Belle Isle 101: How well do you know Detroit's jewel?

- Belle Isle is a place the Motor City comes to relax, and we've been doing it for more than a hundred years. But how well do you know this jewel of Detroit?

Belle Isle is the largest city-owned island park in the United States, sitting at 982 acres. It's 100 acres larger than New York's Central Park.

Belle Isle hasn't always been Belle Isle, though. In fact, before the city purchased the property at one time it was part of a French colony with the name Hog Island. Most of it was a swampy marsh and it took years of work to transform it into the gem it is today.

Among the park's original attractions were a grand canal, a bike pavilion, the boat club and a model boat basin. Some of these attractions are gone, and some remain.

"The many architectural gems that are on the island, we have the Albert Kahn structures; we have George Mason structures; Cass Gilbert structures. You can come to the aquarium, the conservatory, the Belle Isle Nature Center, the Dossin [Great Lakes Museum]. The beauty of it is it's all free," says Michelle Hodges, President, Belle Isle Concervancy. "Once you get your recreation passport and you're on the island you can do a number of things.

Today Belle Isle hosts a number of favorites that have stood the test of time. Among them are the casino, the aquarium and the conservatory. Also, the William Livingstone Memorial Lighthouse is the only marble lighthouse in the United States.

The conservatory is a really special place to come, no matter who you are, whether you like plants or not," says Hodges. "It, too, is everchanging. You can see the voodoo lily at certain times of the year. So, if you're a boy that likes things that don't smell very good you can experience that - or if you're a true gardner and you want to experience horticulture at its finest you can do that, too."

The real heart of the island, though, is the people of Detroit. Many give countless hours to make sure Belle Isle remains a city gem for generations to come.

"We would not be where we are without our volunteers. They are what brought the aquarium back to life and continue to serve it; they work here at the conservatory and provide a nice, warm inviting experience for folks who come here," says Hodges. "I started measuring it last year and I believe we had about a million dollars worth of volunteer labor that was delivered on the island in 2016. So, they're a critical part of what we do."

Right now, the lily pond in the conservatory is also undergoing a renovation. It's expected to reopen this summer. The Belle Isle Police Station is also being completely renovated and transformed into a welcome center. The conservancy also hopes to bring the "zoo" back to Belle Isle in the form of a giant spash park featuring popular animal figures.

Meanwhile, you can check out some wildlife on the islane. European fallow deer have lived on the island since 1895.  The deer arrived as a gift from the president of France. The Belle Isle Nature Center currently houses a small herd from the original population that was on Belle Isle.

To learn more about all these attractions on Belle Isle, visit www.belleisleconservancy.org.
 

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