Conservation Assessment Program
Spotlight on a CAPped Museum:
Restored WPA Bathhouse Becomes a ZooZeum
Shhh! Don’t tell anyone, but zoos aren’t just in the animal business anymore.
Sure, elephants and giraffes are the main reason more than 150 million Americans walk through zoo gates each year, but zoos are suddenly finding themselves in a new and unexpected role: keepers of culture and community history. Many American zoos are celebrating their 50th or 100th birthdays, and their buildings reflect the changes that have occurred during that time. In many instances, architecture is the visual trigger for conversations that begin with, “I remember the zoo when…”
In 2004, the Oklahoma City Zoo began discussions about turning its 1930s Works Progress Administration (WPA) bathhouse into an historical museum. The goal? To save the structure and help visitors reconnect with their own zoo memories. Following a 2005 CAP assessment and the architectural assessor’s recommendations, construction began on the building in an effort
to rehabilitate the “outdoor” structure into a secure environment for storing and displaying artifacts. The building’s transformation cost approximately $750,000—which was in line with the predictions made by CAP assessors.
Although the sandstone structure was solid, the inside needed insulation, walls, tile floors, a bathroom, and a second-story tower that could support the weight of an HVAC system. A 100-year-flood left the bathhouse in three feet of water so drainage had to be reevaluated.
Meanwhile, staff also began to archive thousands of photos and objects. A wing of the bathhouse was equipped with a humidifier and shelving to house over 6,000 objects and over 20,000 photos. Museum cases were custom designed to accommodate exhibits that would change often and withstand crowds of nearly 1 million visitors per year.
In April 2011, the ZooZeum opened to a crowd of nearly 3,000 visitors. Many had come to see the baby elephant, born the same week. They also walked away with the unexpected experience of learning about elephants throughout our zoo’s history in the bathhouse. They were able to get up close to the bear cage from 1907, and they saw the pile of coins removed from the stomach of an unfortunate sea lion just a few months before the exhibit opened.
No, zoos aren’t just in the animal business anymore. Zoos find themselves looking back to the past as they strive to look to the future—wondering when conservation and architecture took on such new meaning for zoos. Maybe living museums aren’t so different from history museums!
Thanks to Amy Dee Stephens for contributing this story.