Historic Detroit

Belle Isle Aquarium

Belle Isle’s celebrated siblings, the Belle Isle Aquarium and the Anna Scripps Whitcomb Conservatory, opened together on Aug. 18, 1904. The two landmarks, designed by renowned architect Albert Kahn fascinated and delighted generations of Detroiters. At the time of its closure in 2005, the aquarium was the longest continuously running aquarium in the United States and the only aquarium in Michigan.

An Italian flavor

Clarence M. Burton, in his history on the city of Detroit, attributes the idea of an aquarium to Rep. David E. Heineman, who had visited Naples, Italy, and studied that city’s Anton Dorhn Aquarium. Heineman, who had earlier been the city’s chief assistant attorney, introduced a bill in the Legislature to provide funding for the conservatory and aquarium. The act authorized that $150,000 in bonds be issued (about $3.7 million today) was passed on May 26, 1899. It just hinged on a vote of the people, which gave its support. The bonds were issued March 1, 1900, and the money was placed in the city treasury for building the two landmarks.

Kahn gets to work

The firm of Nettleton & Kahn drew up the plans for the buildings. The building’s price tag: $165,000 (about $4.06 million today). At the time of its opening, the aquarium was among the six largest in the world. Its high-tech equipment allowed for the keeping of both seawater and fresh-water marine life and the keeping of the right water temperatures in the tanks. The water was recycled through the tanks because, it was said, that fish survive better in water they’ve been in before. Originally, a 8,531-gallon center tank with a railing around it occupied the center of the building. It was topped off with filtered water that snaked through 5 miles of pipes.

Kahn outfitted the interior with sea-green glass tiles to give visitors the feeling that they were in an underwater cavern. Forty-four tanks filled with critters from the Great Lakes and the world’s oceans line the walls. Combined, the tanks contained 5,780 gallons of water. Magnificent pillars and other details compliment the soaring arched ceilings, as high as three stories in the center of the building. A classroom sits near the main entrance.

The front of the slender, brick building features an elaborate Baroque entrance with carvings of dolphins and a grotesque of Neptune, the Roman god of water. In the center is the city’s seal showing the two maidens and the Detroit motto, “Speramus meliora; resurget cineribus” — “We hope for better things; it will rise from the ashes.” Below that, the word “aquarium” is carved in capitalized, bold letters. The intricate details are sometimes masked by robust ivy that covers the front of the building.

When opening day finally came on Aug. 18, 1904, Detroiters were champing at the bit to take a peek. By the time dawn rolled around, the line numbered into the thousands and stretched from the aquarium’s front door all the way, across the bridge, back to East Jefferson Avenue. More than 5,000 people visited on the attraction’s first day. Some half a million would gaze into its tanks its first year.

“The aquarium is pronounced by the leading aquarists of this country to be second to none in the world,” boasted Robert Bolger, the city’s Parks and Boulevard commissioner.

For the 1911-12 season, 871,062 Detroiters paid visit to the aquarium, with an average of 2,386 dropping by each day. “This instructive as well as entertaining exhibit continues to hold its place in the estimation of the people, and every effort has been made to keep the exhibit up to the highest standard,” that year’s annual report of the Department of Parks and Boulevards said.

The aquarium would host countless school field trips and family get-togethers

Scaling down

The year-round aquarium survived the Great Depression — but not all of its fish were so lucky. The saltwater fish were removed because of the great expense in keeping them. Officials said they simply could not afford to buy the 95,000 gallons of seawater, so the aquarium sold its fish, including “Big Pete,” a beloved, mammoth sea turtle that was sold to a market and turned into soup. The Zoological Park Commission-run aquarium had more than 2,000 fish in 1948 and more than 3,600 in 1955 when the 51-year-old facility got a makeover.

A new look

In April 1954, the aquarium closed for more than a year before reopening July 1, 1955, following a $200,000 renovation (about $1.5 million today). The fish moved into new refrigerated, back-lit, aluminum-faced tanks that helped keep things cool in the summer months. A giant pool in the center of the building was tiled over and replaced with large tanks. Old floor pools that had long been filled with carp and - the Detroit News reported at the time - discarded popcorn, were replaced with enormous tropical fish exhibits. The tanks were outfitted with driftwood and water plants. The aquarium’s latest star would be an 86-pound snapping turtle.

At the time of the renovation, the aquarium had about 3,600 fish of 150 species on display. It was, according to then-curator Keith Kreag, the largest collection of fish ever put on display and perhaps the finest collection of freshwater fish in North America. It boasted everything from piranhas to lampreys to electric eels at the time.

Tough times, shrinking attendance

In 1972, Mayor Roman Gibbs targeted the aquarium and the birdhouse at the zoo under his austerity program for the city. Public outcry kept them alive, however, and the aquarium added a $40,000 shark tank of horned, leopard and nurse sharks in February 1981.

In 1986, a proposal was floated to demolish the Ford Auditorium and build a new aquarium along the riverfront. This plan was shelved because of money issues, but talk of building a new super aquarium would surface later.

Attendance declined steadily in the 1980s and 1990s. In 1995, more than 113,000 people visited the aquarium. By 2004, the number had fallen to 56,000. By comparison, more than 1.87 million people visited in 1931, and more than a million attended in 1960.

Kilpatrick shuts the doors

As Detroit continued to be assailed by budget deficits of $200 million and more, the city announced March 3, 2005, that it would shutter the aquarium to save money. Friends of Belle Isle Aquarium offered the city a last-minute lease proposal to keep it open and take over the operational costs. The plan was denied. Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick’s office said the aquarium needed a multiyear, multimillion-dollar plan, not a stopgap.

Kilpatrick’s office offered varying accounts of how much the facility cost to run each year, ranging from $450,000 at first to $530,000 to $700,000 to $800,000 right before it closed. Organizers continued holding fund-raisers, selling T-shirts and holding rallies in hopes of saving the aquarium. Even Gov. Jennifer Granholm wrote a letter offering her support, though she didn’t offer any financial help. Still, Kilpatrick said simply, “It’s time to close it.”

On April 3, 2005, after 101 years, the aquarium was shuttered, joining many of the other Belle Isle attractions that had disappeared, from horse and pony rides to the Belle Isle Zoo. More than 4,000 people turned out for the final day. About a half hour before the doors closed for good, there was a line of more than 250 people snaking out the door and down the block, the Detroit Free Press reported.

When it closed, the aquarium was home to more than 4,000 fish and other aquatic creatures, from shrimp to small sharks. The fish were packed up and exiled to other aquariums, the tanks were drained and the doors were locked. At the time, Kilpatrick said the critters were on loan and would be retrieved if the city built a new aquarium or reopened the old one.

In August 2005, Detroit voters passed a nonbinding resolution to reopen the aquarium 110,615-15,093, an 88%-12% margin. But it still remained closed. Today, the state of Michigan does not have a single public aquarium.

Hope for the future

Now, with Kilpatrick out of office following a perjury conviction, the Friends of the Belle Isle Aquarium are making progress in reopening the beloved attraction. A large volunteer effort Jan. 31, 2009, brought out more than three dozen volunteers to help spruce the place up for a one-time opening for the Shiver on the River on Feb. 7, 2009.

The group is trying to convince the City Council to turn the aquarium over. The building is still in great shape, having been spared the ravages of scrappers and thieves. Its roof needs to be replaced, some of the plaster walls need retouching, and some of the tanks have to be fixed up.

The City of Detroit announced in June 2009 that it had received a $40,000 grant toward the cost of repairing the roof at the aquarium. The Detroit Free Press reported that the state granted Detroit the money with hopes that after fixing the roof, the city would be able to reopen the aquarium to the public. However, the grant fell short of the $195,000 needed to stabilize the roof, Vincent Anwunah, the city’s general manger for planning design and construction management, told the Free Press. Anwunah told the newspaper that money to close that gap was being sought through other grants and the City Planning Commission.

But in November 2009, the Detroit City Council voted to reject the $40,000 grant, presumably because the city was unable to come up with the matching funds required under the grant.

But the dedicated group of volunteers didn’t give up, and on Sept. 15, 2012, the beloved landmark reopened to the public. And the public turned out by the thousands for the event. The line stretched out the door and down the sidewalk, and volunteers extended the hours so that everyone in line got a chance to see it. It is currently open on only Saturdays.