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May 29, 2014 - Image 8

Resource type:
The Detroit Jewish News, 2014-05-29

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Jewish contributors founded and are sustaining the historic Belle Isle Aquarium.

Barbara Lewis I Contributing Writer


Detroit Public Radio and learned that the
City of Detroit was planning to close the
Belle Isle Aquarium.
"I got up from my desk, drove over to
the aquarium and started picketing:' she
The protests failed to stop the shut-
down. When the aquarium closed on April
3, 2005, Boardman put down her picket
sign and started volunteering. With Vance
Patrick, she formed the nonprofit Friends of
Belle Isle Aquarium to advocate on behalf
of the building. Another Jewish woman,
Detroiter Harriet Saperstein, was a member
of the Friends board for seven years.
Volunteers from the Friends of Belle Isle
Aquarium, which merged with three other
Belle Isle advocacy groups in 2011 to form
the Belle Isle Conservancy, manage the
aquarium operations. Boardman, co-chair
of the Belle Isle Aquarium Committee of
the Belle Isle Conservancy, is there almost
every week.
Since 2012, the aquarium has been open
every Saturday from 10 a.m.-3 p.m. It is also
open for tours by schools and other groups
at other times by special arrangement.
Starting June 8, the green-tiled aquatic
haven also will be open from 10 a.m.-3
p.m. on Sundays. Admission is free.
Boardman knew the Saturdays-only
schedule was not ideal.
"Being there on Saturday keeps me

from going to my own synagogue, Shaarey
The Belle Isle Aquarium was the brain-
Zedek, where I'm involved with the sister-
child of David Heineman (1865-1935),
hood:' Boardman said. "Being open on
chief assistant attorney of Detroit who
Sunday will allow the observant Jewish
later became a city councilman. He was
community to visit:'
the son of prominent
She plans to switch her
Detroit philanthropists. His
Above: Boa rdman
volunteering to Sundays so
father, Emil, ran a success-
checks out the ko
she can return to Shabbat
ful clothing business and
in the pond next to
services at Shaarey Zedek.
was president of the Beth El
the aquariu m buil
Hebrew Relief Society, and
ing; the Bel le Isle
Impressive History
his mother, Fanny Butzel
Conservato ry is in th
Belle Isle's first inhabitants
Heineman, was president of
were Native Americans and
the Detroit Ladies' Society
French settlers, who called
for Support of Hebrew
it Ile aux Cochons (Hog
Widows and Orphans.
Island). In 1768, King George III granted
David Heineman was one of the first Jews
George McDougall, a British soldier sta-
to become involved in Detroit politics.
tioned in Detroit, permission to purchase
Heineman was inspired by the aquarium
the island from the Ottawa and Ojibwa
at the Anton Dohrn Zoological Station in
tribes. He did — with eight barrels of rum, Naples, Italy. At his urging, in 1901 the city
6 pounds of vermilion, 3 pounds of tobac-
approved the creation of the aquarium and
co and a belt of wampum — all on display
the adjacent Belle Isle Conservatory.
today in the Detroit Historical Museum.
The city held a competition to design
The island was privately owned until
the buildings, which was won by noted
1879, when the city of Detroit purchased
Detroit architect Albert Kahn, also Jewish.
it. Frederick Law Olmstead, who designed
Visitors enter through a highly decorat-
New York's Central Park, created a plan for ed stone façade with two spitting fish, the
a park to be built on the island, intending
emblem of Detroit and the carved word
for it to be kept in a rural state.
"AQUARIUM." The single gallery's domed
But as Joel Stone, senior curator for the
ceiling lined with green glass tiles evokes a
Detroit Historical Society, pointed out in
feeling of being underwater.
an essay in the May 4 Detroit Free Press,
Now tiny in comparison with aquariums
Olmstead's design was never implemented, in cities like Chicago and Baltimore, the
and the island became home to numerous
Belle Isle Aquarium was one of the world's
recreational buildings.
largest when it opened in 1904; at the

time, the Detroit Free Press declared it the
world's finest.

Working To Reopen

When the aquarium closed, Boardman
began researching the public policy issues
involved. Her findings became the basis for
her thesis for her master's degree in human-
ities from Central Michigan University,
which won the 2010 Outstanding Thesis
"I showed that the aquarium closed
because public policy priorities had
changed regarding urban progress and the
use of public space, and not because of eco-
nomics or lack of interest," she said.
After the aquarium closed, the fish were
given to other aquariums. Only the koi
remained, moving into the pond between
the aquarium and the conservatory.
The city required that the koi be taken
inside for the winter, and the Friends of
Belle Isle Aquarium volunteered to be the
fishes' caretakers. The city also allowed the
volunteers to open the building for a day in
February for Shiver on the River, an annual
event that started in 2005 to raise funds for
Belle Isle.
While caring for the koi, the volunteers
noticed a leaky roof and other structural
problems, Boardman said. They were afraid
that neglect would give the city an excuse to
tear down the building.
So Boardman, whose day job is working
for a state appellate court judge, became a

Aquatic Gem on page 10


May 29 • 2014

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