nighttime photo of the Mitchell Park Domes with colored lights

This is the Key to Repairing the Mitchell Park Domes

A task force learned details of the “long-term repair” plan at a meeting shortly after the structures were named a National Treasure.

Maintenance strategies for the Mitchell Park Domes have been debated and deferred for nearly half of the Domes’ 50-plus years in existence. Stopping water leakage via several measures would be the key to cost-effectively saving them, according to a report presented Wednesday night.

Preventing moisture seepage was the primary goal of a proposed $18.6-million repair option presented to the Domes Task Force. Wiss Jenney Elstner Associates (WJE) was commissioned by the National Trust for Historic Preservation to conduct a peer review of the latest study by GRAEF about options and costs. Milwaukee Magazine reported on WJE’s recommended approach Wednesday.

The presentation followed Wednesday’s announcement that the National Trust has declared the Domes a National Treasure, one of about 80 sites nationwide in the portfolio of their “signature program.”

After a detailed slide show, task force members posed questions about the proposal, which incorporates and expands upon a $14-million option offered by GRAEF, an engineering firm contracted by the county to work on this and other projects. The Domes were closed for a time last year after a small amount of fallen concrete was found.

In addition to replacing about 400 cracked glass panes, WJE would install all new metal “pressure caps,” which form links between the glass-and-aluminum cladding and precast concrete framing. A waterproof sealant would add further weather protection. Any potentially spalling concrete would be removed and repaired, and the custom water-filtration system would be cleaned.

Jennifer Sandy, a senior field officer with the National Trust, introduced the Chicago-based WJE as a leading engineering firm with offices in 20 cities and experience working on major historic preservation projects.

When asked about how long the repairs would last, WJE engineer Peter Tarara said, “We see these as long-term repairs.” Bruce Kaskel, a LEED-certified principal of WJE who said his specialty was glass cladding, added, “We have confidence in this type of repair, which we have done with other buildings.”

Kaskel noted that there will always be issues of cracking in any glass installation. But he said he believed recurrent problems with spalling concrete on the building’s framework would cease to be an issue once water leakage is resolved. “Concrete can last forever, or for a very long time,” if not exposed to moisture, Kaskel asserted.

The task force passed a resolution requesting that county staff provide a comparative analysis of the WJE and GRAEF reports. One citizen asked during the comments segment at the end whether GRAEF had ever proposed such a repair. County Engineer Julie Bastin said GRAEF had not. The firm has been consulting about Domes structural issues since 1993. Several attendees questioned aspects about GRAEF’s role as a “preferred” contractor for Milwaukee County, in relation to the Domes and other major county public works projects.

Another agenda item dealt with a new request for proposals (RFP) that the county has issued for a “Future Path and Feasibility Study” for the Domes.

Seven bids were received by the March 21 deadline. Bastin said two bids came from New York, one from New Jersey, one from Illinois and three from Milwaukee firms. She did not provide further information but did confirm that GRAEF was part of one team’s submittal.

Bastin said the selection committee will include five county staff: Bastin; Roberta Drews, director of strategic planning for the county executive’s office; Sandy Folaran, horticultural services director; Sarah Toomsen of the parks department planning manager; and Jeremy Theis, head of facilities. Task force members voted to have chairman William Lynch represent the committee in the selection process.

At their November and January meetings, task force members had discussed and ultimately decided on the need for new information and analysis relating to potential uses of existing facilities within the Domes complex and Mitchell Park, marketing and programming options, other revenue-generating potential, and current and potential social and economic impacts of the Domes within its South Side neighborhood and beyond.  

Another presentation was by Jay Burseth about a recent symposium on development and membership hosted by the American Public Garden Association in Dallas. Burseth’s slide show delineated “what success could look like” for the Domes in the future. He noted there is also potential for growing membership in Friends of the Domes, which currently has 1,600 members.