Milwaukee, Wisconsin
Donald Grieb

CLD-E illuminates a Milwaukee landmark

Milwaukee’s Mitchell Park Horticultural Conservatory, a complex of three connected structures commonly and affectionately known as “the Domes,” needed a significant revitalization.

Designed in the late 1950s by local architect Donald Grieb and dedicated at its opening in the mid-1960s by Lady Bird Johnson, then first lady, the conservatory comprises three 15,000-square-foot conoidal domes composed of a precast concrete substructure and aluminum-framed glass. One hundred and forty feet in diameter at the base and 85 feet high, each dome features a distinct climate with a naturalistic setting for the specific flora it houses. One is desertlike, another tropical, and the third accommodates a variety of floral species.

But public interest had waned in recent years due to a number of factors. Not only were the Domes perceived to be dated, but county park budget cuts diminished the structures’ routine maintenance and upgrades. So the once-popular landmark saw a steady decline in attendance.

A master renovation plan, written nearly a decade ago, outlined a long list of measures intended to reverse this downward trajectory, including the repair and/or replacement of all the glass panes. A fund-raising campaign was initiated in 2005, and to give the Domes a much-needed boost, Milwaukee County Parks director Sue Black and Mitchell Park Horticultural Conservatory director Sandy Folaron chose to focus on one significant — and reasonably affordable — enhancement that would result in a highly visible impact: lighting. With funding provided by donors under the auspices of the Greater Milwaukee Foundation, they organized a lighting-design competition that was won by Creative Lighting Design and Engineering (CLD-E), a firm based in nearby Germantown, Wisconsin.

CLD-E’s concept implements a number of techniques using LEDs and color washes, resulting in a dramatic effect. The firm topped the outside of each dome with a halo created by aligning 3-foot LED strips end-to-end. Lit at night in a range of colors, the halos are a beacon, visible from a great distance.

Moving inside, the lighting designers positioned 24 metal-halide, high-intensity-discharge lamps around the perimeter of the desert and tropical domes to direct a luminous blue wash up toward the apex. Small, low-voltage MR16 lamps tucked into the ground illuminate the flora with white light. However, the highlight of the new lighting scheme is in the third dome where the lighting designers installed 400 diminutive LED pixels at every connection point of the structure. In combination with 50 LED wall-washing fixtures, these custom-modified luminaires — 2 inches in diameter and 4.5 inches long with frosted-acrylic, caplike diffusers — illuminate the dome with a multitude of computer-programmed lighting displays capable of virtually limitless colorations. “The design inspiration was one of those epiphany moments when you have an idea that you know is right,” says CLD-E principal Marty Peck. “We like to work with layers of light and color, and our goal was to animate the classic geodesic architecture with light. Highlighting the triangular mullions with both the uplight wash and the pixels at the intersection seemed the perfect solution.”

Painstakingly synchronized by Peck to music ranging from the Beatles’ “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds” to Igor Stravinsky’s Firebird Suite, these vibrant displays allow visitors to experience the transformed Domes in a whole new light — literally and figuratively.

The lighting design and installation, completed with a modest budget of $500,000, along with a renovated central lobby, are bringing the Domes greater recognition locally. Currently open with extended hours two weeknights every week, the invigorated Mitchell Park Horticultural Conservatory has already attracted about 130,000 visitors during the first six months after the lighting installation was completed. Compared to the previous full year, during which attendance was calculated at about 160,000, this figure indicates a brighter future for this 1960s icon.