Filed Under Museums

Mid Century Exhibits at the Cleveland Zoo

A look at Cleveland Zoological Park exhibits constructed between 1940 and 1960 tells the story of a dramatic change in how American zoological parks were perceived, built and managed over the last century.

Similar to cities, the landscape of zoological gardens in the United States have witnessed many changes during the last century. Zoo exhibits in places such as Cleveland have transformed from barred enclosures to intricate replications of natural environments. If you look closely at wildlife exhibitions, it is possible to interpret a little about the history of the era in which they were built. Whether influenced by the Modernism of the 1950s or the environmental movement of the 1960s, the spaces tell us stories about the people who built and visited zoos. The development and refinement of these spaces was not only vital to the popularity and financial stability of zoos, but was necessary to meet both internal and public standards for providing healthy living conditions that promote positive behavior in animals.

Shaped by public usage as well as innovations in design and administrative methods, animal exhibitions offer a unique form of civic architecture. Exhibits were not only built to act as suitable homes for its occupants, but to be appealing, attractive and informative to hordes of spectators. They were designed to inform us about distant lands, animal behaviors, species characteristics or conservation practices. The spaces also reflect the goals and ideals of the zoo administration and staff. Due to the incredible amount of planning and cost required to develop exhibits, the physical development of zoos in the United States has been slow. Exhibits constructed during different eras exist side by side within the same landscape. Recognizing the changes in design and public usage provides insight into the time periods in which they were constructed. A look at Cleveland Zoological Park exhibits between 1940 and 1960 offers a point of departure to explore how these spaces reflect the history of zoological gardens in the United States.


Monkey Island, 1937 Monkey Island, a popular feature in zoos throughout the United States, hinted of a trend in exhibit design that had emerged during the interwar years. Found in prominent European zoos and associated with designer Carl Hagenbeck, bar-less animal enclosures were constructed with mixed success in American zoological gardens during this era. The exhibits were meant to replicate the natural environment of animals. Although Monkey Island in Cleveland was primarily a show space, it provided a fabricated environment that imitated what observers might imagine a monkey's natural environment to look like. While a far cry from "Hagenbeck" standards, it was a step toward modern design. Source: Image courtesy of Cleveland State University. Michael Schwartz Library. Special Collections
Animal House, 1940 The 1940s at Cleveland Zoological Park were characteristic of early American public zoos. Cages, fences and barred enclosures separated the public from animals that couldn't be petted or ridden by children. Reflecting the "Natural History" bent of most zoos of the time, animals were often displayed individually and acted as representations of species. Small signs identified the taxonomy of zoo inhabitants. The original structures of Brookside Zoo remained the primary exhibit spaces, which included the Animal House, bear dens, bird houses, and barns for hoofed animals and deer. Source: Image courtesy of Cleveland Public Library Photograph Collection
Seal Show, 1958 Efforts during the interwar years to develop exhibits that simulated the natural habitats of animals never truly caught on. Not only did most zoos lack the necessary funding to create representations of intricate environments, but the model did not appeal to many zoo-goers. Animals displayed in shows and cages couldn't hide from observers, and offered a comfortable dynamic that was associated with the menagerie style zoo experience. Source: Image courtesy of Cleveland Public Library Photograph Collection
Waterfowl Lake and Birds of the World, 1950 By the mid century, the recently renamed Cleveland Zoological Park had both money and a new administration. Working to establish itself as a modern institution, new permanent exhibit spaces were constructed. Birds of the World, completed in 1950, was the zoo's first modern building. The structure included two large naturalistic exhibits, where birds could live without needing to have their wings pinioned. Creator: Images courtesy of Cleveland Metroparks Zoo
The Pachyderm Building, 1956 During the mid century, a modernistic approach was commonly employed in the design of exhibits. While a sharp contrast to the naturalistic approach that was both advocated for during the interwar years and later popularized in the 1960s, it signaled an effort by zoos to utilize the latest in scientific and technological advances to create the best possible living conditions for its animals. These ultra-hygienic, rigid spaces were meant to provide an environment that responded directly to the needs and behaviors of animals rather than just simulate a native habitat. Source: Images courtesy of the Cleveland Metroparks Zoo
Lion and Tiger Exhibits, ca. 1960 Although moats were regularly used in the design of exhibits at the Cleveland Zoological Park in the 1960s, it was not a new idea. Detroit's zoo, which Cleveland zoo advocates often used as a shining example of modern design, employed this approach to exhibit construction in the late 1920s and 1930s. Under the advisement of Carl Hagenbeck's son, Heinrich, the Detroit Zoo prominently used moats to offer visitors an uninterrupted view of animals in a simulated habitat. Source: Images courtesy of Cleveland Metroparks Zoo
Back to Nature, 1959 Influenced in part by an awareness of the disappearance of natural habitats around the globe and the importance of conservation, the 1960s and 1970s saw a resurgence of naturalistic displays at zoos. In an effort to provide its visitors a link to the natural world, the design of zoo exhibits increasingly began to offer a more immersive experience. Source: Image courtesy of Cleveland Public Library Photograph Collection
Bear Grotto Construction, ca. 1964 Technological advances in the fabrication of artificial rock and the shaping of concrete allowed for the construction of attractive, naturalistic exhibits during the 1960s. Source: Images courtesy of the Cleveland Metroparks Zoo
Bird Habitat, 1964 While the Birds of the World building included naturalist displays upon its opening in 1950, its exhibit spaces continued to be refined as available technology emerged. In 1964, one of the exhibits was equipped with an additional waterfall, a brook, a wading pool and a series of automated mist jets. Simulating a moisture-rich environment, the exhibit provided a suitable environment for a new tropical bird display. Source: Image courtesy of Cleveland State University. Michael Schwartz Library. Special Collections



Richard Raponi, “Mid Century Exhibits at the Cleveland Zoo,” Cleveland Historical, accessed February 8, 2023,