Architectural History of the Smithsonian National Zoological Park, 1889-1992




Date: 1889-1992


Usage Conditions Apply
The Smithsonian Institution Archives welcomes personal and educational use of its collections unless otherwise noted. For commercial uses, please contact
Download IIIF Manifest Request permissions Download image Print

Narrow Your Results


Filter Your Results

Smithsonian Secretaries Information

Close Browse records and papers of the Smithsonian Secretaries, from 1846 until today. Pre-set filters help narrow searches by individuals who have held that office.

Expeditions Information

Close Browse records and papers documenting scientific and collecting expeditions either affiliated with the Smithsonian, or with which Smithsonian researchers participated. Pre-set filters help narrow searches by geographic regions predominantly represented in expedition records.

Professional Societies Information

Close Browse records of professional societies closely associated with the Smithsonian, that focus on areas of scientific research and museum studies. Pre-set filters help narrow searches by major topics and disciplines.


  • The Smithsonian National Zoological Park was founded in 1889, after Smithsonian taxidermist (and Curator of Living Animals) William Temple Hornaday (1854-1937) witnessed the near extinction of the American Bison, causing him to become committed to animal conservation.
  • The oldest building on the zoo grounds is known as Holt House, and was on the grounds prior to the National Zoo acquiring the land. Holt House is believed to have been built in the early 19th century, and is one of the oldest examples of Neoclassical architecture in Washington, DC.
  • The park was designed by Frederick Law Olmstead, one of the most famous and successful landscape architects of the time. Fellow Massachusetts architect William Ralph Emerson designed many of the early zoo buildings including the rustic Buffalo Barn and the Carnivora House (Lion House).
  • The early buildings evoked the natural surroundings, utilizing local materials such as wood and Rock Creek gray gneiss stone. The buildings were simple stone or log cabin style.
  • Between 1925 and 1956, under the direction of William M. Mann (1886-1960), the National Zoo acquired thousands of new animals, requiring many new buildings. It was during this time that most of the buildings that survive today were built. Buildings erected during this time were designed by the Municipal Architect of Washington. Buildings of this time per iod were also constructed utilizing local materials, but were adorned with sculptures and animal imagery, both inside and out. Many of the buildings and the art displayed were funded under the New Deal programs including the federal Works Progress Administration.
  • The 1931 Reptile House was designed in Byzanto-Romanesque style, and features semi-circular arches and a symmetrical rectangular design. The 1992 Amazonian Building features architecture meant to mimic that natural ecosystem of a tropical rain forest. Like the Amazonia Building, most of the buildings at the National Zoo do not fit in to particular architectural styles.


  • Harris, Albert L
  • Clark, Edward 1822-1902
  • Emerson, William Ralph 1833-1917
  • Hornaday, William Temple 1854-1937
  • Mann, William M. 1886-1960
  • Olmsted, Frederick Law 1822-1903
  • National Zoological Park (U.S.) Elephant House
  • Holt House
  • Works Progress Administration (WPA)
  • National Zoological Park (U.S.) Lion House
  • Amazonia House
  • National Zoological Park (U.S.) Construction
  • Federal Art Project
  • National Zoological Park (U.S.) Reptile House
  • National Zoological Park (U.S.) Carnivora House
  • National Zoological Park (U.S.) Early History
  • National Zoological Park (U.S.) Buildings
  • National Zoological Park (U.S.)
  • Amazonia Exhibit


Chronology of Smithsonian History


Ewing, H., & Ballard, A. (2009). A guide to Smithsonian architecture. Washington: Smithsonian Books.

Contact information

Institutional History Division, Smithsonian Institution Archives, 600 Maryland Avenue, SW, Washington, D.C. 20024-2520,




  • Architecture--Washington (D.C.)
  • Landscape architecture
  • Zoos
  • Architecture, Romanesque
  • New Deal, 1933-1939
  • Architecture, Neoclassical

Full Record

View Full Record