Situated in the narrows of the Detroit River, midway between the Canadian and American shores and within sight of the Renaissance Center and the central business district lies Detroit's island park, Belle Isle. A glory of idyllic scenery and meandering canals, this park in its setting is one of the most unusual of all urban parks to be found anywhere in the United States.
Accessible by auto over the open spandrel, reinforced-concrete Art Deco Douglas MacArthur Bridge (1921–1923, Daniel B. Luton, designer), the park is an island, 2.5 miles long and 0.5 miles wide. It lies a scant two feet above river level in the middle of an international shipping channel, making the viewing of the busy river traffic one of the delights of this maritime setting. This is the kind of activity that Frederick Law Olmsted had in mind when in 1882 he submitted his plan for Belle Isle Park. The primary intent of his design was the highlighting of this extraordinary setting and scenery to take full advantage of the abundant woods and water. Some of Olmsted's original plan may still be seen today on the island, although obscured by age, misunderstanding, and poor maintenance. Olmsted's early concept of a canal system for Belle Isle was later altered into another configuration, but the essential Olmsted element, that is, the enjoyment of the various “passages of scenery” from a slowly moving canoe, remains as one of the most delightful experiences to be enjoyed on Belle Isle.
Although Olmsted's philosophy was not to have buildings and monuments intrude into a park setting, Belle Isle has become the repository of many of Detroit's architecturally significant nineteenth- and early-twentieth-century buildings and sculpture. Of particular importance is the striking architectural influence that the World's Columbian Exposition of 1893 in Chicago had on the pre–World War II buildings erected on Belle Isle.
Noteworthy buildings on the island include the Athletic Shelter, an exuberant vernacular example with bold turrets and a sweeping bracketed veranda; the Service Yard, a marvelous small-scaled interpretation of an English nineteenth-century gatehouse; and various other remnants of Detroit's architectural past that dot the island.
Originally designed for pedestrian and carriage traffic only, the island has been invaded by the automobile, and the resultant roads now crisscross the once bucolic scenery. Poor to nonexistent forestry management, drainage problems, and ill-conceived placement of trendy new park structures mar the park's overall ambiance. Despite these problems, Belle Isle remains the place that Olmsted envisioned, a peaceful green oasis within the harsh city context. Hamilton Anderson's Historic Belle Isle Master Plan won the American Society of Landscape Architects 2004 analysis and planning award of merit.
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