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
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
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)