Reviving the Belle Isle Aquarium
















MORE THAN A century ago, Michigan legislator David E. Heineman was so captivated by an aquarium he visited while traveling in Italy that he returned home with hopes of seeing one built in his hometown.

His dream was realized in 1904 and, after a proud run as the country’s longest continually operating aquarium, it was shuttered in 2005.

Now, there are signs that the vacant Belle Isle Aquarium may be doing more than treading water. In May, the aquarium received a $45,000 grant from Michigan’s Historic Preservation Fund to repair the roof. Jennifer Boardman, secretary and executive board member for the Friends of Belle Isle Aquarium, calls the award a first step in the aquarium’s reopening. “We’re thrilled that it’s being invested in, because that’s an indication of the importance of the building,” Boardman says. 

Architect Albert Kahn designed the Belle Isle Aquarium, which is dramatic in several regards, including the green glass tile that sheathes the vaulted ceiling, lending an underwater aura to the space where tanks once housed 1,500 aquatic creatures representing 146 species.

Today, the space is underwater quiet with the onetime echoes of children’s excited voices as absent as the fish.

“We’d like to see some new, innovative things put in,” Boardman says. “It’s a huge building. There’s room for all types of things that weren’t thought of when the aquarium was built. We would like to make sure we restore it so that when it reopens, people are wowed by it and it sustains itself.”


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