Monday Escape: Belle Isle Conservatory

Anna Scripps Conservatory Entrance. Photo copyright Jen Baker/Liberty Images; all rights reserved.

How is your Monday going? Mine is rather like the weekend was—hectic! A minor family thing needed to be taken care of back home in Michigan, but since I’ve been feeling a bit under the weather, there was no way I could drive up on my own. So Hubby and I met Dad in a Bowling Green parking lot, and I hopped from our car into Dad’s and we continued on, making it back to my parents’ home in the Mitten State about 1AM, all under the cover of darkness. We all joked that it was like some sort of hostage transfer! That said, I got to spend a few hours chatting with Dad about all sorts of things. Not bad at all. (And the family thing is under control.)

At any rate, since I was back in my home state and zipped through the big D on the way home, I thought I’d share a photo from Michigan with you this morning. It’s grey and rainy here (as a gardener, I’m actually quite happy about this—we’ve not gotten much rain at all this spring), so how about some slightly tropical beauty from Belle Isle’s Anna Scripps Whitcomb Conservatory? (My last visit to the Conservatory was way back in February of ’05, about a year before marrying and moving out of state, and I took all of these with my little purse camera. I’d love to go back!)

Anna Scripps Conservatory. Photo copyright Jen Baker/Liberty Images; all rights reserved.

Named for Anna Scripps Whitcomb, who had donated her collection of 600 orchids—including some that had been sent to her from Great Britain during the bombings of WWII—to the city of Detroit in 1953, the 13-acre conservatory was designed by none other than Albert Kahn in 1904; in the early 1950s, it was rebuilt with iron and aluminum replacing the original wooden beams and renamed for Anna Scripps, daughter of Detroit News founder James Scripps.

The Fern Dome, seen in the first photo, is the Conservatory’s most striking manmade element, a glass and metal dome rising 85 feet into the air, and a consistent 70 degrees inside—quite a treat in the middle of a cold Detroit winter! You’ll also find a Cactus House, Fernery, a tropical house with fruit trees, a lily pond full of koi built in 1936; outdoors are a formal garden and rose garden (much more difficult to enjoy in February).

Also known as the Belle Isle Conservatory, this was once the holder of one of the United States’ largest city-owned orchid collection. Sadly, due the mismanagement the city is famously a pro at, many of these rare orchids have died.

Beautiful Bromeliad @ The Anna Scripps. Photo copyright Jen Baker/Liberty Images; all rights reserved.

Bromeliad at the Anna Scripps Whitcomb Conservatory.

To be honest, I’d be fairly happy to see a private entity or group of Detroit and other Michigan residents buy the Conservatory from Detroit; no, admission would probably no longer be free, but I think that the plants, gardens, and buildings would be better cared for, and that’s worth $5 or $10 to get in, if you ask me. I’d rather pay a few bucks than run the risk of losing these places forever to neglect and mismanagement.

It’s an unpopular opinion, but the city has proven unable to manage gems like this, as we all saw with the depressing, frustrating, and anger-inducing case of the Belle Isle Aquarium, which has recently reopened, albeit only one day a week with limited fish in the tanks. I do love the city, but wish city council weren’t such big fans of stonewalling every great idea that gets put before them (and this happens all of the time, no matter how much a proposal could bring to Detroit and its residents).

White ivy at the Conservatory. Photo copyright Jen Baker/Liberty Images; all rights reserved

The variegation on these ivy leaves made them look more like ivory than living plants to me.

Regardless, for now the Conservatory is a wonderful place to visit if you’re in the Detroit area. Belle Isle itself remains a gem, even with the lack of maintenance—the island boasts beautiful architecture, including the Conservatory, the Aquarium, and the Belle Isle Casino, all designed by Albert Kahn, and the Cass Gilbert-designed James Scott Memorial Fountain, which remains to my mind one of the loveliest I’ve seen in person. You’ll also find the only marble lighthouse in the country here, a nature center that features just as prominently as the Aquarium in memories of my childhood, and what is left of the once-sumptuous Detroit Yacht Club; I attended a few galas here, and to see photographs of its abandoned state from a few years ago is so discordant with my memories that the word “shocking” is not even close to adequate.

Eero Saarinen designed the Flynn Pavilion in ’49, but I must say I do not know whether it remains on the Isle or not. You’ll also find the Dossin Great Lakes Museum, the Detroit Indy Grand Prix, and concerts—though the herd of fallow deer, some albino, on the island has been harmed by disease (and I say that with reservations, because when I visited last, they were as ubiquitous as sparrows and probably more dangerous, with their penchant for leaping onto the road in front of cars).

And yes, this is a safe place to visit. As with anywhere else, you should take normal precautions, but I’ve never had any difficulty visiting Belle Isle, and downtown Detroit actually has a great deal to offer visitors, from museums to some really fabulous restaurants and shopping (and outdoor ice-skating in winter).

And remember: If you get lost or turned around, just find Woodward Avenue and head northwest, away from the River (provided you aren’t staying downtown). You’ll be fine. I’m just saying that…um…for a friend who learned to do that. *ahem* *blush*

Really, I must get back to Belle Isle. It’s one of Detroit’s hidden jewels, no matter the season, but especially in summer and fall! I hope you’ve enjoyed our detail-oriented tour of the Conservatory’s plants.

For more about Belle Isle:

The Belle Isle Conservancy

Anna Scripps Whitcomb Conservatory

The Dossin Great Lakes Museum

Inside the Belle Isle Aquarium at (tour & history)

Belle Isle on TripAdvisor (honest, up-to-date reviews—I’m far from the only one disappointed with the city’s handling of the Isle)

Michigan State Historic Preservation page for Belle Isle

City of Detroit’s Belle Isle information page

Detroit 1701 page about the Belle Isle Conservatory—brief history & architectural notes


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