With the New York Aquarium preparing for a major transformation of its facilities at Coney Island—centering around a new 50,000 square foot Ocean Wonders: Sharks! exhibit—I took special note while flipping through a 1915 issue of the New York Zoological Society Bulletin recently of an article entitled “The Aquarium of Our Dreams.”
In it, then Aquarium Director Charles Townsend doesn’t so much describe this dream New York Aquarium as he laments the shortcomings of the real one, which was located at the time in Battery Park’s Castle Clinton. Although Townsend took pride in the Aquarium’s collections and the large audiences they attracted—frequently over two million visitors a year—he bemoaned the building’s decrepitude and its general unsuitability for animal care. It often flooded, lacked sunlight and proper ventilation, and was, in short, according to Townsend, “probably the most unsightly structure in New York.”
“Like the crab and the lobster,” Townsend wrote, “the Aquarium cannot grow without shedding its old shell.” More room was the most pressing need: in addition to requiring bigger exhibits for better animal care, growing behind-the-scenes mechanical systems were encroaching on existing exhibit space. The Aquarium was also unable to display as many animals as Townsend wanted, and he claimed that “when especially attractive specimens arrive, those of less interest must be fed to the sea lion or the porpoise to make room for them.” At the same time, Townsend was seeking laboratory space to expand the Aquarium’s research work. As he argued, a “well-equipped biological laboratory would be of great benefit to the Aquarium itself, as well as to science.”
An accompanying illustration shows a model of this dream aquarium: a grand, Beaux-Arts style building reminiscent of the original Penn Station, which had recently opened. In the end, perhaps sensing that his dreams might never come true, Townsend yields: “We would rather have a real building even if it were only a little larger and better than the present one.” In fact, the City, which owned the Aquarium’s building, had already indicated that it was unable to take on the new construction, and it would be another decade—when the City was able to commit funds to extend the second story and add a third story—before Townsend would see any significant improvements.
Do you think Townsend could have imagined the Aquarium’s future Ocean Wonders exhibit—even in his dreams?