8/8/88: Happy 30th (Re)Birthday, Central Park Zoo

Today marks the 30th anniversary of the Central Park Zoo’s reopening under WCS management.

Invitation to the reopening of the Central Park Zoo, 1988. WCS Archives Collection 2016

Until 1980, the City Zoos were administered by New York City’s Department of Parks and Recreation. New York City officially chartered the already existing Central Park Menagerie in 1864; in 1934 Robert Moses had it rebuilt as part of his plan to update parks and recreation areas in the city.

Invitation to Central Park Zoo’s reopening, 1934. WCS Archives Collection 2016

By the mid-1970s, all three City Zoos were in decline; troubles were exacerbated by the New York City budget crisis of the era. In an environment of bad press and lawsuits against the city on the zoos’ behalf, city government and WCS (then known as the New York Zoological Society) engaged in negotiations for the handover of the zoos to the Society. After over a decade of talks, the parties finally reached agreement in 1980, at which point the Society’s City Zoos Project began. Education Curator Richard L. Lattis was named the project’s director and oversaw the staged shutdown of the three zoos, their redesign, construction, and reopening.

Mayor Ed Koch and crowds at the reopening of the Central Park Zoo, August 8, 1988. WCS Photo Collection

Central Park Zoo closed in 1983 and reopened August 8, 1988 to great fanfare and extensive press coverage. New York Magazine–which, in 1977, had noted the widespread opinion that Central Park Zoo was “not fit for animals” at that time–ran a July 18, 1988 cover story on the new “state-of-the art” zoo.  The New York Times ran a front-page photo, announcing, “At Last, a Joy for All Ages: Central Park Zoo is Back.” Mayor Ed Koch led the reopening event and tossed out the inaugural fish in the Sea Lion Pool. Even Jim Henson excitedly recorded the event in his diary: “8/8/1988: New Central Park Zoo opens!”

Model for new Central Park Zoo, 1983. WCS Archives Collection 3003

The redesign of the Central Park Zoo was led by renowned architect Kevin Roche. Models such as the one shown here were created as part of the process. Upon the reopening of the Zoo in 1988 under WCS management, The New York Times declared that Roche had “wrought a piece of architecture at once spectacular and exquisite. The new Central Park Zoo … is one of the few pieces of civic architecture built in New York in the last generation about which it is possible to be almost completely enthusiastic. It is beautiful, it is fun to be in, it respects the park and it respects the animals. What more could we want?”

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