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A Detroit Gem: Belle Isle's Anna Whitcomb Conservatory raising funds for upgrades

Posted at 6:30 PM, Aug 17, 2021
and last updated 2021-08-17 18:30:58-04

BELLE ISLE (WXYZ) — The Anna Scripps Whitcomb Conservatory is on nearly every top 10 list of places to visit in Detroit.

Jeremy Kemp, who has been hands-on at the conservatory since the Michigan DNR assumed operation authority eight years ago, says it's deservedly so.

“You could be into architecture, you could be into history, you could be into plants or just into cool cultural space," Kemp said.

The space was designed by Albert Kahn, the man responsible for so many of Detroit's landmark buildings. The conservatory opened in 1904 and has been wowing visitors ever since.

The Palm House is the grandest of them all, rising 80 feet into the air.

“There are very few spots like this in the country, let alone this age, and it’s just, whether you like plants or not, it’s pretty striking to come in here and especially the big palm dome, I mean, it’s, how do plants that big grow inside? It’s cool," Kemp said.

The conservatory's other houses feature desert plants, fernery, and tropical plants.

“That might be Jamaica, that might be from Vietnam, that might be from Cambodia," he said.

The tropical house is, of course, green, and lush.

Improvements have been made to stabilize the main building, which opened 117 years ago this week. An ongoing capital campaign is seeking funds to continue with necessary upgrades.

“Ideally, we’ll have a whole new vent system, we’ll have new glass that is more uniform, and it has more protection from the sun, without blocking out all the sun," Kemp said. "The list is long but selfishly, I care most about the things that will, you know, keep the plant life thriving.”

The conservatory was closed for 16 months during the COVID-19 pandemic, along with the adjacent aquarium, which Kahn also designed. Both reopened in mid-July to large weekend crowds, according to Kemp. Also returning to the grounds of the Conservatory – weddings.

“Out here, non-COVID times, sometimes we do two on a Saturday, two on a Sunday, one Friday night, so boom, boom, boom, sometimes even during the week," he said.