MILWAUKEE — The Mitchell Park Horticultural Conservatory doesn't exactly roll off the tongue. That's why the three glass bubbles that have been a part of this city's skyline since the 1960s are referred to simply as "The Domes."

For many, the name requires little explanation and is part of the Wisconsin vernacular that also includes "The Pack," "brats," "Up North" and "bubbler."

The climate-controlled environments on the south bank of the Menomonee River Valley host flora from around the world, are a destination for wedding and prom parties, Easter Sunday strolls and a prime place to escape the chill of a January day.

There's also rock-n-roll, beer and roller derby in what has been a successful attempt in recent years to expand the demographics and grow the number of visitors to the Milwaukee institution located just east of the city's other famous dome, Miller Park.

"We had to re-create ourselves," said Sandy Folaron, director of the conservatory since 2006. "Because although we love the grandmas, we have to look at the future."

When Folaron was hired as the first non-horticulturist to run the place, attendance was at 120,000 visitors per year and the county-owned facilities needed an upgrade.

What followed was a new $500,000 LED lighting system, a $250,000 project to spruce up the lobby and a host of new events that helped double attendance to 240,000 in 2012.

The Domes now host corporate parties and a number of ethnic festivals. The two-day Chinese New Year event beginning Feb. 1 is expected to draw up to 4,000 people. Poland gets its turn on Feb. 16, Germany on March 2, Turkey on March 9 and Ireland on March 10.

The festivals, which include music, craft fairs, food and drink, have helped draw a whole new crowd "who weren't on our radar except for maybe Mother's Day and Christmas," Folaron said. "It's brought in a whole different kind of crowd."

Each of the three domes is 85 feet high and 140 feet across. The Show Dome opened in 1964 just in time for Christmas, the Tropical Dome in 1966 and the Desert Dome in 1967.

Each dome has approximately 2,200 panes of glass that would cost between $5 million and $8 million to replace with more energy-efficient glass, Folaron said.

The Show Dome features changing exhibits, a pond and a bridge that is popular with children, like Aidan Saeian, 19 months, of Whitefish Bay. On a recent visit, the boy made countless trips across the bridge while his mother sat on a nearby bench surrounded by poinsettias and artificial snowmen.

"It's great just to have the space to run around," Angeline Saeian said. "And it's beautiful."

Later this month, the Christmas theme will be replaced with a circus-themed garden train show from Jan. 19 to March 10.

The Desert Dome features the plantings of the American Southwest, Africa, South America and Mexico. More than 450 plant species, birds and insects can be found in the Tropical Dome.

Darlene Backhaus, 57, of Tulsa, Okla., grew up in the Milwaukee area but hadn't been to The Domes in years. She returned last month and was in awe.

"It brings back good memories," Backhaus said. "It's so cool to see it's still here."

The draw for new visitors and those who are returning for the first time in years also extends to Thursday nights from November through most of March in what is called "Music Under Glass." Considering the setting, you might think it would be perfect for piano and violin recitals. Instead, the programs are geared toward a more upbeat crowd that's more likely to head to Walker's Point and Water Street after the show.

Last week's attraction was a U2 cover band. The Britins, a Beatles cover band, took the stage in November, with other shows dedicated to country, blues and "tweed funk," a mix of blues, soul, funk and elements of hip-hop. Upcoming shows include an indie-punk band, The Barrettes, on Jan. 31. They'll be joined by members of the Brewcity Brusiers roller derby team. An Elvis tribute night is set for Feb. 21 and a beach party on March 14.

And there's more that's helping to secure the future. Friends of the Domes, a 1,600-member organization, raises thousands of dollars a year for the facility; a bridge that connects the Hank Aaron State Trail with The Domes is under construction and an $11 million, 65,000-square-foot greenhouse is under construction to help provide new plantings for The Domes.

"It's really been a rebirth of The Domes," Folaron said. "We've done well."


Barry Adams covers regional news for the State Journal. Send him ideas for On Wisconsin at 608-252-6148 or by email at badams@madison.com.

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