Known as Wah-na-be-zee(Swan Island) to the Chippewa and Ottawa Native American tribes, today Belle Isle reflects the late 19th century movement to create metropolitan parks begun in Paris and emulated in America by landscape architects like Frederic Law Olmsted. Ownership of these six hundred acres in the Detroit River passed over time to the French and then to the British before ending up with American settlers. The city of Detroit finally acquired the island, whose name had changed from Hog Island to Belle Isle in the middle of the century, in 1879. Soon citizens were calling on the city to create a public park on Belle Isle that would emulate the parks and tree-lined boulevards of Paris. In 1883, the city secured the services of Frederick Law Olmsted, the prominent landscape architect and planner responsible for famous urban parks in New York, Chicago, San Francisco, and Boston. After Olmsted's design was completed, other buildings were slowly added to the island. The most famous structure on Belle Isle is undoubtedly the Aquarium and Horticulture Building. Inspired by the Naples aquarium, the firm of Nettleton & Kahn designed a building with a highly articulated brickwork facade, copper roof, and a huge interior space to hold the great aquariums, where diverse marine habitats are displayed. The Horticulture building, also called the Conservatory, includes a fernery and a tropical plants sections, and is surrounded by three acres of formal gardens, lily ponds and greenhouses. Another noted building is the Belle Isle Casino, designed by Albert Kahn in 1908. Once said to be the finest casino in the United States, ornate towers frame the building's four corners, and verandas provide picnickers with shelter. A beautiful public park of memorials, fountains, athletic fields, manmade lagoons, and dramatic buildings, Belle Isle is a green oasis near the city's center.
Belle Isle is located in the middle of the Detoit River, and is accessed from the MacArthur Bridge which connects Belle Isle to East Grand Boulevard. Belle Isle is a Detroit city park and open to the public.
Friends of Belle Isle has been formed to promote the preservation and the adaptive use of existing structures on the island for the enjoyment and use by all people.
Belle Isle Conservatory and Aquarium
Photograph courtesy of the Michigan State Historic Preservation Office
Belle Isle Canal, circa 1903
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