An Architectural History Walk: The Toledo Zoo’s Carnivora Building

I am working on a couple of larger stories, but in the meantime enjoy a self-serving post about one of my favorite historic zoo buildings. In the comments section, feel free to share your favorite zoo building! —KK


Not only are zoos full of animals with interesting stories, but if the buildings could talk they would have some amazing things to say as well. One particular building that has fascinated me throughout my visits to zoos across the country has been the historic Carnivora Building at the Toledo Zoo. In fact, the entire zoo is an architectural marvel.

Situated along the Maumee River in Ohio, the Toledo Zoo was founded in 1900 with the donation of a pesky woodchuck. (The donor, Carl Hillebrand, was a furniture store owner, and the huge rodent was tearing up his store. It must have been quite large, as rumors spread that a bear was on display in Walbridge Park.) By the end of its first year of existence the zoo housed 39 animals, a mix of exotic and native species including black bears, wolves, foxes, alligators, and an assortment of birds. The first elephant arrived in 1905, and by 1916 the zoo’s collection had grown to 471 animals. With this unexpected expansion and as animal escapes became more commonplace (it wasn’t uncommon to see Babe the elephant roaming the nearby neighborhoods!), it was time to turn rickety temporary buildings and cages into more adequate housing.

By the 1920s a master architectural plan had been finalized, and in 1923 the first building, Proboscedia, or Elephant House, was completed. Built in a Spanish colonial revival style—stucco walls and red-tiled roof—its façade was intended to be reminiscent of Toledo, Spain, the city’s namesake. (As an adorable aside, this building also housed Cupid, the baby hippo purchased with the help of pennies saved by Toledo schoolchildren.) With the original elements of the building still intact, the building now serves as a meeting space and conference center.

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The original Elephant House at the Toledo Zoo opened in 1923. The location of the first meeting of the Toledo Zoological Society, this building is now used as an event space known as The Lodge. Photo by DreamingKoala on Wikimedia

The zoo’s second building, Herbivora (Giraffe House), also a Spanish colonial, was completed in 1928. (This building was demolished in 1984, but its copper and glass skylight was salvaged and now can be seen along one of the zoo’s walkways.) The Monkey House was the last building to be completed before The Great Depression hit in 1929.

Another building in progress during the mid- to late 1920s was the Carnivora Building, or the Lion House. A groundbreaking ceremony was held in 1924, with Kermit Roosevelt, son of Theodore Roosevelt and big-game hunter, as the shovel-bearer. This Spanish colonial included outdoor iron cages placed symmetrically on the east and west sides of the building. The interior featured a large central lobby with several cages for the big cats and other large animals. The building also served as the kitchen and bakery as well as the zoo’s first veterinary hospital, all of which were housed in the basement. After the building’s construction was put on hold for three years due to issues with contractors, it finally opened to the public on Christmas Day, 1927. At the time, this building was considered “one of the finest zoo buildings in the country” (Bell et al., p. 1245).

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The Carnivora Building at the Toledo Zoo, circa 1930s-1940s. Image: Boston Public Library Postcard Collection.
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Outdoor cages at the Carnivora Building, circa 1970. Photo courtesy of Daniel Lay.

Like the Elephant House (today known as The Lodge), the Carnivora Building still stands and is used in unique way. After the animals had moved to larger and more naturalistic habitats, in 1993 the building opened to the public as the Carnivore Cafe. Today, visitors can dine in the very cages that once housed the lions, bears, and other large mammals!

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The Carnivora Building, now the Carnivore Cafe. Photo by FitchDnld on Flickr.
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The dining area inside the Carnivore Cafe, once the living space for big cats. Photo: Trover.com

Some zoos might be loathe to restore the cages that symbolize the iron bars of a (mostly) bygone era, but the Toledo Zoo’s reminder of how zoos have vastly improved their animal habitats is a really fantastic example of how this zoo has brilliantly preserved its history.

In addition to the Spanish colonial buildings of the zoo’s first decades, the Toledo Zoo also features a number of Works Progress Administration (WPA) buildings that were erected in the 1930s and still remain in use—all beautifully renovated. These WPA projects helped put unemployed Toledoans back to work, and the materials used for the new buildings were largely repurposed from old animal houses (such as the Lion House) that were torn down. In the Reptile House a plaque hangs on the wall that lists where all of the building materials were obtained.

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Reptile House plaque that lists where all of the materials used for the building of the WPA-era structure were obtained.

I highly recommend a visit to the Toledo Zoo, not only for the amazing architecture and beautiful gardens but also for the wonderful collection of animals (giraffes, hippos, polar bears, and fantastic aquarium and aviary residents, among many others). For my fellow National Zoo fans, they even have their own Redd (Wakil, a three-year-old orangutan) and Moke (Mokonzi, a one-year-old gorilla)!

 

Sources

Bell, Catharine E., Laura Mizicko, and Lester Fisher, eds. Encyclopedia of the World’s Zoos. Chicago: Fitzroy Dearborn Publishers, 2001.

Ligibel, Ted. The Toledo Zoo’s First 100 Years: A Century of Adventure. Virginia Beach, VA: The Donning Company, 1999.

Toledo Zoo. Wikipedia. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Toledo_Zoo

“Toledo Zoo: A Living History.” PBS video, aired October 24, 2002. https://www.pbs.org/video/toledo-zoo-a-living-history-1ovflh/

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