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Milwaukee is a city with a lot of character, and one of the most unique places to visit is the Milwaukee Landmark: the Mitchell Park Domes. These greenhouse masterpieces were designed by architecturally-renowned Donald Grieb and opened in 1963. These Domes offer a fascinating look at three different climate zones, making it a popular destination for families and nature enthusiasts alike.
Designed to be a horticultural educational resource for the city of Milwaukee, the Domes also provides a fascinating look at horticulture and our world’s natural environment.
The History of the Domes
It all starts with Mitchell Park in 1890. It was one of five areas that were designated to become a haven of rest, relaxation, and nature in Milwaukee. This was an incredible time as many cities across the country were starting to do the same thing: create an oasis in the middle of the city that could be a perfect place to escape the hustle and bustle of budding metropolises.
Soon a horticultural dream was underway with different gardens planted, a pond, and eventually buildings like a glass conservatory. Even over one hundred years ago, they recognized the value of an indoor space in a Northern State. It was often very busy in the colder months as people came to appreciate the exotic displays with a huge variety of plants.
I just can’t imagine how special it must have been for people to experience things like palm trees and other species of plants from different regions of the world at a time that was a lot less connected as a global community. It had to be like visiting a living museum.
The place evolved over the years, adding a sunken garden, etc until it wasn’t the “shiny new object” any longer and instead of more upgrades, the tired building was set to be replaced. Enter local architect Donald Grieb.
Landscape Architect For Milwaukee Mitchell Park Domes
The Domes were designed by the very talented landscape architect Donald Grieb. Grieb was born in Milwaukee and educated at the University of Illinois where he studied under some of the most famous architects of his time, including Ludwig Mies van der Rohe.
After completing his education, Grieb moved back to Milwaukee and began a long and successful career as a landscape architect. His architectural firm designed numerous buildings, schools, churches, and homes in and around Milwaukee. He is responsible for many of Milwaukee’s most well-known landmarks, including the Mitchell Park Domes.
His Domes are an excellent example of mid-century modern architecture, and I believe are the largest of their kind in the world.
Building the Domes
The actual building of the domes was a staged process. The first dome, was the smallest one, the Floral Show Dome, and was finished in 1964. The second dome, which features tropical rainforest, was finished in 1966. And finally, the third and largest dome, which houses a desert environment, was completed in 1967.
The Domes and the First Lady
When the first of the Domes was completed, were graced by First Lady, Mrs. Lyndon B. (Lady Bird) Johnson who did the dedication in 1965.
What to Expect at Domes
If you’re wondering what to expect when visiting the Mitchell Park Domes, I have some good news for you – there is something for everyone! Whether you are looking for elf houses, the latest tropical import, or even trying to find the birds that are singing over your head, there is a ton to do!
The Domes are made up of three climate zones, each offering a unique experience. Mitchell Park Domes offer something for everyone in the family to enjoy and discover.
The Three Unique Gardens at Mitchell
There are three different domes: Desert Dome, Tropical Dome, and the Show Dome. Each dome has its own climate zone that showcases a collection of plants from all around the world.
The Desert Dome
The Desert Dome is the largest of Mitchell Park Domes, and home to desert plants from all over the world. It isn’t really an arid dome, but quite comfortable and just a lovely place to be on cold winter Saturday afternoons.
I love learning things like what a barrel cactus looks like and why I would never want to break it open if I saw it in a desert when I was dying for thirst.
Make sure you look for the resident bearded dragon! Steve is known for his spiny-looking scales and fun personality.
The Tropical Dome
The Tropical Dome is a wonderful place to be in the middle of a Wisconsin winter. Today is a good example, as I am writing this it is only two degrees out. Compare that to the temperature of the Tropical dome, which is about 80 degrees Fahrenheit.
That humid and warm environment really helps take the chill out of your bones as you enjoy looking at lush greenery, exotic plants, and a colorful display of flowers. From vines to palms, this dome has a lot to offer.
I find the plants quite fascinating, and visitors can get an up-close look at the coffee plant and learn about where it comes from in our world. Add a chocolate pudding fruit plant and cane sugar? I could move in and be in heaven.
(Then I read the sign where they ask you nicely to not pick things…so don’t do that!)
It also has a waterfall that cascades down into a pool at its base, where koi fish swim freely among the rocks.
If you are an orchid fan, you won’t be disappointed with the Tropical Dome. There are many orchids, both familiar and exotic that you can see there!
I could easily just sit on a bench, listen to the song of the birds flying around the trees, watch the fish swimming, and bask in the heat.
The Show Dome
The Show Dome is the smallest of Mitchell Park Domes, but it packs a punch. This dome is home to many different types of plants, including those that are used for culinary purposes.
Here is the thing about the show dome – it hosts the five different seasonal shows over the course of the year, starting with the annual winter train show. I love how it switches up each year, and this year it is The Barrio – with a nod to the local Latinae community and mockups of the neighborhood.
No worries though – the annual favorites like Thomas the Train makes an appearance, and we love how there is a scavenger hunt to pull the entire family into looking for things like the fairy house.
This seasonal dome really is geared for a whimsical experience for the entire family.
Why all the Yellow Tape?
If you look up and look closely when enjoying your visit to the domes, you will see a fine layer of chicken wire. Let’s face it, I was built in the 60s and need a little work too.
They have a long-term preservation solution underway, which makes me incredibly happy as a few years ago I had heard of a possible demolition of the Mitchell Park Domes. I really think they are a source of civic pride for the community and am glad that the glass domes will persevere.
It is just a fact in Wisconsin that cold weather with the freeze and thaw is challenging for anything of concrete – and they are preserving this treasure for future generations.
Don’t be surprised when you see yellow caution tape in an area or two as you journey through the Domes, they are trying to be as unobtrusive as possible during this historic preservation and maintenance.
Friends of the Domes Education Center
OK – we LOVE any kind of nature center that helps not only entertain people but educate them. This place made my heart happy!
They have interactive exhibits, including things like I Spy books and other games geared to teach people about the domes and what they contain. Just like the Show Dome, it tends to change out seasonally.
Things for kids, families, and even adult educational programs – be still my heart! It is open weekdays from 10 am-2 pm and on weekends 11 am-2 pm.
Mitchell Park Domes Gift Shop
We always love to help support places like this by looking through their gift shop. The gift shop here is small but mighty. It offers many different items from apparel to souvenirs and everything in between!
Plus, they support local artists by featuring their work in the gift shop – so you can take a piece of Milwaukee home with you.
The gift shop is the perfect place to find a unique gift for the plant lover in your life. In fact, our teen fell in love with a fishhook cactus and we ended up bringing Kevin home. It is a great way to support a nonprofit organization.
The Dome Hours of Operation
The Mitchell Park Domes are open year-round and make a fun family outing for nature enthusiasts of all ages! Mitchell Park Dome hours are as follows:
- Monday and Tuesday: closed
- Wednesday and Friday: 9 am-5 pm
- Thursday: 9 am-5 pm
- Saturday and Sunday 9 am-4 pm
–>The last admission is one hour before closing every day –but get there sooner – there is so much to see!
You do need to check on their current Covid regulations – as of writing this, they are currently only allowed 75% occupancy and it is monitored by a reservation system. You also need to wear a mask – but this can change as the local municipal policies change.
Don’t forget Sticker Wednesdays when all attendees get a special sticker that relates to the current offering at the Show Dome.
How much does it cost to visit the Domes?
The admission price is as follows:
- Adult: Non-resident $8 / Milwaukee County Resident* $7
- Junior (6-17) or Student*: Non-resident $6 / Milwaukee County Resident* $5
- Persons with disability: Non-resident $6 / Milwaukee County Resident* $5
- Seniors (60+): Non-resident $8 / Milwaukee County Resident* $5
- Friends of Domes Member*: Free
- AHSG Member* (max 2): Free
- Children Under 5: Free
As you can see, membership has privileges. A Mitchell Park Domes Membership is easy to invest in or give as a gift with a level for pretty much anyone. It pays for itself quickly, usually in just two visits.
Mitchell Park Domes FAQs
Are the Domes Handicap Accessible? Yes! Mitchell Park Domes are handicap accessible and include ramps and restrooms that are wheelchair accessible.
Can I Bring My Dog? No – dogs are not allowed in the Mitchell Park Domes.
Is There a Cafe or Restaurant on Site? There is no cafe or restaurant located at Mitchell Park Domes. Mitchell Park Domes does have vending machines in the lobby for drinks.
Where is Mitchell Park Located? Mitchell Park is located at 524 S Layton Blvd, Milwaukee, WI 53215
Can I Host an Event at Mitchell Park Domes? Mitchell Park Domes offers several event spaces inside and outside the domes. They have even hosted weddings there! Mitchell Park Domes can accommodate groups of up to 350 people, depending on your selected location.
Restaurants Near Mitchell Park Domes
As there is no place at the Domes to grab a bite, we thought we would share a few great places that are a short drive away:
Oscar’s Pub & Grill at 1712 W Pierce St. If you like burgers, hit this place up for lunch – or dinner!
Mad Rooster Cafe at 4401 W Greenfield Ave. This American Cafe-style place is open for Breakfast and Lunch, with friendly staff and delicious food.
Miss Katie’s Diner at 1900 W Clybourn St. This is a typical diner setting for breakfast, lunch, and dinner, and the food is good with generous portions.
Escape to the Indoors
I simply adore that slogan of theirs. In Wisconsin, we can have snow up to eight months of the year. That makes this not only an iconic symbol of Milwaukee, but a great place to warm up, have fun, and learn something.
The Mitchell Park Domes are a fascinating piece of architecture and botanical history that is worth taking a look at – especially if you have never been before! If you have kids, they will love all of the different things to see and do there as you enjoy this national treasure together.