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Spring starts early at The Domes

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Story by Nancy A. Herrick

Sandy Folaron has a faded photograph in her office that was taken decades ago. In it Folaron, her mother and her daughter are dressed in their Sunday best at Milwaukee’s Mitchell Park Domes.

“Until being considered for the job of director, that was one of the last times I had visited The Domes,” she says.

For more than 30 years, Folaron had built and managed several businesses in Milwaukee, so she had plenty of entrepreneurial experience. What she lacked in horticultural knowledge she made up for in innovative ideas on how attract new generations — and old — to the horticultural conservatory on Milwaukee’s south side.

First Folaron was hired as emergency director, then in 2006 became permanent director of the three conoidal-shaped glass structures. Simply known as The Domes, they opened in the mid-1960s and are important components of Milwaukee County’s park system.

Interest and attendance had been waning at The Domes before Folaron took over; there had even been talk of The Domes closing. But she set right to work, adding concerts, festivals, fairs and other events to the calendar. Attendance is up, and so are sponsorships. The Domes are on much stronger financial footing now.

But some things haven’t changed.

There are still three distinct venues: the Tropical Dome, the Desert Dome and the Show Dome, the latter offering several special shows a year. The annual Spring Floral Show, which this year runs from March 23 through May 27, remains one of the most popular.

“We always have been a great cold-weather destination,” she explains. With the tropical and desert settings, it’s easy to understand why.

“And when warmer weather is on the horizon in spring, people love to see the colorful tulips, daffodils and hyacinths,” she says. “It puts them in a hopeful mood.”

The theme for this year’s Spring Show is “Blue Bayou,” offering a slice of New Orleans.

“We will be creating a variety of locales,” says Burt Gross, Milwaukee County Parks artist. He has a background in set design, public art projects, halftime shows and even snow and sand sculpting, and is enthusiastic about his job of creating vignettes for The Domes.

“There will be a Mardi Gras themed area with French Quarter architecture. We also will have colorful masks, a gazebo, an above-ground graveyard with a voodoo theme and an area with some jazz musicians,” he says.

“And right when you walk in to the dome, in the overlook area, you will see a bayou with shacks, moss, trees and a mural of the night sky.”

In keeping with the theme, shades of blue will dominate — in the vignettes, the new lighting and the actual flowers.

“This year’s hydrangea crop will be mostly blue as opposed to blue and pink,” says Amy Thurner, horticulturist for The Domes. “Some other plants will be tulips, Easter lilies and daisies.”

The show has been in the planning stage for a year and the plants are started well in advance at the Milwaukee County greenhouses. Thurner says 1,250 pots of blooms will be used.

“The hydrangea crop is gorgeous and people are super-excited to see the flowering plants,” she says.

It takes about two weeks to tear down the former show (the annual train show, which lasts until March 10) and set up the new one.

“We always try to bring something different to the show that people haven’t seen before,” says Gross, who was raised in Milwaukee and would visit The Domes as a child.

“Too often, people take The Domes for granted because it seems they’ve just always been there,” he says. “But it really is a special place. A treasure.”

The building of The Domes was a part of Milwaukee’s cultural reawakening of the 1950s and ’60s. Construction started in 1959. The Show Dome opened in 1964, the Tropical dome in 1966 and the Desert Dome in 1967.

“The Zoo, The Domes, the Public Museum, even public housing. They were among the goals of Milwaukee’s Socialist mayor [Frank Zeidler] who worked for the common good of all,” says Folaron, who herself ran for mayor of Milwaukee in 2004.

“The public embraced all of them and the attendance was amazing,” she says. “Now we are competing with all kinds of things for people’s time: soccer games, wide-screen TVs, video games. And you no longer have to come to The Domes to see an orchid or a cactus.”

On Folaron’s watch, the facility has been extensively updated and a new LED lighting system was installed. Attendance is up and membership in the Friends of the Domes, which allows free admission, has grown from 600 to 1,700.

Her philosophy is to give people of all ages reasons to visit once again, and it’s working.

“Concerts, special events, ethnic festivals. What we’re finding is that if you plan it they will come.”

The basics

What: The Domes, also known as the Mitchell Park Horticultural Conservatory

Where: 524 S. Layton Blvd., Milwaukee

Hours: Monday through Friday, 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.; Saturday and Sunday, 9 a.m. to 4 p.m.; open till 9:30 p.m. on Thursday concert nights.

Admission: $6.50 for adults; $5 for children 6-17; $5 for Milwaukee County seniors and students with I.D.

Directions: From the south, take I-94 north into downtown Milwaukee, then west toward Madison. Take Exit 309 B (22nd and Clybourn) and turn left at the traffic light, proceeding west on Clybourn to 27th St. Turn left on 27th St. and proceed south until you reach Mitchell Park on the left, Turn left into The Domes parking lot. You can’t miss them!


Special events

A variety of special events are offered at The Domes. Here are some that are scheduled so far throughout 2013.

Wednesdays: Live Music Under Glass concert series from 6:30 to 9 p.m.

Through March 10: “The Circus Comes to Town” annual train show

March 2: Germany Under Glass ethnic festival

March 9: Turkey Under Glass ethnic festival. Steam Engine Day.

March 10: Irish Family Day

March 16: Dare to be Aware holistic health fair

March 23-May 27: “Blue Bayou” Spring Floral Show

April 13-14: Ikebana Floral Design Show

April 27: Green Living Festival

June 8-Sept. 8: “Milwaukee Yards” Summer Floral Show

Aug. 16-18: The Domes Juried Art Festival

Sept. 14-15: Orchid Show and Sale

Sept. 20: “Fall into the Fifties” Fall Car Show and Sock Hop

Sept. 21-Nov. 10: “Fall Into the Fifties” Fall Floral Show featuring mums

Oct. 11: Rainforest Night showcasing the importance of the world’s rainforests

Oct. 26: Ghosts Under Glass

Nov. 7 – Dec. 26: Music Under Glass evening concerts

Nov. 16-17: Jewelry at the Domes

Nov. 23-Jan. 4, 2014: “Nutcracker Suite” Holiday Floral Show

Dec. 31: New Year’s Eve family celebration