Belle Isle Aquarium

A Fishy Part of Detroit’s Jewish History

Belle Isle Aquarium postcard

In the late 1800s, Fanny (Butzel) Heineman an her husband Emil Heineman, prominent Jewish residents of early Detroit, sent their son, David, on a grand tour of Europe following his high school graduation. After visiting the aquarium in Naples, Italy, he became convinced that Detroit should someday have such an institution. After graduation from the University of Michigan where David earned degrees in philosophy and law, he entered politics, and was elected State Representative in 1899. Rep. Heineman introduced a bill in the Legislature to provide funding for an Aquarium and Horticultural Building to be built on Belle Isle.  The bill passed and $150,000 was set aside for building and stocking the joint attractions. 

A competition for the design of the Aquarium was announced with entries received from around the world. Albert Kahn’s entry that was chosen. He designed the aquarium in the Beaux-Arts architectural style, a style that relies upon visual cues on the outside of the building - such as fish and seaweed - to inform visitors of what they will find on the inside. The Aquarium officially opened to the public on August 18, 1904.  At the time of its opening, the Aquarium was hailed as the “Finest Aquarium in the World” and the third largest.

The Belle Isle Aquarium experienced a golden era from 1904 through the 1920’s, remaining open during World War I, The Great Depression, and World War II.  In the 1950s it underwent a major renovation but experienced declining attendance throughout the 1970, 80s and 90s. In January 2005, the City announced it could no longer afford to run the Aquarium and closed the facility. 

Two Jewish Detroiters, Jennifer Boardman and Harriet Saperstein, formed a nonprofit, Friends of Belle Isle Aquarium that advocated to preserve and reopen the building.  A $72,000 grant from the State Historic Preservation Office enabled the team to replace the roof, paving the way for the September 15, 2012 reopening.  The momentum attracted more Jewish citizens to get involved including Alan and Joy Nachman, who sponsored restoration of the pendant lights, and Randy and Trayce Fenton, who sponsored the restoration of the skylights which had been sealed closed for 60 years. The William Davidson Foundation funded bathroom renovations, sidewalk replacement, ceiling restoration, and infrastructure upgrades to be done this year.  In 2016 the Belle Isle Aquarium hosted an average of 4,000 visitors per summer weekend. 

Learn More: Fanny and Emil Heineman, DAVID HEINEMAN, Albert Kahn, Belle Isle