Toledo – Home of America’s Most Complete Zoo

When I first visited the Toledo Zoo in the summer of 1991, it struck me as a unique blend of historic old structures and cutting-edge new animal exhibits. The thirty-acre site was compact and filled with interest. Intense colorful plantings accentuated the architecture of ornate brick and stone buildings. It billed itself as America’s most complete zoo because of its museum, aquarium, and plant conservatory. It had a reputation for developing the latest in immersive zoo exhibits like the African Savanna with its one-of-a-kind Hippoquarium, but the building that really caught my eye had the word Carnivora 1CARNIVORA etched in the stone lintel above the door. Its stucco walls and red clay-tiled roof were in the Spanish colonial style. The building was more like a cathedral than an animal house with its soaring facade, arched glass windows, and ornate stone carvings.

Officials broke ground on the Carnivore building in 1924, with Theodore Roosevelt’s son Kermit turning the first shovel of dirt. The building would complement the nearby PROBOSCIDEA building, which opened that same year and would house elephants, rhinos, and hippos. By the time Carnivora opened to the public on Christmas Day, 1927, the Toledo Zoo already had a colorful, quarter-of-a-century history behind it.


The zoo was founded in 1900 when a local businessman donated an unlikely animal—a woodchuck. And like so many other zoos of this era, the Toledo Zoo had circus connections. The first came in December 1905 when the difference between zoos and circus menageries became blurred. The Ferarie Brothers Circus came to town and began advertising themselves as the operators and managers of the Toledo Zoo. They were coopting the zoo’s five-year-old name and referring to their own menagerie which, at the time, happened to be in Toledo.

By the 1920s, when the Proboscidea and Carnivora buildings were constructed, the zoo The early circus once again connected with the Toledo zoo when an elephant with the MacKay Circus named York trampled a keeper to death somewhere in the Midwest. York was sold to an animal dealer, renamed Babe, and purchased by the zoo in Toledo. Babe arrived sometime in 1912 and despite killing zookeeper Michael Raddatz in 1915, went on to live at the zoo for another three decades.

business—like much of American society—was booming. Cities that had zoos were expanding while those that did not, were wishing they did. Communities planned and constructed parks, museums, golf courses, and libraries. Motorcars clogged the roadways, prohibition fueled the rise of speakeasies and the gangsters who ran them, and the jazz age echoed a time of great economic prosperity.

In the 1920s, animal dealers like Frank Buck prowled the forests and jungles of the world in search of exotic animals for burgeoning zoo collections. Buck kept up a regular correspondence with the directors of zoos in New York, Philadelphia, and St. Louis and had no trouble finding eager buyers for his specimens. At one point, he claimed to be supplying a whole zoo full of animals for the City of Dallas, Texas.

For Toledo, the “Roaring Twenties” is said to have begun in 1919 with the world’s first million-dollar sporting event. On July 4th of that year, boxers Jack Dempsey and Jess Willard squared off in Toledo. For the next decade, Toledo prospered as a major hub in the region’s transportation system. The City boasted fifteen miles of riverfront that serviced thousands of Lake Erie freighters and produced more motorcars at its Willys Overland plant than any other American manufacturer except Ford. Toledo became known as “the Glass City” because of its many glass production companies.

The Toledo Zoo reflected the vitality of the community. In addition to the Proboscidea and Carnivora buildings, a Buffalo Barn for hay-eating animals opened in 1926, a Giraffe House (Herbivora Building) was completed in 1928, and work began on a Primate House in 1929. All these structures were built with the signature look—stucco facade and red-tile roof—and must have reflected one of the most stylish and handsome zoos in the country. And the Toledo Zoo was not finished. By late 1929, plans were afoot for a Monkey Mountain adjacent to the Primate House and a Reptile (Reptilia) House.

Everyone knows how this story ends. In October 1929, the “Roaring Twenties” went out with a whimper and the Toledo Zoo should have fallen on hard times like the rest of America. But what happened next is the most improbable story in the zoo’s history. In a few years, the Phoenix would rise from the ashes thanks to one man’s love of snakes and lizards.

I first met Roger Conant when the 86-year-old retired Philadelphia Zoo director came to Toledo to film a segment for our centennial video project. He recalled that in the spring of 1929, the Toledo Zoo had offered him his first “big zoo” job. Though the twenty-year-old herpetologist worked as a general zookeeper, reptiles were his passion and his idea for an elaborate reptile house came along at the perfect time.

As the Great Depression ground into the 1930s and federal officials scoured the land for projects that could immediately put people to work, zoo officials seized the opportunity. Conant’s vision was drawn-up by an out-of-work architect. Construction materials were scavenged from demolition projects all over town and dozens of tradesmen and laborers were put to work. Artists painted murals, sculptors carved stonework, and photographers documented the whole project. Finally, on September 15th, 1934, the REPTILIA building was dedicated.  But that was just the beginning.

That same day, the five-year-old Primate house was finally opened, and ground was broken on the next project—a massive building that would house a museum, an indoor theater, and an outdoor amphitheater. For the rest of the decade, the Great Depression would appear to pass over the Toledo Zoo.

Grand openings occurred in rapid succession for the Amphitheater (1936), the Aviary (AVES) building (1937), the Museum building (1938), the Aquarium (1939), and the Greenhouse / Conservatory (1939). All these buildings are still in service and represent one of the finest collections of historic, WPA architecture of any zoo in the country.

 Next week: A Home for Hippos


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: