How Old Is Brookfield Zoo?

Photo credit: Chicago Zoological Society

How old is Brookfield Zoo? The answer is not as simple as you may think.

When answering the question of Brookfield Zoo’s age, one may be inclined to look at the zoo’s opening date of July I, 1934. Looking at the opening date alone makes Brookfield Zoo 85 years old at the writing of this blog post in 2019.

However, we would like to pose a question for consideration. Is Brookfield Zoo 85 years old or is it more accurate to say Brookfield Zoo has been open to the public for 85 years?

Your decision may hinge upon the difference between an idea and that idea coming to fruition.

We can trace the idea of Brookfield Zoo back to Edith Rockefeller McCormick. Often referred to as the “Renegade Rockefeller”, Edith Rockefeller McCormick was a forward-thinking philanthropist. McCormick devoted a considerable amount of her time and donated considerable amounts of money to social and cultural causes in the Chicago area.

During an eight-year stay in Europe from 1912 to 1920, visiting the Zurich Zoo inspired McCormick. She envisioned the Chicago Zoological Park, a world-class, modern zoo built in the community of Riverside, Illinois.

In 1919, McCormick was so committed to this dream she donated 83 acres of land she received as a wedding gift from her father, to the Cook County Forest Preserves on which to build the Chicago Zoological Park. The district added an additional 98 acres of land making a total of 181 acres.

In 1920, a group of Chicagoans banded together, dedicated to making the zoo a reality. In 1921, they established the Chicago Zoological Society, the organization charged with managing all aspects of this modern zoo.

The Chicago Zoological Society was operating under a tight timeline as McCormick stipulated that the zoo had to be completed within five years of her land donation or the land would revert to her and her heirs.

With this in mind, Edwin H. Clark, architect for the Chicago Zoological Society, created a conceptual map of the zoo during the early 1920s. The project began to move forward and in 1922, the Chicago Zoological Park received its charter.

Photo credit: Chicago Zoological Society

The project took a major setback when a 1923 tax referendum needed to fund the project failed. Fortunately, all parties agreed upon “Amendments to the McCormick Deed" with the stipulation the zoo would be built by July 31, 1934. With a new tax referendum set for voting in 1926, there was hope for the zoo’s future.

On April 13, 1926, the tax referendum passed with more than 295,000 people voting for the zoo. With an opening date looming just over eight years away, work on the zoo began immediately.

After purchasing essential additional land in 1926, major construction started in 1927. During that year, all underground work such as laying sewage piping was completed. This was arguably the busiest building year of the project seeing the completion of the powerhouse, administration building, main entrance and comfort station (restroom).

Edward H. Bean became the first Director of Brookfield Zoo on March 31, 1927. By the end of that year, Bean had acquired the zoo’s first animal residents, five unnamed baboons.

Excitement over the completion of the first animal building, “The Reptile House”, in 1928, spurred discussions as to whether the zoo should open to the public, highlighting “The Reptile House” as a preview of things to come. However, the final decision was to hold off on opening to the public until there were more exhibits built and more animals for people to see.

After deciding against this, Bean and the Chicago Zoological Society worked with George Getz and family whom by 1933 provided 330 animals for the zoo.

Brookfield Zoo opened to the public on July 1, 1934, bringing Edith Rockefeller McCormick’s 1919 idea to fruition.

Did McCormick’s idea make the zoo or did the completion of the first animal building make it a zoo, or was it the arrival of the first animals?

Now you can be the judge. Is Brookfield Zoo as old as when McCormick came up with the idea, as old as the day it opened to the public 85 years ago or as old as any of the milestones between 1919 and 1934? No matter where you land, for 85 years and counting, Brookfield Zoo has offered visitors the opportunity to connect with wildlife and nature.

Written by André Copeland CIGI, CIP, MT, Interpretive Services Manager, Chicago Zoological Society

Check out more historical photos of Brookfield Zoo here.

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Posted: 10/2/2019 3:14:50 PM by Sean Keeley

CZS & Brookfield Zoo

Since the opening of Brookfield Zoo in 1934, the Chicago Zoological Society has had an international reputation for taking a cutting-edge role in animal care and conservation of the natural world. Learn more about the animals, people, and research that make up CZS here at our blog.


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