An Atlanta Zoo Goes to Court

compr. Gress photoAfter the arrival of its first elephant, the Gress Zoo continued to prosper. By July 1893, Captain Gress, as he was called, was planning to enlarge the zoo after returning from a trip to visit zoos in Cincinnati, Chicago, New York, and Philadelphia. “The zoo is a hobby with him,” according to reports. “His heart is set on making the Gress zoo one of the finest in the country.” According to his obituary, he did just that. When he died on August 28th, 1934. The Atlanta Constitution reported that:

Few men have contributed more to the happiness of Atlanta children than George V. Gress, whose death occurred Tuesday in Jacksonville where he had lived for the past 20 years. For nearly a half century, thousands of children annually have gained both pleasure and instruction in wildlife in visits to the zoo at Grant park.

 

I wonder if he knew, as he lay dying, that another zoo in Atlanta was in the news. On Friday, July 21st, 1934, just one month before Gress died, jurors from a City of Decatur courtroom visited the Briarcliff Zoological Garden. They were considering a lawsuit brought by a neighbor of the zoo. She was seeking $25,000 in damages because, according to news reports, “her property has decreased in value because of the nearness of the zoo”. This was not the first time the Briarcliff zoo and its wealthy owner had been in the news—nor would it be the last.

Asa_G._Candler_Jr.The Briarcliff zoo was part of the 42-acre estate of Asa Candler, Jr., the fabulously wealthy son of one of the founders of the Coca Cola company. Candler dabbled in real estate, but he was primarily known as an eccentric socialite with a big, boisterous personality. The zoo, located on his property at the intersection of Briarcliff Road and University Drive in the Druid Hills neighborhood, was no small affair. It was designed by the same architect who designed Candler’s mansion and gardens. By March 1932, his zoo was already an attraction in the neighborhood with its monkeys, bears, elk, and buffalo, and Candler was in the process of purchasing elephants, lions, chimpanzees, camels, baboons, leopards, and more.

But five months later, trouble was brewing. As Candler planned to host a charity circus on his property, neighbors were reportedly “preparing to seek relief from the presence of the zoo” claiming that the odors and the noises constituted a nuisance. They were hiring legal counsel and planned to ask Candler to “remove the zoo to some location where it will not annoy the neighbors”. If he refused, they would take him to court. It took them two years, but in July 1934 a City of Decatur jury was finally touring the property.

Candler Zoo filteredBy early 1934, Candler was, in fact, facing multiple lawsuits for his various dealings and in February of that year, a court ruling allowed the DeKalb County tax collector to levy a $100 per day “amusement tax” on the Briarcliff Zoological Garden. Two days before Christmas 1934, an Associated Press article in the Atlanta Constitution foretold the troubles that lay ahead for Asa Candler, Jr. and his beloved zoo. The expense of keeping five elephants, thirty monkeys, eleven lions, and dozens of other animals was becoming a drain on Candler’s considerable resources. The news headline read: Front Yard Zoo of Asa Candler is Running a Husky Winter Deficit.

One month later, in January 1935, Candler said he would sell his zoo to anyone who would pay his $20,000 asking price. The New York city parks department offered half that for his collection of 160 animals, which were said to be valued at closer to $50,000.

Candler was soon prepared to donate his entire collection to the city of Atlanta under one condition—that “proper housing for the valuable animals and rare birds be provided”. The cost of that housing would be considerable—originally reported to be in the range of $15,000 but rising to $50,000—especially for the animals that were “somewhat delicate in Atlanta’s climate”. The city refused to bear the cost, insisting that the money be raised from voluntary contributions by the public. A fundraising campaign was launched and by March 1st, about $30,000 had been raised. By early April, though the fundraising was still far short of its goal at $41,876.50, all of Candler’s animals had already been moved to Grant park.

According to the Zoo’s website, the park swelled with the arrival of the entire Briarcliff Road collection, which included elephants, leopards, water buffalo, elk, zebra, birds, a hyena and a sea lion, not to mention Jimmie Walker, Grant Park’s first tiger.

By May 1935, just three years after it began, the Briarcliff Zoological Garden had disappeared. According to news reports, Candler announced that “the steel and concrete building which formerly housed the zoo” was going to be turned into an indoor swimming pool for public use during the winter months.


The Menagerie: A Zoo Story    Now Available

A wonderfully written story.       Symbiosis, the Journal of the Association of Zoo and Aquarium Docents

 One of the most original pieces that I have read. [It] changed how I view zoos and has given me a new found respect for the work that goes on to keep them afloat.      Online Book Club

 


The two remarkable men who were responsible for the founding and early development of Zoo Atlanta could have not been more different. George V. Gress was a hard-working and industrious young man who managed to rise through the ranks to become independently wealthy. Asa Candler, Jr. inherited his wealth. Gress had a reputation for honesty and integrity while Candler was described as boisterous and eccentric. But both men had a respect for and fascination with animals, and an appreciation for how important those animals were for the enrichment of their community. Gress bought a circus and donated the animals to the city. Candler once hosted a charity circus at his zoo and donated the proceeds to the Scottish Rite hospital. Candler also ended up donating his entire collection of animals to the city.

Both the Gress zoo and Candler’s Briarcliff zoo have been consigned to the history books and are long forgotten, but the legacy of both men lives on in one of America’s great zoos—Zoo Atlanta.

 

Next week: Toronto’s Riverdale Zoo – a social infrastructure lost

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