Aquatic Gem

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Jewish contributors founded and are sustaining the historic Belle Isle Aquarium.

There’s something fishy about Detroit’s Jewish History.

Detroit’s Belle Isle Aquarium was concieved by a Jewish Detroiter, David Heineman, and designed by another, Albert Kahn. Now a suburban Jewish woman has spearheaded a volunteer effort to revitalize the century old aquatic Museum.

Jennifer Boardman visited the aquarium for the first time in 2002 and fell in love.

“I grew up in West Bloomfield, but I’d never been to Belle Isle,” said Boardman, who now lives in Lathrup Village. “When I walked into the aquarium I felt it was a magical place. I couldn’t understand why it wasn’t being promoted more actively.”

She began taking her daughter, Brooke, then 2, to Belle Isle almst every weekend. The aquarium was a favorite spot.

Three years after her first visit, Boardman was listening to Detroit Public Radio and learned that the City of Detroit was planning to close the Belle Isle Aquarium.
“I got up from my desk, drove over to the aquarium and started picketing,” she said.

The protests failed to stop the shut-down. When the aquarium closed on April 3, 2005, Boardman put down her picket sign and started volunteering. With Vance Patrick, she formed the nonprofit Friends of Belle Isle Aquarium to advocate on behalf of the building. Another Jewish woman, Detroiter Harriet Saperstein, was a member of the Friends board for seven years.

Volunteers from the Friends of Belle Isle Aquarium, which merged with three other Belle Isle advocacy groups in 2011 to form the Belle Isle Conservancy, manage the aquarium operations. Boardman, co-chair of the Belle Isle Aquarium Committee of the Belle Isle Conservancy, is there almost every week.

Since 2012, the aquarium has been open every Saturday from 10 a.m.-3 p.m. It is also open for tours by schools and other groups at other times by special arrangement.

Starting June 8, the green-tiled aquatic haven also will be open from 10 a.m.-3 p.m. on Sundays. Admission is free.
Boardman knew the Saturdays-only schedule was not ideal.

“Being there on Saturday keeps me from going to my own synagogue, Shaarey Zedek, where I’m involved with the sisterhood,” Boardman said. “Being open on Sunday will allow the observant Jewish community to visit.”

She plans to switch her volunteering to Sundays so she can return to Shabbat services at Shaarey Zedek.

Impressive History

Belle Isle’s first inhabitants were Native Americans and French settlers, who called it Ile aux Cochons (Hog Island). In 1768, King George III granted George McDougall, a British soldier stationed in Detroit, permission to purchase the island from the Ottawa and Ojibwa tribes. He did — with eight barrels of rum, 6 pounds of vermilion, 3 pounds of tobacco and a belt of wampum — all on display today in the Detroit Historical Museum.

The island was privately owned until 1879, when the city of Detroit purchased it. Frederick Law Olmstead, who designed New York’s Central Park, created a plan for a park to be built on the island, intending for it to be kept in a rural state.

But as Joel Stone, senior curator for the Detroit Historical Society, pointed out in an essay in the May 4 Detroit Free Press, Olmstead’s design was never implemented, and the island became home to numerous recreational buildings.

The Belle Isle Aquarium was the brainchild of David Heineman (1865-1935), chief assistant attorney of Detroit who later became a city councilman. He was the son of prominent Detroit philanthropists. His father, Emil, ran a successful clothing business and was president of the Beth El Hebrew Relief Society, and his mother, Fanny Butzel Heineman, was president of the Detroit Ladies’ Society for Support of Hebrew Widows and Orphans. David Heineman was one of the first Jews to become involved in Detroit politics.

Eleven species in the collection are not in any other public aquarium in the United States.

Heineman was inspired by the aquarium at the Anton Dohrn Zoological Station in Naples, Italy. At his urging, in 1901 the city approved the creation of the aquarium and the adjacent Belle Isle Conservatory.

The city held a competition to design the buildings, which was won by noted Detroit architect Albert Kahn, also Jewish.

Visitors enter through a highly decorated stone façade with two spitting fish, the emblem of Detroit and the carved word “AQUARIUM.” The single gallery’s domed ceiling lined with green glass tiles evokes a feeling of being underwater.

Now tiny in comparison with aquariums in cities like Chicago and Baltimore, the Belle Isle Aquarium was one of the world’s largest when it opened in 1904; at the time, the Detroit Free Press declared it the world’s finest.

Working To Reopen

When the aquarium closed, Boardman began researching the public policy issues involved. Her findings became the basis for her thesis for her master’s degree in humanities from Central Michigan University, which won the 2010 Outstanding Thesis Award.

“I showed that the aquarium closed because public policy priorities had changed regarding urban progress and the use of public space, and not because of economics or lack of interest,” she said.

After the aquarium closed, the fish were given to other aquariums. Only the koi remained, moving into the pond between the aquarium and the conservatory.

The city required that the koi be taken inside for the winter, and the Friends of Belle Isle Aquarium volunteered to be the fishes’ caretakers. The city also allowed the volunteers to open the building for a day in February for Shiver on the River, an annual event that started in 2005 to raise funds for Belle Isle.

While caring for the koi, the volunteers noticed a leaky roof and other structural problems, Boardman said. They were afraid that neglect would give the city an excuse to tear down the building.

So Boardman, whose day job is working for a state appellate court judge, became a grant writer. She secured a National Trust grant to hire an architect, who drew up plans to repair the roof. Then, working with the city, she secured $45,000 from the State Historic Preservation Office. The Friends matched it, and a new roof was installed, giving the group the momentum it needed to work toward reopening.

On Aug. 12, 2012, 108 years to the day of the aquarium’s opening, the public was once again welcomed in. Since Sept. 15 of that year, the aquarium has been open every Saturday.

“The first fish on display were the conservatory pond’s koi that we placed in the former large gar tank,” Boardman said. They were recently transferred during the biannual “koi wrangling” to the pond outside the conservatory, where they will spend the summer.

The koi were soon joined by fish purchased from hobbyist breeders and distributors or donated or lent by aquarium fans.

“Currently, we have 118 species with more than 1,000 individual fish,” Boardman said. “Three of these species are extinct in the wild, and 15 are endangered or threatened. Eleven species in our collection are not in any other public aquarium in the United States.” 

She said the aquarium’s fish wish list includes freshwater stingrays, seahorses and an expansion of the native fish collection.

The aquarium once had an impressive exhibit of stingrays, for which it won the prestigious Edward H. Bean Award from the Association of Zoos & Aquariums in 1975 and 1976. The award recognizes “a truly significant captive propagation effort that clearly enhances the conservation of the species.” 

While waiting to increase the fish collection, aquarium volunteers have created art exhibits in the empty tanks. These include jewelry made from recycled products by volunteer Mike Essian; a display about the Michigan Glass Project; and sculptures of fish skeletons by Peter Hackett.

One of the tanks displays items from Boardman’s memorabilia collection of anything Belle Isle-related. She began the collection in 2005, as soon as she learned that the aquarium would soon close. She finds items — everything from porcelain dishes to souvenir spoons and pennants — on eBay and at garage sales.

Her oldest items are a crystal paperweight with a photo of “Central Park Avenue — Belle Isle Park” from 1901 and a hand-carved mother-of-pearl fish fastened to a shell inscribed “Belle Isle Park” from 1904.

She has many old postcards dating from 1901, some picturing long-lost structures from the island and many describing delightful adventures at the park.

Boardman received the 2012 Gov. John B. Swainson Award from the Michigan Historical Commission for her role in preserving, restoring and protecting the Belle Isle Aquarium.

On-site Education

Jeff Ram, a professor of physiology at Wayne State University’s medical school, is the aquarium’s director for science education and chair of the science and education advisory board. His group coordinates Science Saturday talks at the aquarium on the first Saturday of every month, and will add Sunday programs now that the aquarium will be open Sunday as well.
The aquarium regularly hosts school groups, using all-volunteer staff.

Ram has applied for a National Science Foundation grant so the aquarium can hire full-time staff to handle programs for K-12 students.

Ram, a member of Oak Park Congregation T’Chiyah who lives in Huntington Woods, has brought several grant-funded research and education projects to the aquarium, including exhibits about invasive species such as the sea lamprey and Asian carp, and has set up a research lab in the aquarium’s basement.
Starting in June, the aquarium will host a WSU biology course.

One of Ram’s vendors is an Orthodox Jew who made a generous donation of supplies to celebrate the building’s opening on Sundays.

The aquarium has been on the itinerary for tours by Jewish religious school students since 2009, said Wendy Rose Bice, director of the Jewish Historical Society of Michigan (JHSM).

A group of volunteers — Judy Cantor, Ellen Cole, Gerald Cook, Ruthe Goldstein, Margery Jablin, Adele Staller and Carol Weisfeld — planned the program, aimed at middle-school students, to blend nostalgia with a strong upbeat, positive message of the importance of the contributions of Detroit’s Jewish leaders and neighborhoods, Bice said.  

“Thanks to many donors and grants, we’ve been able to provide these tours at no charge for students attending religious schools,” she said. “Each year, up to a dozen schools participate, and close to 500 children are exposed to these important values, lessons and landmarks.”

In 2012, the JHSM, in collaboration with the Metro Detroit Board of Jewish Educators, added new venues to the tour and incorporated actors to portray historic Jewish characters like Hank Greenberg. Earlier this year, the JHSM received funding from the Hermelin-Davidson Fund of the Jewish Federation of Metropolitan Detroit to create and implement in-class, pre-tour lessons on Detroit Jewish history. 

Boardman often serves as the guide for the religious school tours.

“It is so much fun to share with the students that their heritage includes the creator of the aquarium, David Heineman, and the architect, Albert Kahn,” she said, “and that Jewish people are still involved with the aquarium.” ■

Barbara Lewis | Contributing Writer

To donate or volunteer, visit the Belle Isle Conservancy website.
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