• 12
    Apr
    Posted in:
    Belle Isle 101: A Historic Look at Old Detroit
    Featured image by Rain0975 via Flickr

    In 1885, Belle Isle truly was an enchanting place. That was the year the zoo opened and, by 1909, they had 150 animals. Today, Detroiters can visit the Nature Center, a smaller facility containing local species and educational exhibits.

    In the last century, a lot has changed, but this city still brings its families and friends to Belle Isle to make memories. Detroit Sign Factory recently did some work on the island, and we wanted to share with you some of our favorite pieces of this park’s history.


    The Belle Isle Aquarium

    At the turn of the century (1904 to be exact), famed Detroit architect Albert Kahn built an aquarium on Belle Isle. He designed the building to give visitors the impression of being underwater by lining the half-tunneled ceiling with aqua-green tile to reflect both light and sound. Chaunie Brusie of the Washington Post puts it this way:

    “The light and water reflecting off the green tiles creates a hazy, hushed atmosphere, as if you are navigating beside the fish through murky water.”

    When the aquarium first opened, it received over 5,000 guests. However, in 2005, it was closed due to a lack of money, reopening again in 2012. Vance Patrick, a board member of the Belle Isle Conservancy, maintained the facilities during this closure, and one source says that a volunteer even cared for some of the fish in their home!


    The Detroit Yacht Club

    Predating the aquarium is the Detroit Yacht Club, not to be confused with the Detroit Boat Club just south of the MacArthur Bridge. The DYC’s first facilities on Belle Isle were built in 1891 for $10,000 (and furnished for $2,000). However, 13 years later, the clubhouse burned down. In typical Detroit fashion, though, “a new clubhouse was erected immediately on the ashes of the old clubhouse,” according to the organization’s website.

    Notable among the DYC’s claims to fame is its former commodore, Gar Wood. According to the website for his boat company, Wood set out to break every speed record he could. When he was in charge of the DYC, that’s exactly what he did in his hydroplane.

    It was only a little over 25 years later that Chuck Thompson, another record-setter, piloted Miss Pepsi, a famous boat that is currently on display at the Dossin Great Lakes Museum on Belle Isle.

    Etched glass film on Belle Isle

    Detroit Sign Factory was honored to install some etched glass film for the DYC in celebration of the club’s 150th Anniversary (pictured above). We wrote an article earlier this week about this product, and we love the formal look it gives to this majestic building.


    A Harrowing Escape

    One event that reinforces Belle Isle’s place in history is the bridge jump done by Harry Houdini in 1906. The daring feat took place in November of that year, and some reports say that Houdini had to jump from the bridge into a hole carved in the frozen river. However, a diligent Houdini historian found the Detroit News’ account of the event: no ice.

    Houdini leapt from the bridge shackled at his hands and feet to one-up a rival. After another man claimed he could escape from the Wayne County Jail, Houdini offered him $300 to prove it. When the man’s request to attempt that escape was denied, Houdini (who was performing in town), called up the press and jumped 25 feet into the frigid water below to show off his skills.

    Belle Isle Bridge

    Courtesy Burton Historical Collection at the Detroit Public Library


    While the Belle Isle Zoo is closed, there’s currently so much to do and so many stories to be told about our 982-acre park. As buildings are renovated, exhibits are created, and new events take place, our generation will experience plenty of the same magic Detroiters did when these sites first opened to the public.

  • Visit Our Detroit Blog

    Detroit Blog