It was August 18, 1904 in Detroit when architect Albert
Kahn's new aquarium would open to the public. Just three
years prior ground was broken from the idea of David E.
Heineman, the Detroit Chief Assistant attorney. Heineman
was captivated and inspired by a
Naples, Italy aquarium that
he decided to build Detroit its own as well. The Belle Isle
Aquarium, which opened adjacent with the new horticultural
building on Belle Isle at a cost of $160,000, would quickly
become, "one of the most popular attractions on the Island."
The exterior of this structure was most noted for its Gothic
style entrance. This highly decorated stone facade
incorporated two spitting fish and the emblem of Detroit.
Underneath, the word "AQUARIUM" was carved into the stone
with the face of Neptune, the Greek God of Water. The
facade and the front of building would soon become covered
with vines, that would give it a more rustic appeal.
The interior of this aquarium were framed cypress tank-lined
walls that were filled with fresh and salt water fish. The water
contained in many of these tasks were brought direct from
the ocean for the aquarium. Under the domed ceiling in the
center of the building was a deep pool that was encircled by
several small tanks. Later this pool would become the home
to a large tank that would sit in the middle.
The most magnificent part of the interior was the grotto
ceilings lined with shinny jade green titles, giving visitors a
unique feeling of being underwater. Underneath this
aquarium was a basement, that would be used by many as a
speakeasy during Prohibition. Located in the front of the
building, a small classroom was built for education.
During the 1950’s, the aquarium was slightly updated,
resembling much of what it looks like today. The tanks were
revamped and faced with black tiles. Ceiling lights were
removed and new lights were added to reflect on the green
titled ceiling. Also added in the renovations were new tanks
in the center of the building in a "X" formation. In order for
this to be done, the central pool had to be covered and tiled
Today this aquarium still stands next to its neighboring
conservatory. Over 100 years old, this institution remains
the oldest existing aquarium in the United States.
Unfortunately, recent budget cuts from Mayor Kwame
Kilpatrick has left Detroit at a crossroads. Due to the $230
million deficit, cuts include the closing of 101 year old Belle