Belle Isle Conservatory

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Anna Scripps Whitcomb Conservatory
Belle Isle Conservatory
Belle Isle Whitcomb Conservatory.jpg
Type Botanical garden and greenhouse
Location Belle Isle Park
Detroit, Michigan
Coordinates 42°20′32″N 82°58′46″W / 42.34222°N 82.97944°W / 42.34222; -82.97944Coordinates: 42°20′32″N 82°58′46″W / 42.34222°N 82.97944°W / 42.34222; -82.97944
Area 13 acres (5.3 ha)
Opened August 18, 1904 (1904-08-18)
Designer Albert Kahn
Etymology In April 1953, Anna Scripps Whitcomb gave her 600 orchids collection to the conservatory
Operated by State of Michigan
Open 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. (EST)
Status Open all year
Website Official website

The Anna Scripps Whitcomb Conservatory (commonly and locally known as the Belle Isle Conservatory) is a greenhouse and a botanical garden located on Belle Isle, a 982-acre island park nestled in the Detroit River between Detroit and the Canada–United States border. The park itself consists of 13 acres of preserved land for the conservatory and its botanical garden.[1]

The conservatory, along with the neighboring Belle Isle Aquarium, was designed by renowned architect Albert Kahn and built in 1904,[2] and was remodeled and renovated several times years after. In 1953 the structure was named in honor of Anna Scripps Whitcomb, who left her grand collection of 600 orchids[3] to Detroit, and made several generous donations afterwards. The building of the Belle Isle Conservatory itself possesses a strikingly impressive domed center reaching 85 feet in height, which houses the exotic palm trees and plant life from South America to the jungles of Southeast Asia. The conservatory is opened to the public free of charge, and operates from Wednesday through Sunday between 10 a.m. and 5 p.m.

History and architecture[edit]

The central dome

The Anna Scripps Whitcomb Conservatory opened in the center of the island on August 18, 1904. It covers 13 acres, has a lily pond on its north side and has perennial gardens on the west. The gardens home the Levi L. Barbour Memorial Fountain.

For almost 49 years it was known as the conservatory until 1953, when it was renamed the Anna Scripps Whitcomb Conservancy. In April 1953, Anna Scripps Whitcomb, who was daughter of The Detroit News founder James E. Scripps, gave her 600 orchids collection to the conservatory. Many of these exotic orchids had been saved from Britain throughout World War II.[4] The conservatory became one of the largest governments owned orchid collections in the United States because of her contribution.

When it was first built the 85 feet tall dome was wooden, until the early 1950s when the wooden frame was replaced by one made of iron and aluminum. It is currently the oldest continually running conservatory in the United States. [5]


Show house (East Wing)
Entrance to the Fernery
Pathway through the Tropical house

The Conservatory building is divided into six specific sections: the Vestibule (in the front, serving as the welcome area), the Palm house (inside the domed center), the Tropical house (South Wing), the Cactus house and Fernery (North Wing), and the Show house (East Wing), with an outdoor lily pond, formal perennial gardens and greenhouses adjacent to the structure.[6]

The Palm house, maintained at 70 °F, is housed under the dome,[7] and contains a variety of tropical trees and palms, including the Chinese fan palm (Livistona chinensis), the fishtail palm (Caryota mitis), the umbrella tree (Schefflera actinophylla) and the Canary Island date palm (Phoenix canariensis). When a tree reaches the top of the dome it must be cut down, as they cannot be pruned to height.[6] The Tropical house, 70 °F, contains fruiting plants and trees such as the common fig, calamondin orange and bloodleaf banana, and tropical flowering plants such as the pink powderpuff (Calliandra brevipes) and peace lily (Spathiphyllum). The Cactus house, 62 °F, is lined in tufa rock and holds a variety of cacti and succulents, including jellybeans (Sedum pachyphyllum), the silver dollar cactus (Opuntia robusta), "old man" cactus (Cephalocereus senilis) and jade plant (Crassula ovata). The Fernery is sunken to provide cooler conditions and more humidity.[6] Ferns such as the alsophila can be found here, as well as a small waterfall located in the center. The Show house changes its display many times throughout the year and is also used for the conservatory's many flower shows and special events. The perennial gardens are located outside to the north of the vestibule.

Lily pond[edit]

The lily pond is located between the conservatory building and the Belle Isle Aquarium. Not part of the original design, the lily pond was constructed in 1936. The rocky walls were created with 200 tons of moss-covered limestone boulders that were brought from the construction of the Livingstone Channel in the Detroit River near Amherstburg, Ontario.[6] The pond is home to Japanese koi that are maintained by volunteers and are held in the aquarium basement during winter.[6]


Located to the west of the conservatory building are 20 greenhouse structures. 15 of the structures are used to care for the orchid, bromeliad, cactus, amaryllis and tropical plant collections. Five of the greenhouses are used by the Golightly Career and Technical Center's Agriscience Program for high school students in the metro Detroit area. These greenhouses help train for post-graduation jobs as green's keepers, florists, arborists, nursery owners and related fields.[8] The first greenhouse was built on Belle Isle in 1903.

Non-profit involvement & volunteerism[edit]

The Anna Scripps Whitcomb Conservatory is free to visit and operates mostly on the budget designated by local and state Governments. However, Belle Isle has long history of support through private organizations and donors. Volunteerism plays an important role for all of Belle Isle. Specifically, four major volunteer organizations have been vital to the livelihood of the island park. Friends of Belle Isle, a non-profit grassroots environmental organization, was founded in 1972 and is dedicated to the upkeep and preservation of Belle Isle through cleaning and the ridding of invasive species on the island. In 1988, the Belle Isle Botanical Society began raising money for projects to improve the Anna Scripps Whitcomb Conservatory. The Belle Isle Botanical society offered many services to the conservatory including volunteer tour guides and gardeners, and was also involved in raising funds to maintain and support the conservatory operation through repairs, equipment, purchase of plant material, etc. In 2004, the Belle Isle Women’s Committee was created and its first project was to upgrade Sunset Point. The non-profit Friends of the Belle Isle Aquarium was formed in 2005 with the goal of restoring Belle Isle's historic aquarium.

In 2009, the four organizations put a plan in action to form a single organization that could pool all their efforts and ideas into a larger and more effective non-profit dedicated to improvement projects. Together, receiving assistance from the Cultural Alliance for Southeastern Michigan and the Michigan Nonprofit Association, they have joined forces to form a single all-volunteer organization named the Belle Isle Conservancy.[4] The Kresge Foundation, based in suburban Detroit, has played a key role in the merger. Kresge gave the four organizations $100,000, in 2009, and in 2010 another $100,000.[9] Currently, there are three employees and a supervisor from the City of Detroit General Services Department that make up the Floriculture Unit at the Belle Isle Conservatory. The staff members are responsible for caring for all the plants in the Conservatory and greenhouses. The Conservatory relies on volunteers for all its additional needs and workers.[6]



  1. ^ "Conservatory". Recreation Department. City of Detroit. Retrieved March 16, 2014. 
  2. ^ Belle Isle Visitors Guide. White House of Belle Isle. p. 6. 
  3. ^ Belle Isle Visitors Guide. White House of Belle Isle. p. 11. 
  4. ^ a b "Who We Are". Retrieved 20 January 2013. 
  5. ^ Austin, Dan. "Anna Scripps Whitcomb Conservatory". Retrieved 22 January 2013. 
  6. ^ a b c d e f "Fun Facts". Belle Isle Conservancy. Retrieved 20 January 2013. 
  7. ^ "Belle Isle". Local Stew: West Bloomfield. Retrieved 16 July 2014. 
  8. ^ "Activities and Attractions". Belle Isle Conservancy. Retrieved 20 January 2013. 
  9. ^ Cohen, Rick. "A Four-Group Merger Creates New Conservancy in Metro Detroit". Non Profit Quarterly. Retrieved 20 January 2013. 

External links[edit]