Growing greener: The Domes pursue sustainability with conservation initiatives

Fifty years ago, when the Mitchell Park Horticultural Conservatory, aka The Domes, was under construction, the idea of going green was hardly a priority for any institution, even one bursting with green life.

“When (The Domes) were built, energy efficiency just wasn’t something people talked about,” said Sandy Folaron, horticultural services director at The Domes.

“And times have now changed,” she said, insisting that the long-term sustainability of the south side cultural attraction largely depends on ramping up its green initiatives.

Among the three domes’ most significant green accents – all added within the last three years – are perennial gardens and permeable pavers, a green roof topping off the institution’s education center, and a set of greenhouses that will likely open to the general public by fall.

The green enhancements follow a series of other structural and cosmetic improvements made to The Domes within the last decade, including new lighting, bathroom renovations, updates to the lobby’s ceiling, and the relocation of the gift shop to a more prominent spot.

The facility, which is located at 524 S. Layton Blvd. and belongs to the Milwaukee County Parks system, pursued a facelift after a spike in revenue created “a little bit more of a cushion” for conservatory and public officials to discuss its most pressing needs, Folaron said. That spike resulted from soaring attendance rates, which about tripled as The Domes rolled out a large-scale marketing effort – one that included lighting The Domes at night, building its base of events, and touting it as a rentable event space.

Nearly 250,000 people visit The Domes each year, according to Folaron’s most recent figures, which rank the site among the top 10 tourist destinations in Milwaukee County.

When Folaron, a former serial entrepreneur, swooped in about nine years ago to help lead a turnaround effort at The Domes – whose future at the time was in jeopardy – much of her priority centered on figuring out how to draw the masses back to the grounds.

“Like other conservatories, we’ve had to rethink, ‘How do we get people in here?’” she said, adding that the rise of other entertainment outlets in the past two decades, ranging from television and computers to youth sports, made the marketing push all the more difficult.

Going green
Once the conservatory had the funds to begin incorporating more environmentally-friendly elements into its operations, one of its first green steps involved revamping the plaza situated by the Show Dome and the Tropical Dome.

Where reflecting ponds and slabs of concrete once welcomed visitors, now there are perennial beds and permeable pavers, along with seating so visitors can pause and enjoy the outdoors.

Rainwater that runs off the Show Dome and Tropical Dome and off the pavers travels into a trough and is stored in a large underground gravel bed capable of holding about 5,000 gallons of storm water.

In the future, Folaron said the Conservatory hopes to reuse that water to hydrate the perennial beds, a project still in the works. For now, the water gives life to fountains on the grounds, where neighborhood kids flock in the summer to keep cool. Working in concert with the pavers’ storm management capabilities is a grass area that also replaced concrete that previously created a lot of runoff at The Domes.

Another green project aimed at helping the institution manage its water runoff is a green roof installed above the education center. The 1,460-square-foot roof, completed in 2013, can retain 1,270 gallons of water. In the process of capturing water, it helps curb the risk of sewer overflows, basement backups and flooding, and prevents storm water from becoming polluted runoff.

It also acts as another educational tool for the education center’s young visitors.
“It’s one thing to tell kids about (a) green roof…but it’s another to actually have one to show them,” Folaron said. “So…there’s only so much pictures can do.”

The green roof sits atop The Domes’ education center.

The Domes’ latest, and perhaps one of its most ambitious, green initiatives is the construction of seven greenhouses spanning 65,000 square feet on its property. The $14 million project was originally scheduled to be completed by August 2013 but will now likely be open to the public this fall.

The greenhouses are a state project of the Wisconsin Department of Transportation and are backed by federal funds. When the expansion of the Zoo Interchange interfered with the land occupied by the old county greenhouses on Watertown Plank Road in Wauwatosa, the DOT had to step in and replace the structures the Conservatory lost.

The new greenhouses currently have agricultural occupancy and provide space for the Conservatory to grow plants for itself and its sister site, Boerner Botanical Gardens. All greenery displayed in The Domes is grown by the conservatory, according to Folaron.

The greenhouses also contribute to The Domes’ storm water management system. Rainwater that falls across the more than 1.25 acres of roof area atop the greenhouses drains into gutters, which funnels into an underground storage system, known as the Sky Harvester. The system is comprised of four 20,000-gallon underground storage tanks. Water retained in the system is used for irrigation and recently supplied The Domes with seven months’ worth of water.

Each of the Conservatory’s green elements reinforces its vision to operate as a living museum with a strong educational arm, Folaron said.

“As a recognized conservatory, we should be on the cutting edge of new and innovative green initiatives,” she said. “We are a resource and our mission of education includes and should set the standard for best green practices and elements of any and all improvements to our facility.”

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