Renovated Dossin Great Lakes Museum gets into shipshape

By: K. Michelle Moran | Grosse Pointe Times | Published May 15, 2013

 Visitors to the newly renovated Dossin Great Lakes Museum on Belle Isle can enjoy attractions like this one, which gives people the feeling that they’re on the water.

Visitors to the newly renovated Dossin Great Lakes Museum on Belle Isle can enjoy attractions like this one, which gives people the feeling that they’re on the water.

Photo by K. Michelle Moran

DETROIT — For those who are passionate about all things nautical, one place has special significance: the Dossin Great Lakes Museum.

Just in time for boating season, a completely renovated Dossin — located on the Detroit River on Belle Isle — is reopening May 18, after undergoing a $2 million facelift that includes upgrades and new installations aimed at adults and kids alike.

Historical cannons and anchors still surround the exterior of the iconic blue brick building, but inside, the Dossin is refreshed.

The new core exhibition is “Built by the River” in the John and Marlene L. Boll Foundation Gallery. It shows how Detroit’s history and its location on the Detroit River are intertwined, from early fur trade to the auto industry.

“It really talks about Detroit’s evolution,” explained Detroit Historical Society Executive Director and CEO Bob Bury, of Grosse Pointe Park.

When visitors enter the museum, they step into what had been the Gothic Room — the smoking lounge for men on the City of Detroit III, inside the museum’s Polk Family Hall. Ornate carved oak, a chandelier and a large stained glass window are among the details that make the space impressive. Bob Sadler, director of public and external relations for the Detroit Historical Society, said passengers on the boat — which sailed the area from 1912 until the early 1950s — could board at dinnertime, have drinks and swap stories in the smoking lounge, retire to their rooms for the night and wake up the next morning in Cleveland. These vessels were one of the ways people got around before the automobile revolutionized transportation.

“It was really an interesting way of life,” Sadler said. “It kind of existed alongside trains (as the mass transit of that era).”

Throughout the museum, visitors will find ship models. The Dossin has one of the biggest collections anywhere, with so many models — an estimated 75-100, according to one museum official — that they can’t all be displayed at the same time, meaning that visitors will see different ship models at different times. Some are loaned out to other museums, as well.

The exhibits offer things for kids to do, including “loading” a ship, and there are more interactive features, such as a boat that visitors can sit in that will replicate the experience of being in a hydroplane or sailboat via a video screen. One area dedicated to Bob-Lo Island gives visitors a chance to share their own memories of the former amusement park.

“There’s a lot more experiential components than in the past,” Bury said.

The Great Lakes Gallery will rotate annually, Sadler said. “A River’s Roar” — which traces the history of hydroplane and powerboat racing in Detroit, including legendary drivers and boats — is on view now.

This is the museum’s first major overhaul in years. In 1949, the Detroit Historical Commission opened the Dossin’s predecessor, the Maritime Museum of Detroit, inside the old J.T Wing, the last commercial schooner on the Great Lakes. However, when the vessel became too dangerous for visitors, it was closed in 1956 and burned. The new museum was built on the same site and opened to the public on July 24, 1960.

“Detroit is undergoing a period of great renewal and rebirth,” Bury said. “The timing (for the renovation) was right. The more you can tell people about their past and their history, the more it really resonates well and it bodes well for the future and bringing our community together.”

When it opened, the Dossin was one of only three Great Lakes museums in the country, Sadler said. Now, there are dozens of regional museums, meaning that the renovated Dossin could “tell a much more Detroit-story,” he said.

“We told a much broader story (before),” Sadler said.

The museum is named for the Dossin family, major supporters who established the museum and whose many contributions over the years include the Miss Pepsi championship hydroplane, which is housed in its own pavilion.

“It’s really one of the favorite attractions (at the museum),” Bury said. “It’s certainly a centerpiece, and one of our larger artifacts.”

A number of Dossins still live in the Grosse Pointes, and they remain committed to the museum. Bury said the original Dossin brothers — Walter, Roy and Russell — created a successful food and beverage distribution company that delivered Pepsi, among other products.

“They were also boating enthusiasts,” Bury said.

The Miss Pepsi was refurbished for the museum’s grand reopening, and there’s now a historical timeline that provides additional information to help visitors understand the importance of this boat and the history of hydroplane racing, he said.

“I think it gives it some context,” Bury said of the timeline.

The most recent building addition is the pilothouse from the S.S. William Clay Ford, a long ship that sailed the Great Lakes from 1953-1986 and whose pilothouse was fused onto the museum in the early 1990s. Visitors can learn more about other long ships, what types of jobs were performed on these giant freighters, how they had to be loaded and unloaded, and much more. There’s also a model of the vessel, as well as the ill-fated Edmund Fitzgerald. Sadler said the William Clay Ford’s captain bravely took his ship — then safely docked — back out onto the water in an effort to locate and rescue sailors from the Edmund Fitzgerald upon learning that the ship had run into trouble, but was unable to find the ship or any survivors.

Visitors can climb up a flight of narrow steps into the top of the pilot house — which literally juts out over the river, giving them the sense that they’re actually sailing — and look at old paper charts, as well as more modern gadgets like a computerized touch screen that enables them to get additional information about various ship components. They’re also privy to a gorgeous view of the Windsor skyline just across the water.

Renovations took about five months to complete, starting with the closure of the museum the first week in December 2012, Sadler said. The Dossin renovations are part of the DHS’s Past>Forward Campaign, which started in 2009 and has already raised more than 85 percent toward its goal of $20.1 million. The campaign, which also raised funds for the fully renovated Detroit Historical Museum, ends in June 2014.

The project wasn’t connected to a state proposal that would have pumped millions of dollars worth of improvements into Belle Isle, with the state taking over the island for a set period of time — a proposal ultimately rejected by the Detroit City Council.

“We’d love for the issues surrounding Belle Isle’s future to be resolved, but we wanted to (do our renovations regardless),” Bury said.

The Dossin Great Lakes Museum is located at 100 Strand Drive on Belle Isle. Hours for the grand reopening weekend are noon-6 p.m. May 18 and 11 a.m.-6 p.m. May 19. Starting May 25, regular hours are Saturdays and Sundays from 11 a.m.-4 p.m. The museum will be closed June 1-2 and June 8-9 because of the Chevrolet Detroit Belle Isle Grand Prix and the Orion Music Festival, respectively, but it will reopen Father’s Day weekend. Admission is free. For more information, call (313) 833-5538 or visit