Docomomo US NTX Goes to the Zoo


Robert Meckfessel


Docomomo US/NTX


Newsletter, chapter, Preservation, modernism, docomomo
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On a lovely Saturday morning on April 28, 2018, about thirty modern enthusiasts from North Texas toured the historic Dallas Zoo on Marsalis Avenue, located at its current location since 1912, for a memorable tour and lecture co-sponsored by Docomomo US NTX and Preservation Dallas.


The day began with a talk in the 1963 Entrance Building, entitled ZOO MODERN (or ZoMo) by Willis Winters, FAIA, Director of the Dallas Park and Recreation Department. Winters, also an architect and avid preservationist, presented a fascinating overview of the history of the zoo, and its several periods of rebirth and revision, during its 100+ years at its current location. Of particular note was, of course, the discussion about the modern heritage of the zoo, which featured a number of significant buildings from the 1950s and 1960s. These were mostly designed by the firms of Tatum & Quade and Christensen & Christensen (or George E Christensen), working within a 1959 master plan prepared by landscape architects Hare and Hare.

After completion of his talk, Winters led the modern enthusiasts on a tour of the zoo, primarily focused on the buildings and landscapes from the mid-20th century.


A number of these remain, including the bold Entrance Building (1963 Tatum & Quade) with its fan-shaped folded plate roof and the handsomely detailed Bird & Reptile Building (1966 George E. Christensen). Sadly, though, several other modern buildings of note have been demolished. As Winters explained, the underlying design concepts and standards for zoos have changed dramatically since the 1960s, with increased emphasis on more natural and expansive environments for the animal residents of the zoo. As a result, some buildings built to less humane 1960s standards, such as the spectacular Large Mammals Building (1959 Christensen and Christensen), have been perceived to be no longer suitable to their original use and thus demolished. A significant, ongoing preservation challenge is to find other, current uses that other modern buildings can be adapted to, as their mere existence can threaten a zoo’s accreditation, if the accrediting bodies fear that they may be put back into use to house animals.

Happily, though, a number of fine modern buildings remain, and the tour attendees visited those, delighted to see them in good shape and active use. The back-of-the-house portions of the Bird and Reptile Building (now called the Herpetarium) were definitely the non-architectural highlight of the tour, and it is believed that this was the first time any Docomomo tour has begun with an explanation of how an anti-venom does not exist for every species of snake and lizard viewed on the tour.


It was a memorable, if careful, day.