Carl Hagenbeck invented the modern zoo. From the early days of civilization, kings and those with great wealth kept wild animals on their property for their entertainment. After European explorers visited exotic regions in Africa, Asia and the Americas, an increasingly diverse array of fascinating animals was brought back for the entertainment of rulers. With the emergence of larger and prosperous cities in Europe in the Nineteenth Century, zoos were established. They typically placed animals—be they peaceful ones or meat-eating predators—behind strong iron bars in small cages.
Hagenbeck discovered that by using moats, gulley and huge rocks made of concrete; you could constrain the range of wild animals and let zoo patrons see these beasts in an environment approximating their native habitat. In many cases, the physical distance between the animals and those attending the zoo is small, but a distance involving a deep ditch or water barrier that animals will not cross. Hagenbeck's first modern zoo was the one he designed for Hamburg in 1907. Since that time, most modern zoos have incorporated his principles. Bear dens built in the St. Louis zoo were the first application of his ideas in this nation. Detroit’s zoo is a relatively new one dating from the late 1920s and the nation’s first zoo to incorporate the modern ideas of animal keeping. Indeed, the Detroit Zoo is the only one in this country to be designed by the Hagenbeck family.
The history of zoos in Detroit dates to 1883. A traveling circus visited the city but went broke. The owners and entertainers fled town, but left their menagerie. A Detroit resident, Luther Beecher, purchased the animals and put them into a large building he built on Michigan near the location of Tiger Stadium. He opened his Detroit Zoological Gardens in September, 1883. This business went broke the next year. Some of the remaining animals were transferred to Belle Isle where a small zoo developed.
By 1911, Detroit was a mature and prospering manufacturing center on the cusp of tremendous growth due to the vehicle industry. A leading city needs a fittingly impressive zoo, so a group of prominent citizens formed the Detroit Zoological Society to accomplish that aim. The next year, the group hired Richard Follett as a full time administrator and, in 1914; they bought 216 acres for a zoo near the River Rouge in Dearborn. That land was sold at a profit to the Ford Motor Company the next year. The money from sale of the first land purchased 150 acres near the Detroit Golf Club close to Palmer Park in Detroit. That land was also sold for a profit one year later and the Society used proceeds to acquire 100 acres near the intersection of Ten Mile Road and Woodward in suburban Royal Oak. The Society had funds to begin landscaping the property, but they could not build and support a zoo through contributions alone, so they tried to donate the property to the city of Detroit with the proviso that tax revenues would support a zoo.
The city’s elected officials were not thrilled by the opportunity to accept responsibility for developing a zoo, nor was the state legislature interested in doing so. Negotiations continued. A rival proposal promoted by real estate developers at this time called for a city zoo to be located in the city’s Rouge Park. Finally, in 1923, Mayor James Couzens placed a referendum before the voters. It called for the city to accept from the Zoological Society 100 acres for a city zoo and an additional 160 acres for a city golf course—both located in Royal Oak. In return, the city would impose a five-year millage to build and develop the zoo. The voters approved the referendum and the Detroit Zoological Park Commission was appointed by the Mayor with the authority to build a zoo.
Construction began in 1925 and one building was finished the following year, but there much was controversy about the construction. Zoo director Richard Follett was fired and replaced by John Millen who deserves much credit for the campus that you see. Upon his appointment, he hired Carl Hagenbeck’s son, Heinrich, to assist in the design, thereby ensuring that the zoo would not confine animals behind bars. Construction continued and the zoo opened on August 5, 1928. There was still much work to be done, but the Depression strictly limited the city’s spending. Fortunately, the Roosevelt Administration developed the Works Project Administration to put unemployed men to work on important public project. Thus, much of the landscaping and build was done after 1935 by WPA workers.
In the decades following World War II, the zoo expanded and added many new buildings and exhibits. A children’s zoo exhibit opened in 1947; an amphitheater and ape house opened eight years later. In 1960, a reptile museum was added, followed later by a dinosaurian, and amphibian center, a wildlife gallery and, most recently, an impressive artic exhibit with polar bears and seals. Today the zoo occupies 125 acres in Royal Oak and Huntington Woods. There are approximately 1,200 animals on exhibit. The landscaping includes a naturalistic area strongly influenced by the way the land was when the zoo came to Royal Oak, a formally landscaped area with gardens, fountains and statues and, finally, a rustic area encompassing the trout stream that the WPA workers add in the Depression decade.
Although the Detroit Zoo is outside the geographic boundaries of the City of Detroit, this property and nearby Horace Rackham Golf Course are owned and administered by the City of Detroit.
Date of construction: The first buildings were
constructed in the 1920s.
Architectural style: Hagenbeck zoo architecture
Original landscaping: O. C. Simonds
Primary landscaping for the Hagenbeck style zoo: Arthur A. Shurtleff
Use in 2004: Zoological Park
Book: Wonders Among Us: Celebrating 75 Years of the Detroit Zoo (Royal Oak, Michigan: Detroit Zoological Society: 2003)
City of Detroit Local Historic District: Not listed
State of Michigan Registry of Historic Sites: P206; Listed October 16, 1997
State of Michigan Historical Marker: Erected September 6, 2000. This is visible
near the major entrance to the zoo.
National Register of Historic Places: Listed August 24, 1990
Photograph: Ren Farley; September, 2004