Dan Austin of HistoricDetroit.org has an incredibly comprehensive history of the Belle Isle Aquarium. He writes, in part:
Clarence M. Burton, in his history on the city of Detroit, attributes the idea of an aquarium to Rep. David E. Heineman, who had visited Naples, Italy, and studied that city’s Anton Dorhn Aquarium.
…The firm of Nettleton & Kahn drew up the plans for the buildings. The building’s price tag: $165,000 (about $4.06 million today). At the time of its opening, the aquarium was among the six largest in the world. Its high-tech equipment allowed for the keeping of both seawater and fresh-water marine life and the keeping of the right water temperatures in the tanks. The water was recycled through the tanks because, it was said, that fish survive better in water they’ve been in before. Originally, a 8,531-gallon center tank with a railing around it occupied the center of the building. It was topped off with filtered water that snaked through 5 miles of pipes.
Kahn outfitted the interior with sea-green glass tiles to give visitors the feeling that they were in an underwater cavern. Forty-four tanks filled with critters from the Great Lakes and the world’s oceans line the walls. Combined, the tanks contained 5,780 gallons of water. Magnificent pillars and other details compliment the soaring arched ceilings, as high as three stories in the center of the building. A classroom sits near the main entrance.
The front of the slender, brick building features an elaborate Baroque entrance with carvings of dolphins and a grotesque of Neptune, the Roman god of water. In the center is the city’s seal showing the two maidens and the Detroit motto, “Speramus meliora; resurget cineribus” — “We hope for better things; it will rise from the ashes.” Below that, the word “aquarium” is carved in capitalized, bold letters. The intricate details are sometimes masked by robust ivy that covers the front of the building.
When opening day finally came on Aug. 18, 1904, Detroiters were champing at the bit to take a peek. By the time dawn rolled around, the line numbered into the thousands and stretched from the aquarium’s front door all the way, across the bridge, back to East Jefferson Avenue. More than 5,000 people visited on the attraction’s first day. Some half a million would gaze into its tanks its first year.
Read on for much more that takes you through nearly a century of operation as one of the largest freshwater collections, decline in the latter part of the 20th century, shuttering in 2005 and re-opening in 2012. Definitely check out his gallery of Belle Isle Aquarium photos too!
Today the aquarium is run by the Belle Isle Conservancy and open on Saturdays from 10 AM – 3 PM with free admission and parking.