Belle Isle Part I: A Celebrated Past

Author's note: This is the first of a three-part series that I wrote for the newspapers I work for in Metro Detroit. Saturday, Sept. 1 the series will look at "Belle Isle's Troubled Present", and the Sunday, Sept. 2 installment will focus on "Belle Isle's Uncertain Future". By the way, the above video is not the best quality, but you can watch a high resolution version of it by clicking on my YouTube channel.

“Belle Isle’s story is a record of Detroit as a city: its attempt to establish itself among America’s and the world’s top cities in the era of its phenomenal rise to world industrial power; the fits and spurts of its growth and development; (and) the challenges faced in this time of sprawling metropolitan lifestyles.”
-- Janet Anderson, author of “Island in the City: Belle Isle, Detroit’s Beautiful Island”

DETROIT — Belle Isle is an enigmatic jewel of a park. It is beloved by all, enjoyed by many and brought to its knees by a few.

The island park — designed in the 1880s by the esteemed Frederick Law Olmstead, who also created New York City’s Central Park — has a yesteryear charm as many of its Victorian and art-deco structures and monuments date to 1890-1915.

Archive images courtesy of the Library of Congress
At 2.5 miles long and a half-mile wide, Belle Isle is 982 acres of public outdoor space on the Detroit River with distinct recreational opportunities ranging from the athletic to the serene. Despite its problems — and there are many — Belle Isle is host to 5 million visitors a year.

Belle Isle is indeed a jewel — a multifaceted jewel — of Detroit.

It is a park of the ages, and for all ages.

Everyone easily agrees that Belle Isle’s past should be celebrated, its present needs to be addressed and its future ought to be preserved for generations to come.

But where people disagree is on who should carry out those duties.

Celebrated Past
Belle Isle came to be because early Detroiters wanted to show the rest of the nation it, too, was a modern, cosmopolitan city.

In the mid to late 1800s, every major city in America was developing a grand city park. New York started the race with Central Park in 1858. After that, 15 other major cities — including Boston’s Emerald Necklace, Baltimore’s Druid Hill and The Mall in Washington, D.C. — all developed a showcase park within the next two decades.

Detroiters were equally proud of their city and very much wanted to show the rest of the nation that it was worthy of being included among the upper echelon of America’s burgeoning municipalities.

In his 1870 message to the Common Council, Detroit Mayor William Wheaton said, “Some of the cities, such as New York, Philadelphia and Baltimore, are laying out, improving and enlarging parks that are equal to anything of the kind in the world, and the testimony is, without contradiction, that, although the expense is very heavy, it is well repaid and cheerfully borne.”

Not everyone was enamored with the idea of a showcase park. Even back then, certain influences decried the expense of developing a park at all, especially one that was expected to be enormous in scale and budget. A Detroit Park Commission was authorized to identify potential park space and issue up to $200,000 in bonds to acquire the land. But several times strong opposition led to the defeat of what was then known as “The Park Question.”

Eventually, behind-the-scenes machinations culminated in a letter being presented to the Common Council on April 9, 1879. The letter, from the Chamber of Commerce and the Merchants and Manufacturers’ Exchange, advocated the purchase of Belle Isle for the purpose of using it to develop a rail crossing to Canada. The Common Council adopted the letter as a resolution the next day by a vote of 18 to 7. Opponents still made a last-minute effort to block “The Park Question.” On June 30, a resolution to defer the decision of purchase to a citywide vote was defeated. On Sept. 25, the last of the private landowners on Belle Isle sold their property and Belle Isle became public property.

Frederick Law Olmstead
When it came time to design Belle Isle, Detroit looked no further than to the father of landscape architecture, Frederick Law Olmstead. It is not a coincidence that Olmstead also designed New York City’s Central Park, among others.

Olmstead’s design principles, it has been widely noted, were rooted in his desire to develop spaces unlike those found in Europe up to that point. While European parks were known for their formality and use by the elite, Olmstead sought to develop parks that would be enjoyed by the common worker and his family. His hallmarks — walking paths, carriage driveways, bridges, open lawns — all served to connect people with nature.

All would agree that Belle Isle is a fine example of Olmstead’s design principles.

As a footnote, at the request of the Detroit Park Commission, Olmstead set aside his usual $500 fee for his initial visit, instead simply submitting an expense bill of $70.25. However, the Detroit Common Council (now known as City Council) voted against paying the bill. As another footnote — and perhaps as a precursor to modern times — in 1880 the city did not budget any money for maintenance or improvements, and in 1881 only $11,045 was set aside for this need. Many envisioned an enormous, budget-busting expense of developing Belle Isle according to whatever plan Olmstead would present. In 1884, Olmstead implored city leaders to set Belle Isle’s finances on a long-term path, then he quietly resigned one year later.

Olmstead’s ominous warnings would, unfortunately, ring true.

Up Next: Belle Isle's Troubled Present 

 Note: Much of the historical detail in this report was courtesy of “Island in the City: Belle Isle, Detroit’s Beautiful Island” (Heitman-Garand Co.; 2001), by Janet Anderson for Friends of Belle Isle, which was a companion book to an event at the Detroit Historical Museum, March 23 to Sept. 9, 2001.