Zoo Atlanta – A History Rediscovered

IMG_20190610_102414973On a recent visit to Zoo Atlanta I recalled my first visit exactly 49 years ago. The famous gorilla Willie B had arrived at the zoo 9 years earlier. It was that visit that hooked me into the zoo business.

As I toured the zoo, I came across the old Reptile House. It is now vacant, replaced by a new home for reptiles and amphibians—something called Scaly Slimy Spectacular. When I visited in the spring of IMG_20190610_1049251401970, the old building was a brand new, state-of-the-art Reptile House that had opened a few years earlier. It featured relief sculptures at the front door. They are by well-known architect and sculptor Julian Hoke Harris and, though the building is closed, they are still visible. The new building is spectacular, but I wish they had incorporated these historic pieces of art along with the slick, back-lit photos.

I also stopped into the gift shop and asked if they had a book that documents the history of the zoo. They did not. So, I did a little online research and discovered from the zoo’s own website:

In March 1889, a traveling show bound for Marietta, Ga., stalled just south of its destination when cash flow problems forced its owner into bankruptcy. Left behind by defecting circus employees, the animals began to draw crowds of curious onlookers. Two weeks later, businessman George Valentine Gress purchased the collection at public auction and donated the animals to the city of Atlanta. City leaders relocated them to picturesque Grant Park, a favorite local picnic and promenade destination. Featuring a jaguar, a hyena, a black bear, a raccoon, an elk, a gazelle, a Mexican hog, lionesses, pumas, camels and snakes, Atlanta’s first zoological venue opened to the public that April. The following year, on August 10th, 1890, the Zoo’s first elephant, arrived. Clio was purchased was purchased through donations by the children of Atlanta.

Who was George Valentine Gress and why did he purchase a zoo? I might need to dig-in to this. There is an interesting story here!


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