Belle Isle Aquarium ready to welcome visitors again

Posted on September 14, 2012

After years of dormancy, the 108-year-old Belle Isle Aquarium will open its doors again Saturday to kick off a new era of operation.

For many, the Saturdays-only schedule from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. is a start toward more regular hours. In the future, that may involve major help from the Michigan Department of Natural Resources if the state takes on Belle Isle as a park.

But Saturday’s kickoff is arriving without the state’s help, and that’s because a small army of volunteers refused to let the aquarium die.

“This would have happened anyway,” said Brad Dick, Detroit’s interim director of recreation, in the days leading up to the ribbon-cutting. “They stuck it out for six or seven years, and now they’re making it happen.”

Their plan of attack began with offering to help at the Belle Isle Conservatory by taking care of the koi pond. Once connected directly to the aquarium, the conservatory offered the only real fish action on Belle Isle once the aquarium was closed by then-Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick.

Vance Patrick and Jennifer Boardman slowly made themselves part of the volunteer scene at Belle Isle and have helped spearhead efforts to keep the aquarium alive. In that time, they have become experts on the building, the quirks of its design and many of the lives that have passed through its doors.

Those doors are among the most distinctive features of the aquarium, an example of the historical and artistic surprises waiting around every corner of the structure designed by architect Albert Kahn.

Atop the archway is a shell, which Boardman said was used as a symbol of welcome. Just underneath that, in a circular globe, stand two women — one looking backward in time to the Detroit fire of 1805, the other looking ahead to the future.

Farther down, a pair of stylized dolphins guards the top edge of the upper sculpture. Hanging over the archway is the Roman god Neptune.

“It was built to uplift the city,” Boardman said, looking over the entryway. “That’s why it’s here.”

To understand the loyalty and support the aquarium has enjoyed, you need only look back through the past nine months.

On Feb. 4, the aquarium opened for a day as part of the Shiver on the River program on Belle Isle. Boardman estimated more than 4,000 visitors came over four hours to get a glimpse.

A few months later, when volunteers were invited to participate in the seasonal transfer of koi from their warm indoor pools in the basement of the aquarium to their outdoor pond, roughly 200 people showed up.

Down the road, DNR workers could be responsible for transferring the fish and hosting the events. And many of those involved with keeping the aquarium alive over the past few years welcome the state’s involvement.

Sustained funding from government and designated personnel would allow some volunteers like Boardman and Patrick to spend more time enjoying the aquarium than worrying about what needs to be done.

Over the years, various groups have taken up the cause of Belle Isle and its long-standing institutions. From the Friends of Belle Isle to the Belle Isle Women’s Committee to the Belle Isle Botanical Society, each has had its own victories.

In 2009, those groups joined with the Friends of the Belle Isle Aquarium to form the Belle Isle Conservancy.

By pooling their resources and fundraising abilities, the separate groups have found sustained success working together. And that has allowed the aquarium’s caretakers to preserve an experience many Metro Detroiters remember fondly.

“When people walk in … they go, ‘Oh my God, this is just like when I was a kid,'” Patrick said. “Nothing has happened in here — this is exactly the way it was when you were a kid. That’s why we want everyone to come back and get reacquainted with an old friend.”

Jim Lynch, The Detroit News