Woodland Park Zoo

  • By Walt Crowley
  • Posted 7/08/1999
  • HistoryLink.org Essay 1481
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Seattle's Woodland Park Zoo, now regarded as one of the nation's best, began with a small menagerie on Guy Phinney's sprawling Woodland Park estate between Phinney Ridge and Green Lake. In 1899, the City of Seattle purchased the estate, and in 1903 John C. Olmsted (1852-1920) designed the first plan for its permanent "Zoological Gardens." In 1932, construction of Aurora Avenue N (Highway 99) severed the zoo from "lower" Woodland Park. In 1976, neighborhood opposition to improvements authorized by the 1968 Forward Thrust bond election led to a new Long-Range Plan, later implemented by director David Hancocks. The plan's natural "bioclimatic" exhibits revolutionized zoo design and won numerous international awards. King County voters approved additional zoo improvements in 1985, which were completed in 1999 under the guidance of director David L. Towne.

Phinney's Menagerie

Developer Guy C. Phinney (1852-1893) established a menagerie in the northwest corner of his 179-acre Woodland Park Estate in 1889. He also built a hotel, a bandstand, and a ball park, and established a streetcar line in 1890 to shuttle visitors (and prospective home buyers) between Fremont and the park. Phinney's plans to develop the park and adjacent land holdings ended with the national economic "Panic" and his sudden death at the age of 42 in 1893.

In 1899, his widow Nellie (Wright) Phinney (d. 1909) offered the property to the City of Seattle. Despite complaints that the park lay too far north from the city center and that the cost was extravagant (roughly $500 per acre), the City Council approved the purchase on December 28, 1899, paying Mrs. Phinney $5,000 in cash and assuming a $95,000 mortgage.

As part of his 1903 master plan for the Seattle Parks System, John C. Olmsted recommended a collection of "hardy wild animals" and a tall observation tower on Phinney Ridge. That same year, the Lake Washington Cable Railway Co. donated its Leschi Park menagerie to the city, which relocated the animals to Woodland Park. The expanded collection included elk, bear, deer, eagles, a pair of ostriches, and a coatimundi, which is a southern American relative of the racoon. In its April 17, 1904 edition, the Seattle Post-Intelligencer gushed that "Animals are Not Cooped Up in Artificial Quarters," a description belied by Woodland Park's ensemble of steel cages and concrete bear pits. New facilities were added between 1908 and 1911 and Olmsted developed a more detailed plan for the Zoo. In 1922, a formal rose garden was planted adjacent to the Zoo's Fremont Avenue entrance.

Wide Awake and Tusko

The city did not appoint a formal Zoo Director until 1922, when it named veterinarian Gus Knudson (1881-1951). Knudson had worked on the Zoo staff since 1907. His charges included Wide Awake, the Zoo's first elephant, purchased in 1921 from a carnival for $3,122, the amount raised in a penny drive sponsored by the Seattle Post-Intelligencer. Wide Awake was a popular attraction until 1967, when she died at the age of 54 years. In October 1932, the Zoo acquired a second pachyderm by accident when the city impounded Tusko, a giant Asian bull elephant weighing 7.5 tons, which the city confiscated for mistreatment when it was displayed in Seattle. Children again donated their pennies to feed Tusko, reputedly the largest elephant in captivity until his death in June 1933.

Meanwhile, in 1931, the Seattle Parks Board declared that most of Woodland Park should be reserved for "Zoological Gardens" but this did not prevent state engineers from digging a trench for Highway 99 (Aurora Avenue N) through the heart of the park, confining the Zoo to 90 acres on the western or "upper" tract. The Federal Works Progress Administration funded some Zoo improvements in the early 1940s, but the park and its collection languished. Knudson resigned in disgust in 1947, declaring "The operation of a zoo is a scientific proposition, but in Seattle it's a political proposition."

The Arrival of Bobo

Knudson was succeeded by Ed Johnson, who led a successful $800,000 bond campaign in 1948 that built a new Feline House, "naturalistic" bear grottoes, and a Great Ape House (since demolished). Bobo, a rather grouchy male lowland gorilla, was the most celebrated resident of the Ape House from 1953 to his death in 1968. Bobo's stuffed remains now reside in the collection of Seattle's Museum of History and Industry.

Frank Vincenzi succeeded Johnson in 1960, and helped to organize the non-profit Seattle (now Woodland Park) Zoological Society in 1965 to supplement scant city staff and funds. Additional dollars were found to build a Children's Zoo and Tropical House (design by Fred Bassetti), which opened in 1968. In 1968, voters authorized $4.5 million in additional funds for comprehensive Zoo development. Two years later, architect George Bartholick (1921-1998) unveiled his master plan. Bartholick proposed building a lid over Aurora Avenue so the Zoo could expand eastward. The plan alarmed neighbors of "lower" Woodland Park, who organized a successful initiative rejecting the plan in November 1974.

Bioclimatic Zones

Parks planners regrouped and retained the firm of Jones & Jones and consulting architect David Hancocks. They prepared a radical new Long-Range Plan for naturalistic exhibits emulating the world's "bioclimatic zones." After the plan debuted in 1976, Hancocks was hired as Zoo Director. Between 1977 and 1980, he guided completion of the New England Marsh and Swamp, Asian Primate, Lowland Gorilla, and African Savanna exhibits. Although the new exhibits won top international honors and although the city imposed a Zoo admission fee in 1977, funds for further improvements dried up. In late 1983, Hancocks angrily resigned.

Hancocks was succeeded by the man who had hired him, former Parks Superintendent David L. Towne. In 1984, Towne joined with the Seattle Post-Intelligencer to launch a community fund drive to replace the Zoo's decrepit Elephant House. At the same time Zoo Society leaders Richard Swanson and Robert Davidson urged Mayor Charles Royer to empanel a Zoo Commission to address the park's longterm funding needs.

The new Commission, chaired by Walter B. Williams, delivered its report in May 1985. It called for an unprecedented county-wide bond issue and Zoo Society fund raising campaign to generate nearly $41 million for the Zoo. King County voters approved the bonds on November 5, 1985. The program, completed in 1999, spent more than $50 million to build the Elephant Forest (1989), Tropical Rain Forest (1992), Northern Trail (1994), and Trail of Vines (1995), among other improvements. All of these exhibits have won top honors from the American Zoo and Aquarium Association. They have earned Woodland Park, in its centennial year, consistent ranking as one of the world's best zoos.


Walt Crowley, The Woodland Park Zoo Guide (Seattle: Woodland Park Zoological Society, 1995); Don Sherwood, unpublished histories of Seattle parks, Seattle Public Library.

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