Contest honors the end of the storm for Belle Isle Aquarium

The attraction has ‘weathered’ tough times, but celebrates resurgence with new contest

By: Tiffany Esshaki | C&G Newspapers | Published August 13, 2014

METRO DETROIT — The winds of change are blowing on Belle Isle. Now, if only there was a way to measure those winds.

In honor of the Belle Isle Aquarium’s 110th birthday, a contest is being held for the design of a new weathervane to adorn the top of the aquarium building. The winning entrant with receive a $500 prize, and their creation will beckon visitors to the aquarium the aquarium for years to come.

Submissions have already started rolling in for the contest, which ends Aug. 29, with the winner being announced in mid-September.

The contest is just one of many steps forward that the beloved aquarium has made since it reopened in 2012. Members of the Belle Isle Conservancy have been working hard to scrape each nickel and dime together to bring the attraction back to life after its closure in 2005. Earlier this year, volunteers even made a trek over to Washington, D.C., to pick up scrap exhibition materials from the National Aquarium, which recently closed its doors.

“When things close in Detroit, they usually stay closed. But we just refuse to say no. So we’re starting over in Detroit,” said Jennifer Boardman, co-chair of the Belle Isle Aquarium Committee in a previous interview.

According to Vance Patrick — Belle Isle Conservancy director, from Southfield — the aquarium has been making major strides in just two years.

“We have a donor (who is) restoring skylights on the inside of the aquarium. We’re just continually bringing this back to the glory she was back in 1910,” said Patrick, explaining that replacing the weathervane has been on the conservancy’s to-do list for some time.

“Belle Isle Aquarium is such a focal point on the island, and the conservancy is so glad we can put this back,” he said.

And all the work by donors, the conservancy and volunteer committees is hardly going unnoticed. Patrick said the aquarium has been booming with attendance this summer, with about 2,800 visitors over the Fourth of July weekend alone. That number could be even higher Aug. 16, when the aquarium hosts a 110th anniversary celebration with games, kids activities, a vintage baseball game with players from Henry Ford Museum and more.

Sponsoring the contest is longtime Detroit-based law firm Butzel Long. The firm claims to have ties to the aquarium dating back to 1899, when Leo Butzel’s cousin David Heineman introduced a bill to construct a combined aquarium and horticultural building in the park.

The firm is celebrating a milestone this year, as well, with 160 years in business, and honoring its Detroit roots seemed like an appropriate way to celebrate.

“Rather than throw ourselves a big fat party, we decided to do some collaborations with some cultural institutions in town,” said Richard Rassel, chairman of Butzel Long. “We’re asking artists around the state to propose a replacement for the weathervane. We want to celebrate the aquarium, celebrate the resurgence and cleanup of Belle Isle, and do it as a thanks for a region and a city that has supported us for 160 years.”

As a Bloomfield Hills resident, Rassel said he knows how much the aquarium and surrounding park mean not just to Detroit residents, but to those in the outlying suburbs, as well.

“As a kid, we picnicked on Belle Isle in the late ’50s and early ’60s,” he remembered. “It’s just wonderful to see it being polished up again and brought up to its current state. The Department of Natural Resources has done a wonderful job there.”

There are a few rules designers must adhere to when submitting a proposal for the weathervane: it needs to meet certain height and width specifications, must rotate in the wind (of course), and mustn’t exceed a construction cost of $7,500, among other details, which can all be found on the conservatory’s website.

Patrick said that once the weathervane is erected, visitors will really start to feel like they’re back at the old Belle Isle Aquarium. Metro Detroiters can come to see the creation high atop the building, and then come back again to see the continued progress of the aquarium’s resurrection.

“Belle Isle is the destination, and once you’re on Belle Isle, you’ll want to see different things — the park, the conservatory, the aquarium. The nice thing is, we’re free, open to the public and that’s what we’re about.”

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