1904: Belle Isle Aquarium Opens for First Time

August 18, 2018 all-day

The Belle Isle Aquarium was designed by famed Detroit architect, Albert Kahn, and opened on August 18, 1904. It is the oldest aquarium in the country and has served the Detroit community as a beloved attraction for generations.

At the time of its opening, it was also the third largest aquarium in the world.

When opening day finally came on Aug. 18, 1904, Detroiters were champing at the bit to take a peek. By the time dawn rolled around, the line numbered into the thousands and stretched from the aquarium’s front door all the way, across the bridge, back to East Jefferson Avenue. More than 5,000 people visited on the attraction’s first day. Some half a million would gaze into its tanks its first year.

larence M. Burton, in his history on the city of Detroit, attributes the idea of an aquarium to Rep. David E. Heineman, who had visited Naples, Italy, and studied that city’s Anton Dorhn Aquarium. Heineman, who had earlier been the city’s chief assistant attorney, introduced a bill in the Legislature to provide funding for the conservatory and aquarium. The act authorized that $150,000 in bonds be issued (about $3.7 million today) was passed on May 26, 1899. It just hinged on a vote of the people, which gave its support. The bonds were issued March 1, 1900, and the money was placed in the city treasury for building the two landmarks.

“The aquarium is pronounced by the leading aquarists of this country to be second to none in the world,” boasted Robert Bolger, the city’s Parks and Boulevard commissioner.

The firm of Nettleton & Kahn drew up the plans for the buildings. The building’s price tag: $165,000 (about $4.06 million today). At the time of its opening, the aquarium was among the six largest in the world. Its high-tech equipment allowed for the keeping of both seawater and fresh-water marine life and the keeping of the right water temperatures in the tanks. The water was recycled through the tanks because, it was said, that fish survive better in water they’ve been in before. Originally, a 8,531-gallon center tank with a railing around it occupied the center of the building. It was topped off with filtered water that snaked through 5 miles of pipes.

Kahn outfitted the interior with sea-green glass tiles to give visitors the feeling that they were in an underwater cavern. Forty-four tanks filled with critters from the Great Lakes and the world’s oceans line the walls. Combined, the tanks contained 5,780 gallons of water. Magnificent pillars and other details compliment the soaring arched ceilings, as high as three stories in the center of the building. A classroom sits near the main entrance.

The front of the slender, brick building features an elaborate Baroque entrance with carvings of dolphins and a grotesque of Neptune, the Roman god of water. In the center is the city’s seal showing the two maidens and the Detroit motto, “Speramus meliora; resurget cineribus” — “We hope for better things; it will rise from the ashes.” Below that, the word “aquarium” is carved in capitalized, bold letters. The intricate details are sometimes masked by robust ivy that covers the front of the building.

In 2005, the city of Detroit announced that the Aquarium was to be closed due to lean economic times for the city. The building remained closed to the public until the Belle Isle Conservancy reopened it on September 15, 2012.  Over the past three years, the aquarium has exploded in popularity, evident by the attendance numbers that have TRIPLED over the course of the past year. “Momentum” is truly the best term for what is happening in this historic building! A work-in-progress, the aquarium continues to grow and flourish as new exhibits and fish are added, tanks are restored, and history is preserved for generations to come.

Click here to see photos from the current Belle Isle Aquarium.  The Aquarium is open to the public every Friday, Saturday, and Sunday from 10:00 a.m. to 4 p.m. with free admission and free parking.  At other times, you can book wonderful events at the Aquarium.  

For more history, see Dan Austin, Belle Isle Aquarium, HistoricDetroit.org

Jeremy Marble, “Belle Isle Aquarium is oldest in U.S. still operating“, MLive, August 24, 2017.

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