Belle Isle is a public island comprised of more than 970 acres floating in the middle of the Detroit River, easily accessible from the mainland by boat, kayak or bridge. It had formerly been under management of the City of Detroit. During the end of that tenure, it was a disappointing place to visit, having accumulated its share of dilapidated or unused buildings, trash and unsavory visitors. When the State of Michigan Department of Natural Resources took over management of the island in 2013 under a thirty year lease, all of that came to a grinding halt. The island, long suffering under neglect from the City, immediately evidenced a stronger police presence, enhanced amenities, and solid clean up effort. As I write this, the island is covered in orange barrels, continuing updates and preparing for the annual Grand Prix.
Anna Scripts Whitcomb Conservatory
There are many remarkable features on the island, but my favorites are the Aquarium and Conservatory. The Conservatory opened in 1904 and continues to be one of the oldest (if not the oldest?) continually running conservatory in the United States. It was named after Ms. Whitcomb in the mid-century when she dedicated her orchid collection to the Conservatory. The Conservatory, like the Aquarium that resides in its shadow, were both built by our most famous local architect firm - George D. Mason and Albert Kahn. It's difficult to throw a stone in Detroit and not hit one of their buildings. The Conservatory features a remarkable domed glass ceiling that always reminds me - oddly enough - of one of my first legal jobs, which was in the building which now houses Wayne State University's Tech Town, 440 Burroughs, Detroit. The top floor of the building has a stunning glass ceiling and used to make it feel like we were working in a greenhouse. If you are a design or architecture buff and have not delved into Albert Kahn's legacy, you have to check it out right away!
Belle Isle Aquarium
The Belle Isle Aquarium is one of the most stunning and beautiful uses of glass tile in the world. The building went up in 1904, just like the Conservatory. Although briefly closed to save costs for a few years in the mid-2000s, the Aquarium is now run and operated by the non-profit Belle Isle Conservancy. Although the original closure cited dwindling interest in the Aquarium, it is hard to picture that now! My recommendation is to arrive early or go during the week to ensure ease of navigation. There are so many native and non-native fish and aquatic species in the Aquarium, it's nice to ensure that the kids can get up nice and close. I always thought that the famous tile was Pewabic Pottery, but was recently corrected by one of the volunteers (thank you Instagram!) It actually is opaline glass tile from Pennsylvania. With that said, Pewabic Pottery maintains the same color glaze on a tribute tile available for purchase. If Fate is kind to me, one day my entire kitchen will look something like this.
If you spend any time wandering around Metro-Detroit on this site, you'll probably pick up on the fact that Detroit was settled by the French (in fact, it was a French fort.) The influence of this French history still trickles through everything. Many of the nooks and crannies of Belle Isle remind me of the painting Sunday Morning on the Island of Le Grande Jatte by Georges Seurat.