Mitchell Park Domes near end of lifespan

Abele estimates replacement cost at $65 million to $75 million

The Mitchell Park Domes

Last updated on July 2nd, 2019 at 09:32 am

The Mitchell Park Domes, an iconic Milwaukee landmark for nearly 50 years, may be nearing the end of their lifespan.

Milwaukee County Executive Chris Abele discusses repair options for the Mitchell Park Domes.
Milwaukee County Executive Chris Abele discusses repair options for the Mitchell Park Domes.

All three domes at the Mitchell Park Conservatory have been closed since Friday, a week after a piece of a concrete casting fell and prompted county officials to close the park’s desert dome on Jan. 28.

At a press conference Monday afternoon, Milwaukee County Executive Chris Abele said the county will decide on a short-term solution to prevent concrete from falling on employees and visitors within the next two weeks.

But the long-term fate of the Domes, completed in 1967, was brought into question.

According to a report released Monday by Graef, a Milwaukee-based engineering and consulting firm: “The Domes are old structures that are showing the effects of their age. They will continue to deteriorate unless major renovations are completed.”

Abele estimated the domes would cost between $65 million and $75 million to replace.

“That’s a lot of money for the county,” Abele said. “It’s important, though, that we give ourselves the opportunity 50 years after the creation of the Domes to ask ourselves as a community: is this what we want to do going forward; replicate the Domes again?”

A short-term solution being explored by the county is wrapping the crumbling concrete castings on the Domes’ ceilings in what was described as a kind of canvas-like material that would hold the concrete in place. Abele estimated the short-term wrap could last 10 or more years and the cost would be somewhere in the “big six figures.”

The Mitchell Park Domes
The Mitchell Park Domes

How long the Domes will remain closed is uncertain, but Milwaukee County Parks Director John Dargle said around 25 weddings scheduled over the next few months have been cancelled.

Last year, 248,000 visited the Mitchel Park Domes, according to Abele spokesperson Melissa Baldauff. In 2014, 231,000 people visited.

Graef surveyed the Dome’s structural integrity in May 2015 after the county received reports of “golf ball-sized pieces of concrete found on the ground of the domes.”

“A sample of the fallen debris was observed with the largest pieces being roughly 1-inch diameter by 1/2-inch thickness,” reads a report Graef submitted to the county after a walk-through. “With continued age and exposure to water on the concrete surfaces, spalls of concrete are expected to continue, which will result in more falling debris.”

The report recommended the county put in place both short and long-term plans to address crumbling infrastructure at the domes, but concluded its structure did not present “an imminent threat” or pose “danger to the general public or Milwaukee County Parks Department workers.”

The Parks department received $500,000 from the county for “additional inspection and repair of the Arid and Show Domes,” according to the minutes of a January 30, 2014 Finance, Personnel and Audit committee.

Dargle said that money was spent on chipping away lose concrete to prevent more from falling and hiring engineers to survey the structures.

“I don’t think it would surprise the architects of the Domes 50 years ago to know that, at some point, it was going to be difficult to maintain without new technology or completely rebuilding it,” Abele said.

State Senator Chris Larson, D-Milwaukee, who is running against Abele for county executive in April, released a statement this morning that blamed Abele for putting off repairs on the domes and accused him of secretly lobbying for legislation “that put our parks and cultural institutions at risk.”

“It’s a tragedy that the future of our Domes has been compromised by millions of dollars worth of deferred maintenance that has piled up under the last two county executives and that there has yet to be a plan to keep the public informed on what will happen with the Domes future,” Larson said. “As county executive, I will work with our neighbors to do what it takes to ensure our Domes are available for future generations.”

Abele spokesperson Melissa Baldauff denied Larson’s accusations and said the domes have a long history of structural problems and repairs that extend years before Abele was elected.

“Effective managers understand that observing a problem doesn’t solve it, as anyone who’s ever been a successful leader can attest to,” Baldauff said. “That’s why instead of pointing fingers at previous county executives and previous county boards from which he inherited a mess, Chris Abele has spent five years catching up on deferred maintenance in Milwaukee County. Decisions regarding public safety and significant investments of taxpayer resources aren’t to be taken lightly or made into political theater. The county executive knows that the resources required to do large scale projects such as the work necessary on the Domes belong to the public, which is why he is committed to soliciting community input before making any decisions.”


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Ben Stanley, former BizTimes Milwaukee reporter.

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