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The Modern Indianapolis Zoo - Part I: From Proposal to Reality

On a fall day in late October of 1944, the Indiana Secretary of State’s office received and filed a very unique set of Articles of Incorporation. The corporation was not a business, at least, not in the traditional sense and the name of the entity which made the filing was the Indianapolis Zoological Society.

The date was October 24, and while we do not know who walked the Articles of Incorporation into the Secretary of State’s office that day, the filing was the first step towards bringing a modern zoo to the city of Indianapolis. The stated purpose detailed in the Articles of the Society was to "promote the establishment and maintenance of a zoo in the City of Indianapolis:

The qualifier “modern” is appropriate because the city was really no stranger to zoos. As described in this blog post, and in this upcoming book, crude, early zoos were established at various Indianapolis city parks, the most prominent being at Riverside Park. However, by the 1920s these early zoos were defunct, and Indianapolis was without a zoo. For the next 25 years there was talk of zoos but no action. The economic turmoil of the 1930s did not provide a good stage for launching a costly endeavor like a zoo, whether done so with private or public funds. The 1940s and the Second World War also provided a less than ideal environment for a large project like a zoo. However, by 1944, with the tide of the war firmly in favor of the Allied forces, the situation was changed, and the Indianapolis Zoological Society was born.

Indianapolis Star, October 25, 1944

But filing papers and building a zoo are two different things. The potential zoo’s boosters faced a post-war economy and a veteran’s housing crisis which pushed any consideration of a zoo to the back burner as neighborhoods were expanded to house veterans and their growing families. Lowell Nussbaum, one of the incorporators of the Zoological Society and a columnist for the Indianapolis Star (and perhaps one of the zoo’s greatest cheerleaders) cited the housing crisis as a reason for the delay to the zoo in 1946, although he emphasized that his “pet project,” the zoo, was still needed, partly as an attraction to show visitors to the city. Nussbaum used his journalistic pulpit frequently to push for the zoo. In 1947, he noted “[o]ne of these days when conditions are right, the Indianapolis Zoological Society is going to get underway.”

But for the remainder of the 1940s, little was mentioned about the Zoological Society, nor were there any efforts to get the zoo project off the ground. Instead, the Society and its supporters seemed to be biding their time, for when, as Nussbaum had said, conditions were right.

By the mid-1950s, there seemed to be a heartbeat on the zoo effort. Other community groups, including the Junior Chamber of Commerce and the Jaycees, were advocating for a zoo, going as far as identifying sites in 1955. One such site was the area near the future Eagle Creek Park, on the far northwest side of the city. Despite the site just being mentioned as a location of the zoo, that potential drew protests from residents around the park. Support for a zoo was growing. What was not growing as fast was financial support for the zoo.

Seeking private sources of funding versus public money, donations to the Zoological Society trickled in. In March of 1955 the Murat Shrine circus held a parade downtown, and Shriners walked along the route holding a blanket asking onlookers to toss coins to kick off a zoo fund. The Indianapolis News also ran coupons in their paper which could be mailed with donations to support the zoo. In another instance, Charles Colton, who ran a newsstand on the corner of Illinois and Washington Street announced he would donate all of his profits from the sale of the Indianapolis Star, News, and Times to the zoo effort. Despite the flurry of activity in 1955, things soon slowed, and in 1956 the Jaycees expressed doubt about the zoo plan, suggesting the Zoological Society was no longer backing the plan. The Society denied this and redoubled their efforts. In February, the society announced a formal campaign to establish a zoo, an announcement which the Indianapolis Star noted hopefully was an indication that the “period of unspectacular preliminary work is ended.”

Fundraising would be a concern, but this time the first issue the Zoological Society addressed were the potential sites for the zoo. The Zoological Society declined to identify all the sites being considered, citing the impact on local property values if the site was disclosed. However, some locations were reported in local media. These included the present-day site of Northwestway Park, at Moller Road and 62nd Street. Additionally, as noted above, Eagle Creek Park was considered. In the late 1950's the Indianapolis Water Company was considering the construction of a new reservoir on Eagle Creek, northwest of the city, and for a brief moment, that was mentioned as a site for the zoo. However, the distance from the city and lack of transit lines to the area sank that idea, in addition to the opposition of neighbors.

A site on south Meridian Street, in between present-day Meridian School Road and County Line Road was also considered as was land adjacent to Fort Ben Harrison, although no bid was submitted since the site was only 30 acres, too small for a zoo, and the site was too remote from downtown. Much of the Society’s work was being done behind the scenes. Lowell, in his “The Things I Hear” column in the Star, fielded questions about the zoo’s status, and noted that the main stumbling block was a site for the zoo.

Such was the situation for the next few years, with little progress. However, in June of 1959, big news was announced: a site had been found. On June 19, the Zoological Society told the Indianapolis Park Board that the best site for a zoo, among 25 that they considered, was Washington Park on the northeast side of downtown. The site was 130 acres, with rolling hills and was partially wooded. If the site was approved by the Metropolitan Plan Commission, the Society intended to launch a $50,000 fundraising effort that would be used to first establish a “children’s zoo," which could then be expanded in the future.

But the proposal received a cool reception from the Indianapolis Park Board, despite the Metropolitan Plan Commission reporting that the site was "well suited" for a zoo, due to its water and sewer infrastructure already in place. However, in August of 1959 the park board revealed that an 18-hole golf course was planned for the park. Additionally, there seemed to be a concern that the zoo would be a nuisance to the residential areas surrounding Washington Park. Russell Stonehouse, the vice president of the board, declared that “[a] zoo should be way outside the city.”

Local residents had remonstrated along those same lines. A letter to the editor of the Star, sent by a Mrs. C. Lanham, expressed the writer’s “firm resentment” to the proposed zoo, and asked how the mayor of Indianapolis and members of the park board or the Zoological Society would like it to have the zoo, or the “scourge,” as she called it, built in their neighborhoods. Mrs. Lanham further asserted that the area around the park were “middle class homes and most of us have worked too hard to acquire and pay for them to have our property values lessened and we certainly have no desire to experience the stench, flies, and noise accompanying such a venture.”

The disagreement over the site for the zoo dragged ion and the zoo plan seemed on the verge of losing steam again. However, In November the Zoological Society brought in two experts from Chicago, one the director of the Lincoln Park Zoo, and the other a zoological park architect, who provided positive feedback on the Washington Park site. The experts also discussed zoo projects in other cities, including ones where the zoos were built in the midst of the city. This information seemed to turn the tide, and the park board asked the Zoological Society to prepare preliminary plans for a “children’s zoo.” The “children’s zoo,” also referred to as a “storybook zoo,” was intended to be geared towards children, with exhibits and displays featuring children’s literature themes. This zoo was planned to be the first step for the zoo, with additional expansions in the future. Mayor Charles H. Boswell supported the plan “if it can be built at no cost to the city.”

As the plan was being developed, resistance from neighbors continued. Another letter to the editor in December of 1959 expressed concerns about the harm to property values, and the nuisance aspects of the zoo, “which would be infested with flies and parked cars, making it impossible for you to park in front your own house.” Like earlier complaints, the letter also speculated how city officials would like to have the zoo, and its potential nuisances, in their neighborhoods.

Just before Christmas in 1959 the first proposed plans for the “children’s” zoo were released (image below). The plan featured a series of three ponds, a railroad, and a variety of small animal exhibits, including monkeys, llama, goats, and various farm animals. Robert Everly, of McFadzean, Everly and Associates of Winnetka, Illinois, the architect who had designed the plan, said that the children's zoo could be the first phase of a 20-year plan to construct a more established and larger zoo. In the image below, 30th Street is to the left, and west is at the top of the image, and north is to the right. Note the train tunnel on the far right, or northside, of the zoo.

Indianapolis Star: December 20, 1959

Even with the plan in place, the Zoological Society and the park board continued to wrangle over the site at Washington Park. It would be nearly a year from when the proposed zoo plan was made public for the park board to agree to a lease of parkland for zoo purposes. The initial 15 acres of land would be leased for $1 per year for 99 years (some sources cite a 50-year lease). The agreement, signed on December 29, 1960, required that the Zoological Society raise $300,000 for construction before any work could be done. The Indianapolis News reported that a nine-member board would oversee construction. That board consisted of the mayor of Indianapolis, four members selected by the Zoological Society, and then four members chosen by the first five members of the board. The News further noted that the “storybook” zoo being planned was the “first step” of a larger, $5-$7-million-dollar zoo.

Indianapolis News, August 7, 1961

The signing of an agreement kicked off a massive fundraising push by the Zoological Society, who promoted $5 Charter Memberships under the reassuring, yet somehow desperate sounding phrase, “[t]he Animals are Coming!” An updated diagram of the zoo appearing in the August 7, 1961, edition of the Indianapolis News showed a concept for the full zoo project, stretching from 30th to 34th Street (below). The immediate project of the Children Zoo would occupy just a small corner of this grand plan. Note that in the diagram below, north is to the right, and south to the left.

Indianapolis News, August 7, 1961

Fundraising efforts continued into the fall. While the city had imposed a $300,000 goal, the society set their sights higher, and was seeking $1 million dollars. Advertisements promoted the $5 membership, and events were held at Washington Park to promote the zoo, including placing signs around the park to identify where certain exhibits would go. A short news brief on September 2 reported that the Zoological Society promoting the cleanliness of zoos. The society stated that “a modern zoo is more sanitary than most homes and does not hurt the value of property nearby,” likely an indication of continued discontent from neighbors near the park.

The initial goal of charter memberships had been set at 3,000, a level which was hit in late 1961 and early 1962. At $5 apiece, the memberships were not enough to hit their goal. Local businesses and philanthropic groups also contributed. In June of 1962, the Indianapolis News and Star newspapers donated $100,000. The Lilly Endowment also chipped in $50,000. Other donations from Lilly and other businesses would be received in the future.

But neighbors in the area had not given up their fight, emphasizing the perceived ‘nuisance’ aspects of the zoo. The Forest Manor Civic League assembled a petition from nearby property owners who opposed the zoo’s location. Legal action was also initiated, often targeting the land arrangement between the Society and the parks board. This action was later dismissed,

Despite these continued remonstrations, and being $300,000 below the fundraising goal, the zoo’s groundbreaking was set for July 24, 1962. But like any large project, some delays cropped up. For the zoo, it appears they were still receiving bids for the general construction contract for the property. It was not until August 2 when the bids were opened, was a groundbreaking planned for Monday August 6, 1962. The winning bid was from George Bahre Co., at $699,400, with a 240-day completion timeline. Other companies entering bids were Geupel Construction Company, William P. Jungclaus Company, and the Foster Engineering Company, at $717,000, $849,957, and $850,000 respectfully.

On August 6, a chimpanzee owned by a local resident turned over the first ceremonial shovel of dirt, while the Ben Davis Marching Band played a tune. Carol Burnett who was performing with Starlight Musicals in Indianapolis, was supposed to have been present at the event, but her rehearsal schedule prevented her attendance. Local residents demonstrated nearby with signs pleading/demanding that their park be saved, and that the zoo be built elsewhere. The planned opening date was tentatively set for the spring of 1963, although that was not realistic as more delays and legal issues from the adjacent neighborhood groups delayed more substantive work.

Additionally, the Zoological Society and the city reached a supplementary agreement for more land at Washington Park to accommodate the anticipated phased expansion of the zoo with final completion in 1972. The second phase included an additional 40 acres, beyond the 15 used for the initial “Storybook Zoo.” This drew another attempt by residents and the Forest Manor Civic Association to shut down the zoo, and a lawsuit was filed on April 11, 1963, questioning the legality of the leasing of the park land to the Zoological Society Another lawsuit had previously been filed in 1962 and dismissed in February of 1963, with the judge citing the more than 2-year delay by residents to pursue a legal remedy. This new legal effort was short lived, and a Marion County judge declined to halt construction on May 10, 1963, and construction formally began a few days later. The difference at the Washington Park site between 1962 (left, pre-construction) and 1966 (after the zoo has opened) is clearly visible in the aerial images below.

One of the first attractions to be built, well in advance of the other parts of the zoo, was a miniature train, which would take visitors around the zoo property. The project was begun in late summer of 1963, with the train's track being laid by volunteers from the Indianapolis Union (Belt) Railway's track crews. The train was completed in September of 1963, and was described by Lowell Nussbaum, as a "moneymaker," something the zoo, which was not supported with public funds, would need. Nussbaum wrote in late October that during the prior 6 weekends that the train had been in operation, 13,282 customers had gone for a ride, for a profit of $3,176.50.

Credit: Author's Collection

In May of 1963, an updated diagram of the first phase of the zoo, with exhibits and enclosures identified, appeared in the Indianapolis Star (below). The plan also shows a series of three ponds, as well as the circular Education Center (#23).

Indianapolis Star, May 9, 1963

By the beginning of 1964, the zoo’s completion was in sight, and the opening was scheduled for April 18, 1964. The Indianapolis Star noted the long process it took to reach this point, with its headline the day before stating on the zoo’s completion and opening “[t]ops 20-Year Effort.” The image below, from the March 29, 1964, Indianapolis Star, shows construction in progress, as viewed from the zoo's entrance looking northwest. The stork in the chimney was part of the Dutch windmill themed entrance (image of the entrance at the top of the post). The circular stone structure behind this was the elephant area, while behind that, in the chain link fence, is the llama enclosure. The administrative and restaurant buildings also seen to the left of the stork. Directly behind, and partially obscured by the chimney, is the enclosure for penguins. One of the ponds on the property, in addition to hosting waterfowl, was to feature a large cartoon style whale, whose wide-open mouth would house an aquarium, for visitors to view.

Indianapolis Star, March 29, 1964

Animals for the zoo were also arriving prior to the opening, although animals were being kept elsewhere while their enclosures were being completed. Three large African tortoises were accidently shipped to Indianapolis too early, when they were intended for temporary quarters at the Cincinnati Zoo. Llamas were being kept at the Detroit Zoo in advance of the opening.

Indianapolis zoo history
Indianapolis Star, April 19, 1964

The grand opening of the zoo was a celebratory affair. After the many speeches, the zoo’s doors were flung open at 10:30 am on April 18, 1964, which, as described by the Star, “culminated many years of work by many people…and with the help of contribution by thousands young and old alike.” During the ceremony a peacock escaped its enclosure and began to roam, although it was eventually corralled by a police officer on a motorcycle (image to the left). 7,000 people visited the zoo on the first day, and 2,800 of those rode the train around the zoo.

At opening, exhibits included penguins, peacocks, llamas, a baby elephant on loan from the Murat Shrine Circus (the zoo’s permanent elephant, purchased with donations from school children, had not yet arrived from Thailand), prairie dogs, and monkeys. More common farm animals were also housed at the zoo, which were noted to be “as foreign to some of the young visitors…” as some of the more exotic animals. Despite a brief heavy downpour, one lost child, and a group of boys piling rocks on the train’s tracks to “see what would happen,” (the train conductor spotted the obstacle), the Indianapolis Zoo was off and running.

In Part II, we’ll explore the zoo’s growth in Washington Park, and its eventual move to its new site in White River State Park in downtown Indianapolis, and what remains of the zoo today.


Image at Top of Blog Post: Indianapolis, Indiana (Indianapolis Zoo), Indianapolis Public Library Digital Collection, Indianapolis Postcard Collection,

Indianapolis Star: September 2, 1946, June 24, 1947, March 9, 1955, March 18, 1955, March 24, 1955, February 23, 1956, July 11, 1956, February 20, 1957, June 30, 1959, August 21, 1959, December 20, 1959, September 2, 1961, August 3, 1962, April 12, 1963, August 18, 1963, March 29, 1964, April 19, 1964

Indianapolis News: March 12, 1955, March 28, 1955, November 13, 1959, December 9, 1960, August 7, 1961, July 9, 1962

Board of Park Commissioners Meeting minutes, 1959,

Board of Park Commissioners Meeting minutes, 1960,

Board of Park Commissioners Meeting minutes, 1961,

Board of Park Commissioners Meeting minutes, 1963,

Board of Park Commissioners Meeting minutes, 1964,

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