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National Zoological Park, Elephant House, 3001 Connecticut Avenue NW, Washington, District of Columbia, DC

National Zoological Park, Elephant House, 3001 Connecticut Avenue NW, Washington, District of Columbia, DC



Significance: In William Mann's "A Brief History of the Zoo," penned in 1946 while he was director, he wrote that "in 1935 the Zoo had a great stroke of good luck [when] the Public Works Administration allotted $680,000 and followed this the next year with $191,000, with which were constructed machine shops, a central heating plant and working facilities, a small mammal house, and a pachyderm house; the bird house was completed, thus giving the Zoo four of the best buildings in the world [...]." Of these, the Pachyderm House or as it is popularly known, the Elephant House, was a pivotal design for the exhibition buildings in the Zoo. It was the last to use historicism as a source of its architectural expression (classicism) and to have expressive ornament. It was the first exhibit to have moats defining the outdoor yards and so aligned the Zoo with contemporary or modern practice. Mann also turned to architect Edwin H. Clark of Chicago for the building's design. Clark had experience with other zoological parks, namely Lincoln Park and the Chicago Zoological Gardens (Brookfield Zoo), before working on the National Zoo's Pachyderm House.

While a seminal exhibition feature for the Zoo, the Elephant House is also a testament to the Depression-era and to the work relief programs and to the increased emphasis on outdoor spaces for healthful recreation of the 1930s designed to mitigate the straightened circumstances of so many. The Works Projects Administration provided laborers, the federal art project (here, the Treasury Relief Art Project) funded Charles R. Knight's sculptural work, and the Public Works Administration supplied the money for construction in Washington's National Zoological Park. Of the construction, Mann proclaimed in 1937 that the PWA grants enabled "probably the most outstanding [year] in the history of the Zoo." The exhibition buildings erected in the 1930s gave greater comfort to the animals and lent the Zoo a sense of architectural import commiserate with the natural beauty of its setting.

In plan, the Elephant House is designed around a large central, rectangular public viewing space. Two entrance pavilions along the north side flank a series of small enclosures and pools, originally designed for tapirs and pygmy hippos. A series of large enclosures along the south side were built to accommodate elephants and rhinoceroses. A large enclosure at the west end was built for giraffes, and the one at the east end for a Nile hippopotamus. The east end also had a pool. The Elephant House was built with poured-in-place concrete foundations. Steel framing supports the brick penthouse and roof above the central hall. Interior partition walls between the animal enclosures were built of poured-in-place concrete. Exterior walls were load-bearing, rubble-stone masonry construction. Cut limestone was used for the quoins and entrance pavilions or loggias. Renovations in 1975 added a viewing platform to the east end; further changes in 1988 added another platform to the west end. Skylights were inserted above the viewing platforms at this time as well.

Documentation of the Elephant House at the National Zoological Park was undertaken by the Historic American Buildings Survey (HABS) branch, Catherine C. Lavoie, Acting Chief, of the National Park Service's Heritage Documentation Programs, Richard O'Connor, Acting Manager. The project was sponsored by the Office of Engineering Design and Construction, Office of Facilities Engineering and Operations, Smithsonian Institution. Project planning was coordinated by Catherine C. Lavoie, Acting Chief, HABS, Mark Schara, HABS Architect, and Timothy Buehner, Architect, Smithsonian Institution. The field work was undertaken and the measured drawings were produced by Project Supervisor Mark Schara, by the Field Supervisor Paul A. Davidson, HABS Architect, and by architects Wendy Byerly (Illinois Institute of Technology) and Amy Teeter (Montana State University). The field work for the large-format photography was completed by James W. Rosenthal, HABS Photographer, in May of 2006, with additional views of the south elevation scheduled for the fall. The report was written by HABS historian, Virginia B. Price.
Unprocessed Field note material exists for this structure: N1023
Survey number: HABS DC-777-C
Building/structure dates: 1935-1937 Initial Construction
Building/structure dates: before 1951 Subsequent Work
Building/structure dates: 1974-1976 Subsequent Work
Building/structure dates: 1988 Subsequent Work



1937 - 1980


Historic American Buildings Survey, creator
Mann, William M
Clark, Edwin Hill
Knight, Charles R
Mortellito, Domenico
Olmsted & Eliot
Manhattan Terrazzo Brass Strip Co.
Lombard & Ludwig, Inc., architectural sculptors
Price, Virginia B, transmitter
Schara, Mark, project manager
Davidson, Paul A, field team project manager
Smithsonian Institution, National Zoological Park, Office of Engineering Design and Construction/Office of Facilities Engineering and Operations, sponsor
Price, Virginia B, transmitter
Schara, Mark, project manager


Washington, District of Columbia, United States38.93193, -77.05244
Google Map of 38.9319273, -77.0524404


Library of Congress

Copyright info

No known restrictions on images made by the U.S. Government; images copied from other sources may be restricted. http://www.loc.gov/rr/print/res/114_habs.html