By Bobby Tanzilo Senior Editor/Writer Published Mar 05, 2013 at 9:03 AM

If you visit the Domes fairly regularly with some inquisitive little minds, as I do, you’ll have found yourself stumped by a number of questions you can't answer. Armed with some of those questions, I got a behind the scenes tour of the Mitchell Park Horticultural Conservatory, better known to all Milwaukeeans as The Domes.

Designed by architect Donald Grieb, the Domes were constructed in stages in the 1960s, based on the geodesic dome designed by architect Buckminster Fuller. They replaced a long-lived "crystal palace" style conservatory that stood on the site for many years.

The show dome (the one to the north) was erected first, in December 1964. The tropical dome (south) followed in February 1966 and in November 1967, the trio was complete when the arid dome (east) opened. Since then, the Domes have become an integral part of Milwaukee’s image, both at home and beyond.

But despite their obvious landmark status here, by the 1980s, the Domes were in trouble. In more recent years that decline in attendance led to a conservatory that looked tired and needed a jolt. Former parks director Sue Black provided that jolt by hiring Sandy Folaron as director.

Now, the Domes have changed more in the past five years than they had in two decades before that.

"I think because the writing was on the wall," said Folaron, in her office that was formerly a storage closet. "Maybe it worked in the ‘60s, maybe in the ‘70s. But in the ‘80s there was a huge dropoff in the number of people coming here. They weren’t supporting the facility as much as they used to. People are pretty extraordinary at designing and maintaining their own gardens and having access to things that before were the draw here."

Folaron came in and likely upset some apple carts as she decided that anything was ripe for change. She remodeled the lobby, giving it a fresh, airy feel. She moved the gift shop up near the entrance into what used to be the office. She raised private money to install an alluring light show. She got savvy about using events like Music Under Glass and a range of winter ethnic festivals to draw in new audiences.

On the day of my tour, in the middle of a Thursday, the Domes were packed. There were the stereotypical Domes-goers of the past – older folks – but there were tons of families with little kids, too. The place was alive.

Connecting me with horticulturalist in charge Amy Thurner, tropical dome horticulturalist Patrick Kehoe and arid dome horticulturalist in charge Marian French, Folaron promised me a look into every nook and cranny of the Domes and that’s what I got.

We started out in the tropical dome, where I immediately wanted to know, "what’s under the Domes?" Do the roots of the myriad species of plants in this humid space dig deep down into the Earth or is there a layer of concrete below?

Though none of my tour guides was around when the Domes were built, they say they are built right on the ground. There is no concrete base below.

"We believe there is no concrete floor," says Kehoe. "But there is a network, like a spiderweb, of drain tiles that will take the water and run it off into drains that are in the pit area which surround the perimeter of the dome."

Though pruning is a big job, the main day to day task for the horticulturalists is watering, especially in the tropical dome, which gets watered 365 days a year, Kehoe said.

"The watering is all done by hand," said Kehoe. "If you had all the same plants your were growing you could have an automated system. Every plant is different. Not every plant gets watered the same every day."

Two people do the watering. Each takes a part of the dome so there’s no confusion about what has been watered and when.

While you wander through the Domes, you’re hard pressed to see any hints of infrastructure. That’s because it’s all hidden away in a crawl space that accesses systems and in what is called "The Pit." Each dome has a recessed area running around its perimeter that affords access to any spot. Additionally, moisture that collects on the inside of the dome drains along channels in the web of window frames and ends up in the pit, where it drains out.

In addition to the horticulturalists there is a person at the Domes who is in charge of tending to the birds that make their homes in the arid and tropical domes. In addition to feeding the birds, the person also is tasked with catching and releasing rogue birds that manage to get into the Domes through the loading dock and other connections to the outside.

But, come on, you know what we all really want to know...

Do you eat the fruit of the plants in the tropical dome?

"I just picked some coffee beans today," French said.

She’s been trying her hand at roasting them properly. She also has attempted to make chocolate from the beans in the cocoa pods, but with zero success so far.

Kehoe then plucked an ambarella fruit and sliced it open for me to try. It’s juicy and fleshy and tasted something like a mix between a lemon and a persimmon. It was my first taste of Domes fruit, but not my last. As we walked on, discussing soursop, yellow guavas and the avocado tree that’s no longer there, the conversation turned to bananas.

"Do you eat the bananas?" I asked Kehoe.

"We do and they’re delicious," he said. "We just happen to have a plant that has ripe bananas on it now, if you’d like to try it."

We walked back behind the gate and Kehoe scaled a ladder above the pit and cut down a handful of bananas which he gave to me to try and to bring home to share with my family.

They were small, but sweet and tasty. The latter is not true of all the fruit growing in the Domes, however. The plants grown in the Domes are not hybrids created for human consumption, said Folaron.

"It isn’t the kind of fruit that you find at Pick ‘N Save. It’s not grown to be eaten; to really be something that American palates are used to," she said. "So we may think, ‘Oh there’s so much membrane in this.’ Because it’s a natural environment, too, we might just open up a grapefruit and find an insect in it."

But the fruit is most definitely edible.

"If there was an Armageddon, that would be the dome to go to," quipped Folaron. "That’s the dome where you could best survive. Rather than the other two."

Speaking of the other two, we took a pretty quick look at the show dome, which is currently the most popular because the annual train show is taking place and that draws many eager onlookers, especially ones under the age of 10.

"The show dome is a whole 'nother animal in itself," said Folaron. "Mary Braunreiter designs those layouts. We grow those things for her. They’re installed by the forestry department. People from all across the county come to help up install those shows. So as much as I hate that ‘It takes a village’ (maxim), it really takes a county to get those shows on."

We then spent a little more time strolling the arid dome, where French works her magic.

In there, she’s been working to freshen up exhibits and replace tired plantings with exciting new geographically themed areas. A lot of pruning has helped spawn growth by allowing plants more access to sunlight.

Next we checked out the dome-ish transition greenhouse, where the behind the scenes horticulture work takes place. There are also greenhouses out at the County Grounds with two full-horticulturalists. Work is currently underway to building replacements for them right behind the Domes. The new greenhouses will make things a lot easier for staff, saving transportation time and loosening limits on the size of plants that can be grown in the greenhouses.

Attached to the transition greenhouse is an orchid room where sensitive orchids are nurtured and where the horticulturalists test out ideas and carry out experiments.

Next we went underground through the massive boiler room – with four huge boilers – and past the giant tanks that hold water (for watering) and a mix of water and fertilizer and into what looks like the most organized basement you’ve ever seen. Here, rows and rows of shelving hold props to celebrate every holiday you can think of.

Finally, back upstairs, we took a look at the small but powerful system that controls the light show and the old heating control panel, before peeking in at the computer that now runs the systems in the Domes. On the screen we could see temperature measurements for just about every spot in all three domes. The automated system makes sure the plants are kept in appropriate conditions at all times.

And, as much as we love the events and the light show and everything else, The Domes is still really about the plants.

"I’m hoping the new greenhouse will allow us to do more hands-on stuff with the kids," Folaron said. "About 20,000 kids comes here for tours every year and that’s just kids that come in a classroom situation. Education is a huge element here. That’s our core mission.

"The Domes are not just about the grandmas anymore."

Bobby Tanzilo Senior Editor/Writer

Born in Brooklyn, N.Y., where he lived until he was 17, Bobby received his BA-Mass Communications from UWM in 1989 and has lived in Walker's Point, Bay View, Enderis Park, South Milwaukee and on the East Side.

He has published three non-fiction books in Italy – including one about an event in Milwaukee history, which was published in the U.S. in autumn 2010. Four more books, all about Milwaukee, have been published by The History Press.

With his most recent band, The Yell Leaders, Bobby released four LPs and had a songs featured in an episode of TV's "Party of Five," and films in Japan, South America and the U.S. The Yell Leaders were named the best unsigned band in their region by VH-1 as part of its Rock Across America 1998 Tour. Most recently, the band contributed tracks to a UK vinyl/CD tribute to the Redskins and collaborated on a track with Italian novelist Enrico Remmert.

He's produced three installments of the "OMCD" series of local music compilations for OnMilwaukee.com and in 2007 produced a CD of Italian music and poetry.

In 2005, he was awarded the City of Asti's (Italy) Journalism Prize for his work focusing on that area.

He can be heard weekly on 88Nine Radio Milwaukee talking about his "Urban Spelunking" series of stories.