After being closed for years, the nation’s oldest Aquarium has returned with a splash
Almost a decade ago, the Albert Kahn-designed Belle Isle Aquarium closed its doors to the public during trying financial times for the City of Detroit. A one-of-a-kind architectural and historical jewel, the Aquarium has been a beloved part of the community for generations. When it closed in 2005, the public showed its support by voting 88 percent in favor of reopening, yet the City’s finances couldn’t support it. Thanks to the persistence of a group of dedicated volunteers, the Aquarium reopened in 2012, and today, the community is embracing it like never before.
The Aquarium’s resurgence parallels the story of the City – it was once thriving, fell on troubled times, and is now coming back from the ashes to return to its glory.
“The tremendous support and positive momentum we’re seeing shows the true commitment from the community to see the Aquarium reach its maximum potential for all to enjoy,” said Michele Hodges, president of the Belle Isle Conservancy, the organization that runs the Belle Isle Aquarium through a memorandum of understanding with the City of Detroit and the State of Michigan. ” People that have never been to the Aquarium are visiting for the first time; people that haven’t been in years are coming back; and people that have attended regularly are enjoying the new exhibits and enhancements.”
“We’re seeing an increase in attention from individual and corporate philanthropy” said Hodges.
The Aquarium has recently received support from the Kresge Foundation, the William Davidson Foundation, the GM Foundation, the State Historic Preservation Office, the Environmental Protection Agency, Wayne State University, the Michigan Glass Project, Butzel Long, Trayce and Randy Fenton and many more individual contributors.
What started as a group of passionate volunteers rallying to save the Aquarium, spearheaded by Jennifer Boardman and Vance Patrick, has quickly been embraced by members of the community, and the Aquarium is becoming a place for people to gather and enjoy. Boardman, co-chair of the Aquarium Committee, quotes Margaret Mead, “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.”
The following activities are examples of the positive momentum and community embracement of the Belle Isle Aquarium:
- Light Up the Aquarium, a Conservancy fundraiser held in December, raised funds to bring back the ever-popular electric eels in 2013 and last year fundraised for a new stingray exhibit.
- A major gift from the Fenton family enabled the renovation of 11 tank exhibits in the Aquarium alcove that now house clownfish, starfish, seahorses, and jellyfish. The Aquarium’s skylights had been closed for 50 years, and are now reopening and letting natural light back into the facility, thanks to Randy and Trayce Fenton and their friends and family. The skylight project was done in memory of Aaron Fenton, and the dedication plaque at the Aquarium displays Victor Hugos’s quote, “To love beauty is to see light.”
- The William Davidson Foundation awarded the Belle Isle Conservancy a grant that provides funds for historic restoration, critical infrastructure updates, and expanded programming.
- The Conservancy launched a field trip program to the Aquarium and Anna Scripps Whitcomb Conservatory this year. The unique educational program links the science curriculum in DPS fourth grade classrooms to what they experience on their field trip around the island. This year’s program aims to get 800 students through the program, and is funded by individual donations from the 2014 Grand Prixmiere gala and a grant from the GM Foundation.
- The Michigan Glass Project made a donation to the Conservancy in support of the Aquarium on February 7, 2015. For the past three years, the Belle Aquarium has been the Michigan Glass Project’s designated organization to benefit from their 3-day charity event, which will take place July 24-26, 2015 at the Russell Industrial Center.
- Visitors can expect to see a new weathervane adorn the top of the Aquarium this spring, after decades of the building missing its fixture. Butzel Long sponsored a design competition and the fabrication as part of its 160th birthday celebration. The winning design, by Bruce Gerlach, is a gar fish, an homage to the Belle Isle Aquarium being the only aquarium in the world to house all seven gar species.
“The Aquarium has beautiful architecture, a rich history and an immense amount of potential to be a destination for families across the Detroit metro region and visitors from around the world to include on their “must visit” Detroit itineraries,” said Hodges. “There is more work to do to return the building to its intended splendor for the public to enjoy, but the future is bright.”