Anna Scripps Whitcomb Conservatory/Belle Isle Conservatory

7000 Inselruhe Avenue near the Detroit River on the east side of Belle Isle


This is a beautiful building.  It is among the most attractive conservatories to be found in the United States or Canada.   I do not know who commissioned it or funded its construction.  I infer that in the early years of the last century, a number of prosperous Detroit residents had the resources to make contributions to ensure that Belle Isle would be one of the nation’s finest urban parks.  It is great that they made those contributions since Belle Isle, in the 21st century, continues to be one of the nation’s most appealing urban parks.

Albert Kahn designed the building that you see.  He took as his model a Glass Palace that was built on the south side of Chicago in Jackson Park for the 1893 Columbian Exposition.  Albert Kahn may have also modeled this conservatory after Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello.  Whatever his motivation, he produced a structure that is still very appealing much more than a century later.   Interestingly, Kahn used wooden beams to support the extensive glass that makes up this conservatory.  That must have been very impressive to see.  I have not seen an informative picture of the original structure.  Between 1952 and 1954, the structure was rebuilt.  Steel and aluminum replaced wood.  The conservatory includes a Palm House located under the 85 foot tall grand dome.  The south wing is the tropical house while the north wing is the fernery.  Outside are the lily pond with its koi—in the summer—and the formal gardens.  There are 20 greenhouses used for the cultivation of plants.

The original building covers about an acre but is set in a beautiful garden area of about 13 acres. This includes a well maintained Lily Pond and a Children’s Garden. The South wing of Albert Kahn’s Conservatory holds tropical plants, the North wing: cactus and ferns.  Anna Scripps Whitcomb was a distinguished and well-known Detroit cultivator of orchids.  Indeed, during World War II when there was a fear that a German invasion might destroy rare orchids in England, she secured orchids there and brought them to Detroit for safekeeping.

Anna Scripps, born March 5, 1866, was the daughter of James E. Scripps who founded the Detroit Evening News and then went on, with his entrepreneurial son William E. Scripps, to not only create a media empire but invest in numerous businesses, including the production of the Scripps-Booth car.  In 1891, Anna Scripps married James Edmund Whitcomb, a Detroit real estate developer and builder.  They purchased a mansion at 383 Lake Shore Drive in Grosse Pointe but, after their death, their son razed their mansion and replaced it with a more modern residence.

Every spring Anna Scripps Whitman brought many of her most beautiful orchids to a hall on Belle Isle so that Detroit residents could enjoy the impressive flowers that she cultivated.  I infer that this became something of both a horticultural and social occasion.  In 1953 she gave her 600-plant orchid collection to the City of Detroit for inclusion in this Belle Isle Conservatory.  In 1955, the name of the building was changed from the Horticulture Building to honor the contributions of Anna Scripps Whitcomb.  The city of Detroit owns the Conservatory and the accompanying gardens.  The Belle Isle Botanical Society is a very active private organization promoting this distinguished conservatory and the accomplishments of Anna Scripps Whitman as one of this nation’s leading cultivators of orchids.

In 2009, four different private organizations supporting Belle Isle merged to form the Friends of Belle Isle organization. In 2013, the city of Detroit—after long deliberations and financial bankruptcy—agreed to rent Belle Isle to the state of Michigan.  The state will make capital improvement on the island and maintain it for the next two decades.  The future of the very interesting Anna Scripps Whitcomb Conservatory seems bright.

Architect: Albert Kahn
Date of Completion: 1904
Website for the Belle Isle Botanical Society:
Website for the Friends of Belle Isle organization:
Use in 2014: Botanical Garden
City of Detroit Designated Historic District: Not listed
State of Michigan Registry of Historic Sites: The conservatory is a component of the Belle Isle Historic District; P 25,026 listed September 11, 1979.
National Registry of Historic Places:  The conservatory is a component of the Belle Isle Historic District listed February 25, 1979
Photograph:  Ren Farley
Description updated: February, 2014

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