Planning for the Future of the Domes

While the County took safety measures to address falling concrete in 2016, as well as in 2013 and 2014, the Parks Department and County engineers knew that a long-term plan for the Domes was needed.  This work provided only safety protection for visitors and employees; it did not fix the leaking windows, the lack of accessibility, or fiscal and operating issues facing the Domes.  County engineers expect that the netting installed at the Domes in 2016 offers a window of up to five years to develop and implement a long-term plan.  That’s why it’s so important to plan starting now. 


The current planning includes two efforts:  broad-reaching engagement with the community led by the Mitchell Park Conservatory Task Force (often called the Domes Task Force) and background engineering analysis.  The engagement work will allow the county residents to help shape the future for the conservatory, Mitchell Park, and the broader community.  Engineering studies will provide policy makers and others with important information about the condition of the Domes and costs for various repair / replacement options. 


Engaging the Community to Plan for the Future

The County Executive is strongly committed to active and meaningful community participation in planning for the future of the Domes, and the County Board also supports planning efforts.  The public has a vital stake this process:  Milwaukee County opened its first conservatory in 1899, launching a long tradition of public horticulture and gardens under glass.  The three Domes on the Milwaukee skyline are visual landmarks for Milwaukee visitors and residents alike, and they are icons of the “massive, midcentury building boom[[1]]” that reshaped civic spaces in Milwaukee and across the nation.  The Domes are a key anchor for Mitchell Park, oldest link in the “emerald necklace” of the County Park system, and an important feature to the neighborhoods surrounding the park.  And whatever comes next is likely to require substantial investments from County residents.


The Conservatory Task Force.  In order to guide the discussion about the future of the Domes conservatory, in 2016 the County Executive proposed and the County Board appointed a Domes Task Force to develop a “comprehensive long-term plan[2]” for the Conservatory Domes.  Current members of the Domes Task Force are::  

  • William Lynch, chair

  • Ian Bautista, Clarke Square Neighborhood Initiative

  • Dr. Michele Bria, Journey House

  • John Dargle, Milwaukee County Parks, Recreation and Culture

  • John Gurda, Community Member

  • Jason Haas, Milwaukee County Board of Supervisors

  • Roger Krawiecki, Friends of the Domes

  • Dawn McCarthy, Milwaukee Preservation Alliance

  • Peggy West, Milwaukee County Board of Supervisors

  • Ranell Washington, Community Member

  • Peter Nilles, Director of Facilities Planning & Development

Task Force Charter.  The Domes Task Force adopted a charter to guide its efforts and identified its purpose:

The Conservatory Task Force through a community engagement process will evaluate long-term options for the future status of the Mitchell Park Horticultural Conservatory (aka the “Domes”) and associated uses, activities, costs, and benefits and will recommend a course of action to the Milwaukee County Executive and County Board. This process will include a broad range of opinions from individuals and groups, as well as expert analyses of conditions, constraints, and opportunities.


In addition, the charter outlines the operating parameters of the Task Force

  • Seek a wide range of community input:  horticultural, neighborhood, preservation, civic, philanthropic groups as well as individual citizens

  • Operate with no preconceived outcome

  • Provide not only vision, but also a specific plan

  • Recognize that the County has a narrow window of up to five years to adopt, fund and implement a plan


The Task Force Planning Process.  In February 2017 the Task Force outlined a three-part approach for developing a long-range plan and issued an RFP for consultants to support the process:

  • Phase One Feasibility Studies.  Based on studies of other successful conservatories, as well as opportunities unique to Milwaukee, the consultants will develop at least six alternatives for Milwaukee that address:

    • Programming opportunities for the conservatory,

    • Revenue and fiscal management,

    • Operations, including organizational structure,

    • Social and economic impacts, and

    • Building and related structures

  • Phase Two Community Review.  The consulting teams will present the options developed in Phase One to the community for discussion, review and evaluation, through a variety of outreach to the public at large as well as to groups of interested stakeholders.

  • Phase Three Detailed Planning.  Based on the options created and reviewed in the first two phases, the consultants will develop specific plans for Milwaukee County.


In May 2017 the Task Force selected a team headed by HGA to lead long-range planning for the Domes for Phases One and Two described above.  Work began in late summer 2017 and can be tracked through the meetings of the Task Force.


Meeting information and minutes of the Task Force can be found here.



Background Engineering Studies on the Domes

As a backdrop to discussions about the future of the Domes, it’s important for the community and policy makers to understand the current conditions of the Domes as well as various repair options.  To that end, the Milwaukee County Parks and Facilities Management Department staff are working with engineers and consultants to perform condition assessments and to update cost estimates.


Condition Assessments.  Numerous studies have examined the condition of the Domes, which are summarized in the Frequently Asked Questions and are available at Condition Reports on the Domes.  Most have concentrated on water leaking in the Domes, from condensation that isn’t adequately channeled through the structure and from water entering through leaking seals and connections in the window systems.  The concrete structure of the Domes, which supports the window system, was coated and sealed during the construction of the 50-year-old Domes but has never been recoated, despite an expected life of 20 years for the initial sealant.  The Domes today also do not meet accessibility guidelines set by the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), as well as modern codes for entrances and exits. 


County engineers are currently undertaking studies to examine the current stability of the concrete structure, as well as the foundations, which have not been evaluated in recent years.  These evaluations will be available in the coming months.


It’s important to keep in mind that these condition assessments focus on the physical structure of the Domes and do not address functional conditions.  For instance, the Domes do not have classrooms for school groups and educational sessions for the public.  They do not provide any kind of café or eating facility for the public.  As the Domes Task Force considers what kind of programming and functions should take place at the Domes, they will need to assess the ability of the structures to support that programming.


Repair Cost Estimates.  While no specific repair plan has been detailed and adopted, County engineers in 2008 and again in 2016 developed estimates for options to address the leaking windows at the Domes, ranging from simply repairing broken windows to completely replacing the concrete frame and window system (the Domes structure is described in the Frequently Asked Questions).  In the 2016, estimates ranged from $16 million to replace broken windows and repair and recoat the concrete frame to $64 million to replace the entire concrete frame and window systems.  All estimates include meeting ADA requirements.  In addition, the National Trust for Historic Preservation conducted a peer review of earlier work and proposed replacing broken windows, as well as all pressure caps, at an estimated cost of $18.6 million (see the May 3, 2017 Domes Task Force Minutes for peer report and presentation).


[1] Mary Louise Schumacher, “The singular vision and big ambition of Domes architect Donald Grieb,”

[2] Milwaukee County Ordinance 16-200.

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