If Belle Isle is Detroit's crown, then the Anna Scripps Whitcomb Conservatory is its brightest emerald, full of brilliant green ferns, palms and cacti and plant life from all over the world.
The conservatory, opened in the center of the island on Aug. 18, 1904, the same day as its next door neighbor, the Belle Isle Aquarium. Both were designed by the short-lived firm Mason & Kahn. Architect Albert Kahn is said to have turned to Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello for inspiration. It sits on 13 acres and features a lily pond on its north side and is fronted by formal perennial gardens on the west. These gardens are home to the Levi L. Barbour Memorial Fountain. For the first 51 years of its existence, the building was known as simply the Conservatory or the Horticulture Building. Today, the Anna Scripps Whitcomb Conservatory is the oldest, continually operating conservatory in the United States.
The building covers about an acre and has five areas, each housing a different climate, and features a north wing and a south wing and a 100,600 cubic feet dome 85 feet high to accommodate soaring palms and other tropical plants. The north wing houses hundreds of cacti and desert plants, and just beyond that is a room packed with ferns from floor to ceiling. The south is home to hundreds of tropical plants and the Children’s Christian Temperance Fountain. The collection also includes perennial gardens and displays of annuals. The show house, remodeled in 1980, features a continuous display of blooming plants.
During the mid-1920s, the conservatory averaged 1.5 million visitors a year. During the summer of 1953, the building's gorgeous, classical wooden frame was replaced with sterile aluminum. It cost about $500,000 to do the deed, the equivalent of about $4.4 million today, when adjusted for inflation.
In April 1955, Anna Scripps Whitcomb - daughter of Detroit News founder James E. Scripps - gave her collection of 600 orchids to the conservatory, giving the City of Detroit the largest municipally owned orchid collection in the country. Many of these exotic orchids were saved from Britain during World War II, and the conservatory was renamed in her honor in gratitude.
More on this landmark of Detroit coming soon.