 miles’ worth of tanks that held nearly 6,000 gallons worth of water. Before taking in the beauty of the aquariums aquatic life, guests would pass through a tremendous entranceway which showed the city’s crest surrounded carvings of dolphins and the Roman God of Water, Neptune.

The Belle Isle Aquarium entranceway showing the Detroit’s city crest surrounded by
carvings of dolphins and the Roman God of Water, Neptune.

The aquarium was an immediate hit. Public parks were becoming all the rage in the United States as city’s grew more crowded. Any place of refuge was welcomed in Detroit’s growing city. Over 5,000 people attended the aquariums grand opening and millions more would attend over the next several decades as Detroit continued its growth into the world’s premier industrial power.

The second half of the 20th century was a time of change in Detroit. This was true for the aquarium as well. The mid 1950s saw major renovations to the aquarium that included the covering of its massive interior pool and the introduction of an 86 pound turtle.

The Belle Isle Aquarium’s architectural and aquatic beauty.

But these developments did not lead to long-term success for the aquarium. From the 70s through the 90s, the level of attendance continued to drop. With Detroit’s dwindling population the city was less crowded than ever. Spots like the Belle Isle Aquarium which were once necessary for the city’s residents were no longer deemed essential. As attendance decreased so did revenue and by the time that the 21st century rolled around, the aquarium was the target of Detroit’s budget cuts which caused its closing in 2005.

The piranha tank at Detroit’s Belle Isle Aquarium.

But this closing would not be the end of the aquarium. The Detroit City Council tried to secure funds for its reopening for years but was unable to come up with the necessary money. Attention to the aquarium grew in the late 00s, and finally in 2012, with the help of a tremendous group of volunteers, the Belle Isle Aquarium reopened its doors.

The Belle isle Aquarium welcome sign displaying its opening date of August 18, 1904.

Today, when one walks into the aquarium they are transported back in time. Thousands of people every weekend are greeted with a sign which credits the aquarium with being “America’s Oldest”. Albert Kahn’s original green tile ceiling, which gives the impression of being underwater, is still shining as beautifully today as it was the day it opened.  A Pure Detroit outpost sits on the right hand side of the entrance way where guests are able to purchase items that celebrate the aquarium as well as donate to the Belle Isle Conservancy.

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