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Tuesday, March 1, 2005

Aquarium treads water on Belle Isle, while help frets on shore

Laura Berman


The Belle Isle Aquarium is usually a sleepy kind of place. But lately, it has become the Tony Bennett of civic buildings -- enjoying an unexpected, but enthusiastic, revival among people of all ages, from all over the metropolitan area.

On a visit last Thursday, the 101-year-old building was well-populated with visitors who hadn't seen the place in years.

A couple from Roseville brought their 4-year-old nephew, Tyler, to look at fish, including examples of several endangered species such as the golden sawfin goodeid. But they really came to see the aquarium, which is now, itself, on the endangered species list: slated to close this month, unless a corporate benefactor or Belle Isle-loving billionaire swoops to its immediate rescue.

"I wanted to bring my nephew here to see it, and to contribute. If we can help keep it open, we'd like to," said Ian Thompson, the Roseville roofer who was there with his wife, Theresa, and Tyler.

Crisis is clearly good news for the aquarium, the way a closing notice was for "Cats," the musical, on Broadway. (It eked out about six more months, instead of two, when it finally shut down in September 2000.)

In his cramped, 101-year-old office, complete with a desk that looks original, Doug Sweet, the curator of fishes for 18 long years, is practically ebullient. Visitor traffic has doubled since the crisis began, and the aquarium is -- at last -- receiving the kind of accolades and appreciation that a curator of fishes in a neglected aquarium can only dream of.

Photographers and camera crews stop in. Reporters call steadily. The aquarium is, at last, a celebrity.

With a $500,000 annual budget and revenues that, Sweet says, are less than half that, the aquarium seems like an easy cross-off for a city that's struggling to provide basic services. Its civic treasures -- especially those like this one, which has a reservoir of affectionate fans but little donor support -- are costly to maintain and staff.

Now that business is so good, the aquarium has never looked better. The thousands of aquamarine ceiling and floor tiles are gleaming now, in this gem-like Albert Kahn-designed building that emits a mysterious oceanic aura. That underwater feeling is, of course, enhanced by the presence of thousands of fishy creatures darting, skulking or simply swimming.

The electric eels, given their temporary reprieve from being flushed or relocated, are emitting low-wattage impulses that have dazzled small children and child-like adults for 101 years.

"If we had this kind of media coverage on a sustained basis, we could probably generate enough revenue to keep going," says Sweet, wistfully.

The island park itself now hovers somewhere between aging beauty and fallen ruin but it hasn't been abandoned. The newly launched Belle Isle Women's Committee recently announced plans to revive the park. They're building a $100,000 plaza and promenade at Belle Isle's western tip.

But their efforts are unlikely to solve the immediate problem of this historic fish house -- a unique and special place, enjoying celebrity now, for a limited time, in what's being billed as its final run.

Laura Berman's column runs Sunday, Tuesday and Thursday in Metro. Reach her at (248) 647-7221 or