Project Management Institute

Project Management At The Woodland Park Zoo

The History of the Woodland Park Zoo


Though Woodland Park Zoo was formally established in 1904, its history actually began 25 years earlier in 1879 when Guy Phinney, a Nova Scotian, was shipwrecked in the Straits of Juan de Fuca north of Seattle. Phinney arrived penniless, but used his wits to undertake the construction of the first factory (sawmill) on Lake Washington. Before long, he had become a leading real estate developer in Seattle. For his personal estate, Phinney purchased a 188-acre tract near the south shores of Green Lake which he named Woodland Park for its tall stands of cedars. Besides a magnificent dwelling, Phinney built formal gardens and a private zoo including deer, ostriches, raccoons, skunks, beavers, and “a bear named Bosco. ” Under strict conditions, he permitted the general public to visit his animal collection.

Phinney died in 1883, however, and despite his wife’s best efforts, Woodland Park began to deteriorate. Daunted by outside influences the estate was used in 1889 as temporary residence for hundreds of Lapland reindeer and attendants on their way to Alaska and in 1898 as an encampment for a regiment of the United States Calvary on its way to the Philippines. Mrs. Phinney decided to sell Woodland Park.


With controversial foresight, the Seattle City Council introduced and passed an ordinance to purchase the Phinney estate for $100,000. Mayor Humes, however, vetoed it arguing that the price was too high and the property far beyond the city limits (six miles north of downtown and now well within the city limits). Council overrode his veto and purchase was completed in 1899.

The old bear cage at the Woodland Park Zoo during the 1920’s

The old bear cage at the Woodland Park Zoo during the 1920’s

By 1902, city funds were improving Woodland Park. The famous Olmstead brothers were hired to create a public park of Phinney’s estate, retaining the formal gardens and incorporating Phinney’s animal collection into a public zoo. At the same time, other animals were brought in from a small menagerie at Leschi Park established by the Lake Washington Railroad Company to lure prospective real estate buyers.

The following year, the City of Seattle built an aviary; two long, narrow enclosures with subdivisions for various animals and a pit to hold 10 bears. An annual report in 1904, the first official evidence of Woodland Park Zoo, included the following inventory: “8 peafowl, 3 owls, 1 muscovy duck, 2 brown bears, 1 coatimundi, 5 elk, 6 eagles, 4 ring doves, 3 brant geese, 2 coyotes, 1 raccoon, and 3 seagulls. ”

The first heated building at Woodland Park Zoo was constructed in 1907. Called the “Simianary,” it housed a variety of monkeys as well as birds, reptiles, and the office of the zoo’s first director, Dr. Gus Knudson, who served in that capacity for 40 years. Today the Simianary is better known as the Primate House, the oldest building on the zoo grounds, and the director’s office has been moved to other quarters.

By 1909, Woodland Park Zoo’s inventory had expanded to 11 bears, 7 monkeys, elk, bison, eagles, wolves, deer, red fox, badgers, a parrot, cockatoo, seal, guinea pigs, geese, turkeys, pigeons, pheasants, an anteater, and “a squirrel from Chile. ”

In 1921, the inventory was expanded considerably by the arrival of Wide Awake, an eight-year-old Asian elephant. Originally from India, Wide Awake was purchased through a fundraising campaign initiated by the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, a daily newspaper. Over 24,000 people, mostly young children, donated $3100 in seven weeks to buy her. At the time she was the youngest elephant in the United States and one of only two west of the Mississippi. Wide Awake was an instant hit. Children rode on her back for years until one day when she took off down a nearby street. She lived forty-six years at the zoo, dying at the age of 54.

In 1923, President Warren G. Harding visited Seattle and Woodland Park Zoo on his way to Alaska where he would succumb to illness. In his honor and memory, a large concrete memorial was erected at the zoo. It stood in a large meadow for over 50 years, as much an eyesore and a playground as a memorial to a former president. In the late 1970s, however, it was torn down to make room for an African Savanna exhibit, its bronze statues finding a new home at the local Boy Scouts headquarters.

By 1928, the Woodland Park Zoo’s inventory had grown to 326 animals representing 58 species. As the zoo continued to grow, Director Knudson called for a “comprehensive plan for the development of a modern zoological garden at Woodland give the zoo a naturalistic setting,” words still heard today.

In 1932, Wide Awake was joined by Tusko, a huge bull elephant billed by the Barnes Circus as “the biggest elephant on earth.” Said to have weighed 14,000 pounds, Tusko arrived at the zoo after a freak accident when his trailer collapsed while traveling through Seattle. Unfortunately, Tusko died less than one year later of a massive blood clot in his heart. At the time of his death, Tusko was still the subject of several lawsuits arising from a binge in Oregon where, after breaking his bonds, he found a still in the woods and consumed seven gallons of mash.

In 1932, City Engineer W. B. Barkuff executed a plan to cut Woodland Park in half with a six-lane speedway. Excavated dirt was used to fill in the southern end of Green Lake, and hopes that the zoo might someday expand into Lower Woodland were dashed.

In the mid-30s, several Works Progress Administration (WPA) projects were constructed including Monkey Island (a large pile of rocks with concrete trees and a little red schoolhouse), two beaver enclosures, the Peasantry, two concessions buildings, and “a brick toilet.”

The next several years seemed to signal the arrival of several major attractions. Giant pandas visited briefly en route to the St. Louis Zoo, a polar bear was the gift of the Russian ship Kapitan Voronin, and two jaguars were donated by Frederick & Nelson’s department store.

Elephants pause in front of the old elephant barn at the Woodland Park Zoo

Elephants pause in front of the old elephant barn at the Woodland Park Zoo

Gus Knudson retired in 1947 after 40 years as the zoo’s first director. His successor, Edward Johnson, spearheaded a successful bond issue in 1948 which funded construction of several bear grottoes, the Ape House, the Aviary, and a state-of-the-art Feline House, the first facility of its kind to feature a glass barrier instead of iron bars.

Following this period of construction, Woodland Park Zoo began filling out its animal collection. The Ape House’s most famous resident arrived in 1951. Bobo, a lowland gorilla and family pet, was donated to the zoo by an Anacortes family. He was later joined by Fifi who, with Bobo, enjoyed celebrity status for years to come. Despite tremendous public interest, the couple never bore offspring. Fifi was eventually sent to the Honolulu Zoo for breeding purposes, but both she and Bobo died without heirs.

The zoo’s first cheetah and chimpanzee also arrived in 1951, as did Bengal tigers Tongoo and Sultana. Unlike Bobo and Fifi, they enjoyed great breeding success-54 cubs, a record number for many years. The first giraffe ever exhibited north of San Francisco was given to Woodland Park Zoo in 1954 by auto dealer S. L. Savidge. Sea otters joined the expanding menagerie in 1955, the first ever in captivity. In 1958, animal dealer Morgan Berry returned from India with orangutans, gavials (long-nosed fish-eating crocodiles), a female monkey and a three-month old elephant.

Director Ed Johnson was promoted to parks superintendent in 1961, and long-time zoo manager Frank Vincenzi succeeded him as zoo director. Seven years later, a Seattle landmark died. Bobo’s passing left Woodland Park Zoo without gorillas and efforts were undertaken to replace him. Lucille and Johnny Johnston, fervent zoo supporters, purchased five infant gorillas, three females and two males, and donated them to the zoo. Though two females died in the early 70s, the other three are full-grown and have prospered four infants.


Perhaps spurred by the media attention generated by the baby gorillas, King County voters overwhelmingly passed a Forward Thrust bond issue in 1968 which included $4 million for zoo improvements to be spent according to a long-range plan. Guy Bartholick, a local architect, was hired to prepare said plan. He proposed bridging Aurora Avenue with a 1500-foot long, 70-foot wide zoological conservatory, extending the zoo into Lower Woodland Park. The plan drew immediate criticism, however, and was voted down by public referendum in 1974.

Seattle Mayor Wes Uhlman took the opportunity to appoint a Zoo Advisory Committee to establish guidelines for a new Long-Range Plan (LRP). In 1975, the Committee recommended that “The Woodland Park Zoological Gardens should be a Life Science Institution, demonstrating the value and beauty as well as behavioral and physical adaptations of animal life. As such, primay emphasis should be placed on fostering public undemanding of the history of animal life and its relationship to ecological systems.”

With these guidelines, Jones&Jones, a local landscape architectural firm, was hired to produce a new long-range plan. Together with consultant David Hancocks, a British architect, Jones & Jones produced a simple, exciting plan which began a revolution and evolution in zoo design. Several new concepts challenged the traditional thinking for zoo design and exhibitry. The LRP called for the zoo to replicate nature as best as possible. That meant removing the appearance of human structures and barriers in a manner called landscape immersion, immersing the visitor in a landscape with animals in it, a simple yet novel idea. To be as natural as possible, the LRP also called for a new grouping of animals.

Typically, zoos exhibited animals according to their taxonomy, grouping bears, felines, birds and primates in separate, distinct areas. Yet nature groups animals according to their natural habitats or bioclimatic zones. To Jones & Jones, it made more sense to place a snow leopard next to a mountain goat than a sand cat. The snow leopard and mountain goat come from a similar montane habitat and have developed some of the same adaptations to steep, rocky cliffs and cold weather. At the same time, by grouping animals according to their habitats, designers could develop multiple-species exhibits, further supporting the zoo’s naturalistic approach.

Jones & Jones’ version of Woodland Park Zoo’s Long-Range Plan received strong endorsement and was approved by City planners in 1976. Later that year, Zoo Director Vincenzi was succeeded by David Hancocks who implemented the early stages of the new LRP.

The zoo’s first world-class exhibit, a gorilla tropical forest and adjacent monkey islands, opened in 1979. One year later, the five-acre African Savanna was unveiled. Home to giraffes, zebras, topi, springbok, hippos, lions, patas monkeys and a variety of birds, it earned the Best Exhibit Award from the American Association of Zoological Parks&Aquariums in 1980. Other developments included a mountain landscape for snow leopards, an indoor nocturnal house, a wetlands exhibit for birds and reptiles of the marsh and swamp, and more. Zoo professionals and visitors, alike, began to recognize Woodland Park Zoo as a top-ranked zoo and pioneer in innovative design. The Washington Post, USA Today, and Parade Magazine all ranked Seattle’s zoo as one of the top 10 in the country.

In 1984, as Forward Thrust dollars diminished and progress slowed, David Hancocks resigned in favor of someone who could gamer public support and dollars to finish the implementation of the LRP. David Towne, former superintendent of the City’s Parks & Recreation Department, became the director and immediately began his task of getting zoo development back on track. Concurrently, members of the board of the Woodland Park Zoological Society approached Seattle Mayor Charles Royer to suggest the creation of a special commission to evaluate the zoo’s needs and priorities and to devise a funding plan. In 1985, the Zoo Commission recommended a 10-year program for capital development. King County voters overwhelmingly approved a $31.5 million bond issue to get the Long-Range Plan back on track.

Save Our Elephants

Another boost came from the Zoological Society. With the support of civic leaders, the Society spearheaded a Save Our Elephants campaign which raised $2.7 million to help build a new tropical forest elephant exhibit. The Society also made the commitment to raise an additional $7.3 million to help complete the LRP.

Under the supervision of the King County Bond Oversight Committee, this new program of capital improvements is creating a slice of the wild that looks, sounds, smells and feels absolutely real, because “the last thing a zoo should look like is a zoo. ”

The first new exhibit in several years has already opened. The Asian Elephant Forest lets visitors see elephants ambling through a natural forest, hauling and stacking logs like their Thai counterparts, and taking shelter in a magnificent Thai barn, something no other zoo can offer.

More tropical forest habitats will follow. Visitors will rise from the jungle floor into the tree canopy to witness a rich diversity of wildlife including big cats, orangutans, bears, monkeys, birds and reptiles. The gorilla exhibit will be improved and expanded. Woodland Park Zoo will also be home to the Alaska Taiga, a Russian word for the mixed forests of the far north.

Other improvements will include an animal health complex, sit-down restaurant, new concession stands and restrooms, new education facility, improved parking and better interpretive signage.

The improvements will gradually unfold as the zoo gets “wilder” every year. But the zoo means much more than just caring for animals and visitors. It includes a commitment to breed and conserve rare animals, to provide them with high quality health care, to develop studies to help preserve wildlife around the globe, and to help fight the rampant destruction of wildlife and natural habitats.

For over 10 years, Woodland Park Zoo has served as a model for pioneering zoos around the world. Today, this is a very good zoo on its way to becoming a great, even world-class zoo.


In the last 10 years, zoo architecture has seen the introduction of several innovative concepts. Most prominent are two theories of exhibit design dubbed “Landscape Immersion” and “Cultural Resonance” by their creators, Jones & Jones Architects and Landscape Architects of Seattle.

Landscape immersion The concept of Landscape Immersion originated with the Long-Range Plan for capital improvements for Woodland Park Zoo. Conceived by Jones &Jones together with zoo staff and the Mayor’s Zoo Commission and approved for implementation in 1976, the Plan called for a reorganization of the zoo along bioclimatic lines. In other words, designers saw it more appropriate to group animals according to the environment they inhabited (e.g. savanna, tropical forest, tundra, desert, temperate forest) rather than the traditional taxonomic approach (e.g. primates (monkeys and apes), felines (cats), reptiles (snakes, lizards, turtles, crocodiles), and birds. This would enable zoos to develop naturalistic habitats that included features of the landscaping as well as the animals in their design.

The opportunity to experience an animal in its much broader sense—in the context of its true environment— led Jones & Jones to push one step further by immersing the zoo visitor in the landscape. How was this achieved? Jones &Jones did it by first removing all visible structures from within the exhibit, making it look as natural as possible. Berms were formed around holding barns which, in turn, were hidden with extensive planting and sod roofs. Secondly, all obvious barriers between the animals and zoo visitors were removed. Fences were hidden in gullies or replaced by gunite shaped to look like natural cliffs. Animals were exhibited on a raised plateau to obscure people and structures on the far side. Finally, any remaining distinction between animal and visitor spaces were obscured.

People no longer walked on asphalt sidewalks but cinder pathways resembling native soil. The same landscaping that filled the animal exhibit was carried out into the public areas. The end result: landscape immersion or sinking the zoo visitor into environmental reality.

What was the new experience like? Real and a bit disconcerting. Without obvious barriers or a distinction between animal and people spaces, confronting a zoo lion stalking in the grass takes on a sudden new meaning filled with anxiety and awe—an exhilarating experience much more memorable than the cages, concrete and steel of yesteryear.

<b>A landscape view of the Asian Elephant Forest and Thai Village</b>

A landscape view of the Asian Elephant Forest and Thai Village

Cultural resonance With the opening of the Asian Elephant Forest at Woodland Park Zoo, designers Jones & Jones and zoo staff once again pioneered a new concept in zoo design. Cultural resonance seeks to go beyond landscape immersion by showing the animals’ complex relationship with people and culture. A new exhibit for Asian elephants provided the perfect introduction for this new concept. Elephants have been featured in the culture of Thailand for hundreds of years, and Woodland Park Zoo’s Asian Elephant Forest brings the Thai culture to a zoo setting.

The exhibit is modeled in part after a Thai logging camp where elephants drag teak logs from the dense forests. Six poles carved to recall the city of Brahma, home to the Buddhist gods, flank the visitors’ entrance. A Thai village features a visitor viewing shelter, a tack house, and other structures designed in the Thai tradition. A working elephant gate separates the oversized charges from the demonstration area. But the height of Thai culture is appropriately raised to its greatest level with Rong Chang, Thai for House of Elephants. Rising over 50 feet tall, its steep roofs and heavy beams reflect the architecture of northern Thailand designed to shed the torrential rains of tropical monsoons. V-shaped gable extensions represent pairs of buffalo horns that were once mounted atop Thai houses as a symbol of wealth. Inside Rong Chang, tall steel-blue pillars, replicas of those in the King of Thailand’s royal stockade, separate elephant and keeper spaces. Interpretive graphics nearby explain the elephant’s role in Thai culture. This is cultural resonance.

The concept of cultural resonance may seem to be a significant departure from landscape immersion. The idea of prominent, visible architecture appears to clash with the emphasis of naturalistic habitats. The solution, at least in the case of the Asian Elephant Forest, was a compromise. Given the requirement of a large and highly conspicuous holding facility for the elephants, designers graced it with culture and carried that architectural style to a nearby logging demonstration area. By also including a large natural forest for the elephants complete with a huge waterhole for bathing, exhibit designers have given zoo visitors a powerful message— problems of endangered species are not only problems for biological scientists, but for students of culture, politics and socioeconomic as well. To this end, both the design and execution of the Asian Elephant Forest has enhanced the zoo’s emphasis on conservation education.

This material has been reproduced with the permission of the copyright owner. Unauthorized reproduction of this material is strictly prohibited. For permission to reproduce this material, please contact PMI.

January 1990



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