Encyclopedia Of Detroit

Belle Isle Aquarium

First opened on August 18, 1904, the Belle Isle Aquarium is the oldest public aquarium in the continental United States and, at the time of its opening, the third largest in the world. A carving of Neptune, the Roman god of the sea, greets visitors above the entryway, inviting guests into the long, domed-ceiling structure that houses over 50 tanks of fresh and salt-water aquatic life. The aquarium was designed by architect Albert Kahn. Glass sea-green tiles line its walls and ceiling to give it an “underwater” feeling. According to the Belle Isle Conservancy, Kahn intended for the fish to be like art hanging on the wall in a gallery. A renovation in 1954 added an 8,531-gallon tank to the center of the building, covering over a large pool in the original structure. Previously, the tanks were made of wood and glue. After the renovation, they were made of concrete. This renovation also involved structural repairs as well as updates in lighting and water filtration.

The aquarium was shuttered by the city in 2005 due to budgetary constraints. Dedicated Friends of the Belle Isle Aquarium volunteers maintained the building until its much-anticipated reopening on September 15, 2012. Since then, fundraising efforts by the non-profit Belle Isle Conservancy have continuously worked to improve and restock exhibits. Nor have these efforts been limited to exhibits. Roof repairs and window tuck-pointing efforts have been carried out so as to help reopen and expand hours. Meanwhile, two of the building’s skylights were restored and opened in 2014 with new pedant lighting added to the Aquarium to help look more like the system of lighting that it had when it was opened. 

The Belle Isle Aquarium lies adjacent to the Anna Scripps Whitcomb Conservatory. These two historic treasures continue to play a large role in family visits to Belle Isle Park, as they have for over 100 years.



Postcard of Belle Isle Aquarium interior, c.1955 - 2012.046.696

Photo postcard depicting Belle Isle Aquarium entrance, c.1910 – 1955.272.237

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