Agency history, 1889-

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  • Olmsted, Frederick Law 1822-1903
  • Langley, S. P (Samuel Pierpont) 1834-1906
  • Hollister, N (Ned) 1876-1924
  • Hornaday, William T (William Temple) 1854-1937
  • Baker, Frank 1841-1918
  • Wetmore, Alexander 1886-1978
  • Mann, William M. 1886-1960
  • Reed, Theodore H
  • Spelman, Lucy H
  • Robinson, Michael H
  • Evans, David L. 1945-
  • Berry, John 1959
  • Monfort, Steven L
  • Kelly, Dennis W
  • Smith, Brandie


Agency History


  • This is an agency history. It does not describe actual records. The Smithsonian Institution Archives uses these histories as brief accounts of the origin, development, and functions of an office or administrative unit to set that unit in its historical context. To find information on record holdings, please double-click the highlighted field "Creator/Author", which will open on a brief view of relevant records.
  • Originally conceived by S. P. Langley, Secretary of the Smithsonian, as a place in which to house endangered species and to conduct research, the National Zoological Park (NZP) was established by an Act of Congress in 1889. A National Zoological Park Commission, comprised of the Secretary of the Interior, the President of the Board of Commissioners of the District of Columbia, and the Secretary of the Smithsonian Institution, was formed under the Act to select and purchase land for the National Zoo. One hundred and sixty-six acres in the valley of Rock Creek, located in northwest Washington, D.C., were eventually purchased for the Park. Frederick Law Olmsted, landscape architect, was consulted with regard to the design of the landscape and the location of the buildings. Copies of his drawings and sketches by his firm are presently located at the National Zoological Park.
  • The expenses of the NZP were to be shared by the Congress and the District of Columbia, a fact which altered Langley's vision, enlarging his purpose to one of securing a wide variety of species for the enjoyment of the District's residents. In 1890, Congress passed another Act which placed the National Zoological Park under the Board of Regents of the Smithsonian.
  • The first inhabitants of the Zoo were the 185 animals under the care of William Temple Hornaday, Curator of Living Animals, United States National Museum, that had been sheltered by fences behind the Smithsonian Institution Building. These animals had been shipped to Washington to be used as Hornaday's taxidermy models. Previously, those which had not been killed and preserved for the mammal collection had been shipped to the Philadelphia Zoo.
  • Hornaday became the first Superintendent of the Zoo, but resigned soon afterwards over differences of opinion with Langley. Frank Baker, Assistant Superintendent of the United States Life Saving Service and Professor of Anatomy at Georgetown University, was appointed Acting Manager of the NZP in 1890, and from 1893 to 1916 he held the position of Superintendent. The early history of the NZP was marked by the demands for building construction, park layout and roads, and acquisition of animals -- all on an extremely tight budget. Despite these difficulties, the Park and its animal collections began to take shape. In 1891, Dunk and Gold Dust, the Zoo's first elephants, and French, the first lion, arrived.
  • Upon Baker's retirement in 1916, Ned Hollister, Assistant Curator of Mammals at the United States National Museum, was appointed to succeed him. During Hollister's tenure as Superintendent, the NZP continued to operate on modest appropriations. As a result, few new animals were purchased, and housing for existing animals remained inadequate. However, the popularity of the Park continued to grow, and in 1924, 2.4 million people visited the Zoo. Superintendent Hollister died in 1924 and was succeeded by Alexander Wetmore, a biologist at the Biological Survey, United States Department of Agriculture, who served only five months before leaving to become Assistant Secretary of the Smithsonian Institution.
  • In 1925, William M. Mann, entomologist at the Department of Agriculture, became the fifth NZP Superintendent. The title of the NZP head administrator was changed in 1926 to that of Director, and Mann held that position until his retirement in 1956. Several major collecting expeditions helped add to the NZP animal stock during the era of the Great Depression and World War II. Included were the Smithsonian-Chrysler Fund Expedition to Tanganyika, 1926; the National Geographic Society-Smithsonian Institution Expedition to the East Indies, 1937; and the Smithsonian-Firestone Expedition to Liberia, 1940. Mann's tenure also witnessed the construction of new animal houses and support buildings, including several which were built by the Public Works Administration, a New Deal relief program.
  • When Mann retired in 1956, the Zoo veterinarian, Theodore H. Reed, was appointed Acting Director. He was made Director in 1958 and remained in the position until 1983. Under Reed's direction the NZP and its programs evolved rapidly. A 1962 master plan led to a series of phased renovation and construction projects. The Education-Administration Building, 1977; the William M. Mann Memorial Lion-Tiger Exhibit, 1976; and Beaver Valley, 1979, were just a few of the projects completed during Reed's tenure. The NZP benefited considerably by the creation of the Friends of the National Zoo (FONZ) in 1958. Originally concerned with capital improvements and modernization, the focus of FONZ activities changed to education by the mid-1960s. Eventually, FONZ took charge of parking, food, and souvenir concessions at the Zoo with proceeds used to augment educational work and scientific research. Several important animal acquisitions were made during the period, notably the white tigress, Mohini, in 1960, the gift of a pair of Komodo dragons from the government of Indonesia in 1964, and the arrival of a pair of giant pandas from the People's Republic of China in 1972. Programs in scientific research and conservation were developed under Reed. A Scientific Research Department was created in the mid-1960s to conduct studies on animal behavior, reproduction, and breeding. In 1975, the General Services Administration transferred over 3,000 acres of land in Front Royal, Virginia, to the Smithsonian Institution to establish the NZP's Conservation and Research Center (CRC). The goal of CRC is to conduct research on and to develop breeding programs for endangered and exotic species. The CRC was renamed the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute in 2010. Michael H. Robinson succeeded Reed as NZP Director in 1984, serving until 2000, when Lucy H. Spelman became Director, 2000-2004. Subsequent directors include David L. Evans, Acting Director, January-September 2005; John Berry, October 2005-February 2009; Steven L. Monfort, Acting Director, February 2009-February 2010; Dennis W. Kelly, February 2010-2017; Steven L Monfort, 2018-2021; and Brandie Smith, Acting Director, May-October 2021 and Director, November 2021- .

Repository Loc.

Smithsonian Institution Archives, Capital Gallery, Suite 3000, MRC 507; 600 Maryland Avenue, SW; Washington, DC 20024-2520


  • 1889
  • 1889-




Mixed archival materials

Local number

SIA AH00006

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