Belle Isle Park and Olmsted’s Legacy in Detroit

September 3, 2013 at 10:00 am 6 comments

We’re used to looking at Detroit as a symbol of economic collapse and decline, especially after the city filed for bankruptcy under the direction of a state-appointed Emergency Financial Manager in July. Factories, cars, and images of abandoned buildings remain powerful symbols of the city’s past and present. Yet often against the odds, generations of residents and city leaders have also imagined Detroit as a “green city.” Detroit’s Belle Isle Park, designed by Frederick Law Olmsted in the 1880s was one of the first environmental visions to imagine the landscape of Detroit as a space valuable for more than the products and byproducts of manufacturing and industry.

Map of Detroit with Belle Isle Park, 1897. David Rumsey Map Collection.

Map of Detroit with Belle Isle Park on the right side, 1897. David Rumsey Map Collection.

The project to turn Belle Isle, a long, narrow island of approximately 700 acres in the Detroit River into an urban park became official in 1879.  After years of debate over the location of a large city park, members of Detroit’s Common Council voted to purchase the site from private owners for $200,000.  As George Lothrop, chairman of the Detroit Park Commission wrote, this park was needed “alike for beauty and salubrity…the rich cannot afford to overlook a great popular need like this. In no way can they so well check the spread of communism and the growing hatred of poverty to wealth as by taking a hearty interest in every rational project for the promotion of the health, comfort and enjoyment of the people.” Lathrop and other advocates imagined a park might change relationships between classes by offering residents the opportunity to temporarily leave the city and experience a different kind of environment in relatively close proximity to their homes.

Situated upriver from the docks and disarray of Detroit’s downtown waterfront, Belle Isle had a long history of informal use by residents during the nineteenth century prior to becoming an intentionally designed park.  Even so, the suitability of the site for a park was less than ideal. It was marshy, and nearly all of the areas were prone to becoming water-soaked or even completely submerged.  When Frederick Law Olmsted was commissioned to transform the island into a park in 1881, he was not all too pleased with the site the city had selected.  As Olmsted noted in one of his preliminary visits to the island,

Conditions could not be more favorable to the breeding and nursing of mosquitoes…the pools, in September, I found discolored, and covered by bubbles and a green scum; and there was putrescent organic matter on their borders. They are thus available to the propagation of typhoid, malarial, and other zymotic poisons; and it may be questioned whether the city is justified in allowing, not to say inviting, ignorant people and children to stray near them.

As it was, the island would require much thought and human labor to transform it into an intentionally designed, manicured, and managed city park.

Workers on Belle Isle, 1888. Burton Historical Collection, Detroit Public Library.

Workers on Belle Isle, 1888. Burton Historical Collection, Detroit Public Library.

Although a relatively minimalist design from an aesthetic standpoint, Olmsted’s carefully crafted plan sought to make Belle Isle a more pleasant place for residents of Detroit to enjoy the outdoors, while also preserving some of the island’s important natural features.  It was complete with picturesque views of the surrounding landscape and city, walking paths, a grand promenade, fields for sports, and idyllic arched bridges over a network of gently curving canals, which assisted with drainage in addition to their use by canoeists.  Until a bridge was built in the 1890s, visitors used ferry boats to reach the island park. Olmsted consolidated the ferry docks and major activity sites at the western end of the island. From the moment visitors stepped off the boat, they entered into a choreographed experience that took them from the more highly designed area of activities to the eastern end of the park that Olmsted left in a more natural appearance, including an old-growth forest that remains today.

Preliminary plan of Belle Isle Park.

Preliminary plan of Belle Isle Park.

Preliminary rendering of Belle Isle Park with ferry docks, 1882.

Preliminary rendering of Belle Isle Park with ferry docks, 1882.

Belle Isle Park quickly became the city’s most popular gathering spot for residents and visitors alike.  In 1894 alone, some sixty one thousand persons patronized the bathhouses for the three months they were open. While Olmsted’s general design theme still remains relatively intact, the city gradually altered the park over time. To more directly advance an educational mission, the city built an aquarium and horticultural conservatory (both designed by Albert Kahn) in 1904.  Now, in addition to the leisurely activities of the park, visitors could also learn about nature through curated displays of plants and aquatic life.

Belle Isle Conservatory. Smithsonian Institution, Archives of American Gardens, Garden Club of America Collection.

Belle Isle Conservatory. Smithsonian Institution, Archives of American Gardens, Garden Club of America Collection.

Canoeists on Belle Isle Park, c. 1905. Detroit Publishing Company,  Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress.

Canoeists on Belle Isle Park, c. 1905. Detroit Publishing Company, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress.

Belle Isle promenade, c. 1900-1910. Reuther Library, Wayne State University.

Belle Isle promenade, c. 1900-1910. Reuther Library, Wayne State University.

In line with the architectural design tastes of the City Beautiful Movement in the early twentieth century, a beaux-arts style fountain and gathering space designed by architect Cass Gilbert was added to the lower end of the island during the 1920s, which replaced Olmsted’s more organic design with one of rigid symmetry and geometric forms.  Over the years, the city’s projects also increased the park’s landmass to its current size of some 985 acres.

Construction of the Scott Memorial Fountain on Belle Isle, c. 1926. Cass Gilbert Collection, Archives Center, National Museum of American History.

Construction of the Scott Memorial Fountain on Belle Isle, c. 1926. Cass Gilbert Collection, Archives Center, National Museum of American History.

Plan for the lower end of Belle Isle Park by Cass Gilbert, c. 1925. Bentley Historical Library, University of Michigan.

Cass Gilbert’s plan for the lower end of Belle Isle Park altered Olmsted’s more organic design by introducing a geometric pattern. Bentley Historical Library, University of Michigan.

When the city purchased Belle Isle in 1879, the swampy island may not have been the best suited place for a park. Yet through careful human design and continued use, generations of Detroiters transformed Belle Isle into an enduring piece of Detroit’s urban fabric despite the city’s rise and fall. Today, amidst the city’s precarious financial situation, non-profit organizations have partnered with the city to help maintain and preserve the park, which remains a popular spot for residents and visitors to the city today.

Although the park’s meaning, design, and use have changed since Olmsted’s time, and the city’s bankruptcy may change the park’s relationship to the city (plans in recent years have included leasing or selling the park to the State of Michigan, charging an entrance fee, and one individual who has proposed selling it to private developers), preserving the legacy of Belle Isle Park remains important to understanding the city’s past in addition to changing tastes and styles in landscape design.  Belle Isle’s lasting significance in the present is a reminder that the historic, natural, and human resources that come together in the design of parks and gardens are key ingredients to sustaining Detroit and cities like it into the future.

- Joe Cialdella, Enid A. Haupt Fellow, Smithsonian Gardens.

Detroit's skyline from Belle Isle Park, 2009. Photograph by Joe Cialdella.

Detroit’s skyline from Belle Isle Park, 2009. Photograph by Joe Cialdella.

Entry filed under: Archives of American Gardens, Collections, Landscape Architecture. Tags: , , , .

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6 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Bliss  |  December 4, 2013 at 8:50 am

    Bravo! Belle Isle.

    Reply
  • 2. Beth Whitney  |  December 3, 2013 at 5:40 pm

    Hi Joe! Belle Isle is turning into a Michigan State Park. There is an $11 charge to enter any and all state parks here–it’s paid when we renew our license plates. Great post!

    Reply
    • 3. Joe C  |  December 4, 2013 at 4:05 pm

      Hi Beth! Thank you. I heard the state park plan moved forward just a few weeks after posting this. Hopefully it will allow them to improve the park. Looking forward to seeing it again in the spring!

      Reply
  • 4. Joe C.  |  October 1, 2013 at 9:55 am

    So glad to learn the story of Belle Isle still resonates with both of you today. Aside from the physical space, there are tons of personal stories and less tangible aspects of heritage and history that shape how people give meaning to Belle Isle, such as your stories about your great grandparents and parents. Many found employment during its construction, and many more went on to develop strong personal and cultural connections to it. With a concerted effort and interest from residents and visitors alike, hopefully Belle Isle will continue to evoke strong memories and a the possibility of a brighter future.

    Reply
  • 5. Libby Dougan  |  September 13, 2013 at 9:18 am

    I’ve always been fond of Belle Isle – one of my great grandfathers found work there helping to dig the canals when he emigrated from Poland, another set of great grandparents courted there as members of the same bicycle club before the turn of the century, and my parents met there. I hope that the State steps in to preserve it.

    Reply
  • 6. Janet Oakley  |  September 4, 2013 at 1:05 pm

    People sometimes don’t know their history. It’s paramount that this place is saved for the average citizens of Detroit not some millionaire’s playground just to meet expenses. I hope those who care about public places push back. Thanks for the informative post. I’m going to spread the word.

    Reply

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