America’s Oldest Aquarium Is Right Here In Detroit

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America's Oldest Aquarium: Belle Isle Aquarium Detroit

This historic aquarium recently reopened on Belle Isle in Detroit!

When Belle Isle, America’s oldest aquarium, opened in 1904, a local newspaper wrote that it was one of only six or seven permanent aquariums in the world. Designed by the Detroit architects Albert Kahn and George D. Mason, Belle Isle is known for its Beaux Arts architecture. In July, this historic landmark reopened for the first time in 16 months following a $1.2 million renovation.

The Belle Isle building remains well-known for its architectural elements, including a sea-green glass tile interior that evokes the feeling of being underwater to visitors. Stately pillars and arched high ceilings as well as decorative elements made the building an architectural treasure.

In an interview with Hour Detroit, Belle Isle Conservancy COO and aquarium director Summer Ritner revealed everything that the renovation added to the historic building. These changes include new tanks and habitats, brand new aquatic animals, better educational signage, and improvements to the historic marble and plaster foyer of the aquarium. When the paint in the foyer was refreshed, remnants of the building’s original gold foil paint were upcycled into a collection of Belle Isle Aquarium jewelry created by Detroit jewelry designer Rebel Nell. This move to repurpose parts of the original building was a testament to the place that the historic aquarium holds in the hearts of many Detroit natives.

The aquarium’s history contains a few choice urban legends: Firstly, that it once housed a Speakeasy in the basement during the Prohibition era, and secondly, that the cash-strapped aquarium staff sold a giant turtle named “Big Pete” to a meat market during the Great Depression.

The Belle Isle Aquarium is currently open from 10am to 4pm Friday through Sunday. Admission is free. Find it at 3 Inselruhe Ave, Detroit, MI 48207.

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