Tag Archives: Belle Isle Conservancy

DETROIT: Belle Isle After Dark

13 Jan

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For months, all eyes have been glued to the pale yellow building on the corner of Michigan Ave and Wabash, waiting for signs of the official launch of Detroit’s newest restaurant. After much anticipation Gold Cash Gold is now open. Brought to us by Phil Cooley, the man behind Slows Bar B Q, the building was formerly an old pawn shop, a re-paint includes the red-lettered advertising that gave the restaurant its name. The lower level sports new windows and smart black paint job, the old Sam’s Loans sign still clings to the second story. Inside, panels of upcycled stained glass act as a barrier between the door and bar area. The place has been packed daily, we are having a late lunch to avoid the crowd. We are led to a corner table in the dining room, I’m fascinated by the floor; taken from an old elementary school gymnasium, a huge eagle, wings open wide, is painted on the wood, it had to be put back together like a jigsaw puzzle in its new home, the serpentine patterned ceiling is also made from reclaimed wood. Jars of pickled and preserved vegetables are lined up on narrow shelves.

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The lunch menu consists of about 12 items, dishes feature seasonal ingredients and whole animal cookery. Our order is placed, we look around a little; clear glass globes illuminate the dining room, a brick wall is painted white, arches allow passage between the dining room and bar, here more stained glass windows are used in the decor. Our sandwiches arrive, we dig in without hesitation. The Ham & Cheese is grilled, the buttered bread has formed a perfect crunchy crust, thin slices of ham, pimento cheese and pickled peppers are warm and gooey between the semolina slices. The Lamb Sandwich is an individual sized whole wheat pita stuffed with slices of roasted lamb, pepper jam and spicy greens; both sandwiches are served with a handful-sized portion of salad. We’d like to come back and try out the dinner menu.

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Just after 5 pm we cross the MacArthur Bridge to Belle Isle, tonight is the annual Holiday Stroll; the aquarium, conservatory and museum are all open until 8:00. Reaching the parking lot nearest the aquarium, I draw in a deep breath, the 1904 Albert Kahn structure is shrouded in bright blue LED lights, spotlights highlight the icicle-like stone columns, it’s gorgeous! The aquarium operated from 1904-2005, making it the oldest in North America to continuously do so, in 2012 it re-opened and is now part of the Belle Isle Conservancy; you can visit Saturday’s and Sundays from 10 am to 4 pm, free of charge.

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Colorful Christmas lights enhance the entrance, a decorated tree is off to the left. Every time I’m inside I feel like I am somewhere below the surface of the river, eerie, maybe it’s the reflection of the water off the green tiles or the barrel-shaped ceiling, whatever the cause, it’s cool. Many of the tanks have been restored and are home to multiple varieties of fish and other water creatures. As we approach a tank, the turtle inside swims to the front, he looks happy to see us, Kris reminds me it’s probably his dinner time. Multi-colored Koi swim back and forth, tiny fish cluster together, a trio of stingray hover just above the gravel, spotted patterns cover their skin, they have a sleek tail and eyes that protrude. Unrestored tanks are filled with interesting artifacts; one displays antique souvenirs such as plates, postcards and trinkets from the aquarium, photographs are blown up and provide us a look back in time. Another tank holds Frederick Law Olmstead’s architectural drawings and notes on his plans for Belle Isle, I love that they still have these things and share them with the likes of you and me. 

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Kris and I make our way over to the conservatory next door, lighted garlands are draped across the fence, from here we see red and green lights glow from within. The vestibule is buzzing with activity, boxes of Dutch Girl Donuts fill tables to the left, a large Christmas tree takes center stage, cups of cider are being passed out to visitors. Ambling through the Palm House we make the right into the Tropical House and follow the path to the Children’s Temperance Fountain; this is one of our favorite places. For nearly 100 years George Wade’s bronze statue of a young girl offering a bowl of water has stood in this spot, from time to time I have witnessed folks testing their skills, trying to toss coins into her bowl; tonight all is calm, delicate orchids bloom in purple and white. We loop back around into the Palm House, the dome soars 85 feet high, colored spotlights are aimed at exotic Palm trees as they reach skyward, the Show House is next. Beds are packed with red, white, pink and coral colored Poinsettia, Cyclamen bloom in purple and white, miniature lights are woven into trees. People are beginning to fill the empty chairs, the Deep River Choir will perform soon.

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Being here in the dark creates an entirely different atmosphere, the Cactus House looks stark, cold, other-worldy. Cactus and succulents are tall and spindly, they look like they could reach out and grab you. By contrast the Fernery has an ethereal look, lush ferns are awash in bold red, blue and white light, shapes and textures of leaves come to life in the form of shadows, I’m very fond of this room. Years ago we were permitted to walk in the lower level, repairs are yet to be made before they can open it up to the public again. Exiting the building Kris lingers outdoors, he walks the grounds a bit, taking pictures. Before we head back, he parks the Jeep facing the river,the city spreads out before us, view is spectacular. Renaissance Center stands front and center, blue lights encircle the towers, further back, the red ball on the roof of the Penobscot blinks off and on, Light radiates from the top of One Woodward, the irregular shape of One Detroit Center is unmistakable.  In the distance the cables of the Ambassador Bridge glimmer against the night sky all the way to Canada, quite a sight, I never tire of the view.

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DETROIT: Gone Fishin’

4 Feb

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The earliest public aquariums in America started springing up in the late 1800’s, large wealthy cities such as Washington D.C, San Francisco and New York were the first to build such an attraction. Detroit was not far behind, calling on Albert Kahn (again) to design the building, the Belle Isle Aquarium opened in August of 1904.  Until 2005, it was the oldest continually operating public aquarium in North America. The city had fallen on hard times, attendance was practically non-existent, so the city decided to close it for good (duh!). Both the building and the fish had a loyal following; people who knew the aquarium could still be a viable attraction. Working together, raising funds, applying for grant money, volunteering countless hours cleaning and repairing the building and tanks, they finally succeeded; the aquarium re-opened in 2012, 108 years after it originally opened it’s doors. Currently you can visit on Saturday’s from 10am to 3pm, admission is free.

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We have been inside the building a few times since its closing for special events, but we had not been back since its official re-opening, until today that is……There were a large number of vehicles in the parking lot, a good sign. We paused outside, getting a good look at the building; brick and stone, it definitely has the look of a different time. The entrance is a large, double stone arch, the very top ornately decorated, the second arch, the entryway, features the face of a mythological figure in the center. On each side large stone columns rise up, thick bands of icicle-like carvings give way to richly detailed capitals. Inside I am always taken aback, the barrel-vaulted ceiling covered in gorgeous green tile makes me feel as if I am underwater. Walls are black tile, tanks are inset, a half-wall runs down the center of the room, separating the two sides, it’s like going back in time. About a dozen tanks have been restored and hold live fish, eels and frogs and a coral reef; feeding times are written in bright colors on the front of tanks. Remaining tanks are ‘dry’ and are used to display work by local artists and items from local merchants, what a great idea. One of my favorites holds all kinds of memorabilia, postcards, and photos of the aquarium in its prime; they even have the original Albert Kahn blueprints for the building on exhibit, so cool! As we check out each tank we come across a young woman hula-hooping, the plastic ring aglow with L.E.D. lights, why not? About half-way down the tunnel-like aisle the ceiling opens up into a grand dome decked out in the same green tile, a skylight opens up to the sunny sky above. We come to the end of one side, turn, and walk back up the other, large free-standing tanks are surrounded by black tiles and are covered with a metal roof, resembling a small building. The space is crowded with visitors, multi-generational families out for a Saturday afternoon in the city, digital cameras and smart phones capturing the memories. The donation box near the entrance is stuffed with dollar bills, a sign of appreciation for this wonderful experience.

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A few steps away is the Anna Scripps Whitcomb Conservatory, don’t ever pass up a chance to stop in. This building too is abuzz with people, we see some of the same faces we saw next door. Nature is always changing, there’s  something different blooming each time we come, today the Orchids are dazzling, fancy cameras rest upon tripods capturing their beauty. Clusters of grapefruit hang from branches, oranges look ready to be picked  The showhouse is winding down from the winter show, Poinsettias are still blooming in reds, pinks and whites. Soon they will be preparing for the Easter show, don’t miss it. We follow the narrow paths through the rest of the building, even a few of the cactus are in bloom. Both the conservatory and aquarium benefit from the newly formed Belle Isle Conservancy, these people volunteer their time and energy to take care of these incredible historic Detroit landmarks. 

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Time to eat! Located just off the river on Joseph Campau is a place called They Say…….Though the restaurant itself is not new, they have recently renovated and it is fantastic. It’s a two-story  brick building, the wood trim painted red, the front a series of large glass windows. Inside feels upscale; exposed brick walls decorated with bold, colorful paintings featuring Jazz artists. The bar sits in the center of this room, counters line the walls inviting you to pull up a chair and have a drink. We are seated in the dining room in a comfy booth overlooking Joseph Campau, this room is also very attractive. The menu has something for everyone, a good place to bring the family or a group, we hear their wings are awesome. I order a cup of chicken potpie soup, it’s delicious. We choose the house salad, it is huge, the lettuce is fresh and crisp. The club sandwich arrives, four triangles surrounding a mountain of french fries. I remove the toothpick from the bread, wondering if I will actually be able to fit my mouth over the point, I sink my teeth in and find it to be wonderful. The bread perfectly toasted, mayo squeezes out from the layers, the bacon is crisp, I think they grilled the turkey, there is melted cheese and the crunch of lettuce and tomato. Kris and I agree it is probably the best Club we have ever had. I go crazy eating, Kris saves room for dessert, our waitress enticed him when she told us about their homemade bread pudding, he cannot resist. A large rectangle of warm bread pudding arrives, it sits in a bourbon sauce and is topped off with a dollop of whipped cream. I can only take a bite, warm and moist it reminds me of a cinnamon roll, the sauce is excellent. I watch as Kris does his best to finish it off, he sets down the fork and asks for a box, there’s always tomorrow! It has been another great day in Detroit.

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