All about Anna: Garden party raises funds for Belle Isle Conservatory
The Anna Scripps Whitcomb Conservatory on Belle Isle holds a special place in many hearts.
It sits on 13 acres and is home to a collection of exotic plants, a formal perennial garden, seasonal floral beds, a lily pond garden, five sections of flora — and one much beloved feline.
The conservatory, designed by Albert Kahn, opened in 1904, and in 1955 was dedicated to Grosse Pointer Anna Scripps Whitcomb, who donated her 600-plant orchid collection to the city of Detroit. In the years since, the bounty within has been tended to and cared for by horticulturalist Jeremy Kemp, but the conservatory itself is in need of some help.
Enter the Belle Isle Garden Party, which began as a celebration of the Junior League Gardeners’ 75th anniversary. The gardeners invited other garden clubs to join them at a cocktail party to raise funds for the conservatory. In the 16 years since, the Belle Isle Garden Party has grown to welcome 500 to 600 attendees for “a simple, two-hour cocktail party,” said Grosse Pointe Farms resident Robin Heller, who is co-chairing this year’s event with Janice Ellison.
The party, which takes place from 5:30 to 7:30 p.m. Tuesday, Sept. 13, includes hors d’oeuvres courtesy of Thibault and Moore Catering, a signature drink that is color-coordinated with the décor, live music from Ben Sharkey and the Grunyons, as well as featured artwork.
“The beauty of the event is being able to see a lot of people you have not seen over the summer or reconnecting with them,” Heller said. “It draws a wide group of people. Plus, it ends summer and kicks off the next season.”
In addition to bringing people together, the event continues to serve a purpose.
“This is a benefit for the Anna Scripps Whitcomb Conservatory — a celebration of everything that makes her special,” said Belle Isle Conservancy President and CEO Michele Hodges. “And we do it in a uniquely Detroit way — on the grounds, featuring the Marshall Fredericks ‘Leaping Gazelle’ sculpture, backed by the beautiful Detroit skyline — to raise money for her longevity. … I like to say we’re working to fix her aching joists.”
“Major renovations need to be made to the upper dome,” Heller explained. “A couple years ago they worked on the lower half. This year, the upper dome will be done. It’s a $10 million project funded through private donations and grants from the state.
“Our party,” she continued, “raises funds for smaller things. Over the years we have been able to repair the lily pond, add needed plant signage, repair the Marshall Fredericks ‘Leaping Gazelle’ sculpture, upgrade the decorative ironwork, study a pass-thru between the conservatory and aquarium, and fund the plans for a new ADA-compliant entrance across from the new Oudolf Garden Detroit. And that’s to mention just some of the projects. This year’s funds will be used for continued interior and exterior improvements.”
Making improvements to Belle Isle and its amenities has long been a passion of supporter Shery Cotton of Grosse Pointe Park, the mother of Grosse Pointe News owner Sean Cotton; however, the conservatory in particular is especially important.
“I call the conservatory ‘The Anna,’” she said. “It’s like a person to me.”
Cotton was visiting Kemp in early 2019, when she noticed damage to the structure.
“There was an opening in the glass at the top,” she recalled. “I was informed the Anna Scripps had about 10 years left and it would close down if we couldn’t raise the funds to fix it.
“… The structure really needs a lot of work,” she continued. “The DNR have reached the point where they’ve raised enough funds that they are in to help do this $10 million project. That work will start soon so Anna will live on. I can’t imagine her not being there.”
It also was during a visit to the conservatory that Cotton first met her honorary co-chair for this year’s garden party.
“Something bumped the back of my leg,” she said. “I spun around and … it was Pavo.”
Pavo, a Norwegian forest cat, is a feral cat who made the conservatory his home a few years ago and, in turn, was adopted by the staff.
“He just showed up,” Cotton said. “He’s got the best personality. You always look for him when you go there. … He’s very independent, in and out. He looks like a crabby old man, but he’s so easy. He’s the greatest cat.”
“Shery has been a strong supporter of the conservatory,” Heller noted. “And Shery has really taken to Pavo as many, many people have. Pavo is one of the top like-getters on Facebook.”
Thanks to Kemp’s uncanny ability to capture the cat’s personality, Pavo has become “the most popular feline in town,” Hodges added, noting Kemp’s photos have made Pavo a social media star. “So why not invite Pavo to be part of the celebration? He has a charm and presence about him; he’s very commanding and loves to be in the spotlight.”
Fans of Pavo and the Anna Scripps Whitcomb Conservatory will have the opportunity at the garden party to purchase reproductions of Kemp’s photos, ranging in size from 8-by-8-inch to 11-by-14-inch prints.
“They’re photographs of the conservatory, its flowers and Pavo,” Heller said. “These will adorn tabletops and be displayed in the garden. We encourage people if they’re interested in purchasing a piece to bring a credit card, cash or check.”
Cotton noted the entire project has been a group effort and one not to be overlooked.
“It’s an important part of our area and city,” she said. “Detroit is the only city in the U.S. that has an island park. … Improvements over the years may seem tiny, but every single one has made a difference. It’s a jewel. We need to protect these things. It’s important for the future and the city.”
Added Hodges, “We believe in tradition; that’s what makes Belle Isle so special. It’s the repository of memories over the generations. The garden party is an important tradition to celebrate that tradition. Without it we wouldn’t be able to do what we do at the conservatory.
“We need the support of the community, particularly as we migrate away from the Grand Prix,” she continued. “We need support for the facility and the island at large. Grosse Pointe has always been generous with its support. It takes a family. Belle Isle is the essence of that — of family. We welcome all to be part of this family and support the garden party.”
Tickets are $85 in advance, $60 for ages 35 and younger. Prices increase at the door and a limited number of tickets are available. Visit belleisleconservatory.org.
“She’ll be closed for 12 to 18 months,” Hodges said of the conservatory, “so this is a good opportunity to come down before it all takes place.”