Central Park

Central Park Wildlife Conservation Center

This text is part of Parks’ Historical Signs Project and can be found posted within the park.

Central Park’s zoo was almost not meant to be.  The park’s designers, Frederick Law Olmsted (1822-1903) and Calvert Vaux (1824-1895) excluded any zoo from their 1858 plan for Central Park.  Yet shortly after construction of the park began a bear cub was left in the custody of a park messenger boy, Philip Holmes.  Holmes took care of the bear, and before long a temporary collection of animals grew in and around the park’s headquarters at the Arsenal.

Responding to this ad hoc situation the commissioners of the park sought an alternate location which would not compromise the pastoral landscape.  State legislation in 1861 authorized that a “portion of [Central Park], not exceeding sixty acres [be set aside] for the establishment of a zoological garden…”  Vaux prepared a plan for Manhattan Square, today the site of the American Museum of Natural History.  Olmsted suggested moving the menagerie to the park’s northwest portion, and placing paddocks for grazing animals dispersed around the park.  The commissioners authorized, and then halted construction of a new menagerie at the north meadow.

All told, politics and budget constraints sabotaged a dozen proposals, and the animals—as if by squatters rights—took up permanent residence behind the Arsenal.  Prominent citizens such as financier August Belmont, inventor Samuel Morse, and impresario P.T. Barnum donated various animals.  General Custer gave a rattlesnake, and General Sherman offered an African Cape buffalo, one of the spoils of his march through Georgia.  The Menagerie was also the scene of rare births in captivity, such as the South American peccary born in 1866.

Victorian-styled structures sprouted up on the grounds under the direction of William Conklin the Menagerie’s director from the 1860s through the 1880s.  The public responded enthusiastically; daily attendance was 7,000 people by 1873, and annual attendance by 1902 was reported at three million.  Yet despite improvements made around 1900 to improve the care and environment, the animals best interests were not always served.  It was not until the installation of Robert Moses (1888-1981) as first citywide parks commissioner, that the adverse conditions were addressed.

Under Moses, the in-house Parks design team, headed by Aymar Embury II, designed a new brick and limestone “picture-book zoo” in an astonishing 16 days; construction took a mere 8 months.  The zoo was structured as a quadrangle with a sea-lion pool at its center.  Additional bird and monkey houses flanked the Arsenal to north and south, and a large restaurant, known as Kelly’s Café, stretched along the back.  An elaborate program of animal art, included a bronze dancing goat and bear by Frederick G. R. Roth, limestone reliefs and a painted mural by Roth and his assistants, and wrought-iron weathervanes by sculptor Hunt Diederich.  Moses stressed that only healthy animals in more humane circumstances would henceforth be displayed.  The zoo opened with great fanfare on December 2, 1934, and former Governor Alfred E. Smith was designated honorary zookeeper.

Yet despite these efforts to modernize, the public was still aware of squalid conditions in the zoo.  Some advocated for a model farm, where city kids could see domestic rather than exotic animals.  Fifth Avenue tenants complained about the noise and smells.  Many found the succession of spare cages depressing, and by the 1970s it was clear that the zoo was retrograde.  In 1980 Parks entered into an agreement with the New York Zoological Society (today the Wildlife Conservation Society) to manage the Central Park Zoo, as well as city owned zoos in Flushing Meadows-Corona Park, Queens, and Prospect Park, Brooklyn.

Because the site was so small (5 ½ acres compared with a national zoo average of 52 ½ acres) NYZS tried a new approach.  Large animals were given more space or removed altogether.  The NYZS, which in 1941 pioneered the principle of exhibiting animals by continents, maintained the quadrangle format of the 1930s zoo, but adopted a plan of three “biomes”—tropical, temperate and polar.  Architect Kevin Roche, who also devised the master plan for the Metropolitan Museum of Art, integrated old and new elements, while conforming to contemporary principles of animal care.

Except for four perimeter buildings, the old zoo was demolished in 1983.  The artworks or facsimiles were incorporated into the facility.  Reopening on August 8, 1988, the new zoo delighted visitors with its naturalistic tropical zone, expanded polar bear environment, and Japanese snow monkey island.  The sea-lions exhibit—a theater in the round—remains.  Lavish plantings laid out by landscape architect Lynden Miller, and lovingly maintained by zoo horticulturalists, turn the center into a true zoological garden.  In 2009, the Allison Maher Stern Snow Leopard Exhibit was introduced to the northwest portion of the zoo, designed by Cornell Rothschild Associates as a naturalistic snow leopard environment. At long last the Central Park Zoo has fulfilled its original promise.

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Know Before You Go

Ice Skating Rinks
Harlem Meer Center (formerly Lasker Rink)

The Harlem Meer Center is closed in order to rebuild the facility to increase access to nearby communities and enhance year-round programming. For more information, visit Central Park Conservancy's Rebuilding Harlem Meer Center page.
Anticipated Completion: Spring 2024

Outdoor Pools
Harlem Meer Center

The Harlem Meer Center is closed in order to rebuild the facility to increase access to nearby communities and enhance year-round programming. For more information, visit Central Park Conservancy's Rebuilding Harlem Meer Center page.
Anticipated Completion: Spring 2024

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