- Associated Press - Tuesday, February 11, 2014

DETROIT (AP) - Subzero temperatures make it hard to keep anything warm, but when your house is made of aging windows, it’s even harder.

“This is the coldest winter I can remember, and I’ll be 70 in June,” Bill Horman told the Detroit Free Press ( https://on.freep.com/1cotoDT ) as he walked through the Anna Scripps Whitcomb Conservatory on Belle Isle Friday afternoon. “The staff is coming in even after work to keep the heaters going.”

Horman, who started working in the conservatory in 1964 and has volunteered there since retiring in 1996, said staffers have been rolling extra fuel-fired heaters into the 110-year-old domed landmark designed by Albert Kahn.

The city replaced the heating system in the building about seven years ago and is looking at modifications to the new system as well, but this winter has meant extra work.

“In a normal winter, it’s not bad, but when you’ve got a polar vortex every other week, it’s hard,” said Brad Dick, director of Detroit’s General Service Department. “We’ve had some high winds blow out some windows.”

Some of the weather has been so bad it made repairs difficult.

“Normally, the ice melts off naturally, but it was so cold we had to wait a few days for it to melt,” he said.

Horman said most of the plants in the building can survive temperatures down to about 40, but below that, they risk damage and even death. When the sun is shining, it’s no trouble keeping the place warm, but at night the added heat is needed.

The building is open year-round from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Wednesday through Sunday and admission is free.

It has only closed a couple times this winter because of weather, Dick said. On Friday afternoon, when the air temperature outside was 12 degrees and slicing wind gusted off the Detroit River, the interior of the building was a comfortable 65 degrees.

Despite the snow pushing up the glass at low points, it feels and smells like summer inside. In the tropical room, an elevated fan pushes warm air, rustling the leaves on a lacy tree philodendron. Nearby, a squirrel scampers around a white bird of paradise, a banana-type plant where some of the leaves at the top have turned brown from touching against the cold glass.

“I’m a teacher and I had the day off so I wanted to go somewhere warm,” said Diane Kessel, 28, of Dearborn Heights. “My parents have been bringing me here since I was a kid.”

Horman said some people think it’s closed because of the work being done on Belle Isle, but it’s open, just as it has been for 110 years.

“If you don’t feel better for having been here, we’ve failed in our mission,” he said.


Information from: Detroit Free Press, https://www.freep.com

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