WIN: Lincoln Park Zoo’s Kovler Lion House Renovations Moving Forward

Lincoln Park Zoo’s Kovler Lion House Exterior Renovations. Rendering Credit: Lincoln Park Zoo

Lincoln Park Zoo’s Kovler Lion House Interior Renovations. Rendering Credit: Lincoln Park Zoo

The Lincoln Park Zoo’s Kovler Lion House has been a beloved destination for generations of Chicagoans. The Lion House one of the most important primary buildings in Lincoln Park Zoo, one of America’s most popular, historic and visited zoos.

The $35 million Lion House renovation is the last phase of the zoo’s $135 million “Pride of Chicago” capital improvement campaign which began in 2012. The renovation will remove the sunken moat on the building’s north side and extend the animal environments up to new glass viewing walls. Inside, the big cats will enjoy additional climbing areas, heating and cooling elements, and even a “food zipline” that can simulate the movement of live prey. (Koziarz, Curbed Chicago, 5/10/19)

The Kovler Lion House was designed in 1912 by architect Dwight Perkins, with his partners William Fellows and John Hamilton. With its decorative brickwork and terra-cotta ornament, lion mosaics and grand hall with a vaulted Guastavino-tile ceiling, it was designated as a Chicago Landmark in 2005.

“The Lion House is one of the most popular and widely recognizable attractions in our park system and well deserving of Landmark status,” said former Department of Planning and Development Commissioner Denise M. Casalino. (Burck, 12/10/11)

“Now known as the Kovler Lion House, the Prairie-style building exemplifies an important period in Chicago park history when designers sought to create unique landscapes and rejected historic styles for modern design. The Lion House is a strikingly detailed park building. It is a large rectangular masonry building with its long axis oriented in an east-west direction. The building has elements of the Prairie-style, evidenced by its simple horizontal lines and lack of applied historic ornamentation.” (Burck, 12/10/11)

Preservation Chicago worked in cooperation with the development team from the Lincoln Park Zoo and architect Len Koroski, principal at Goettsch Partners, to help to optimize the Kovler Lion House improvements. Plan review and site visits resulted in dozens of observations, comments and suggestions. The constructive feedback helped to both accommodate the desired functionality and be sensitive to the elements of the historic building.

Much of the design work to rethink this space is innovative, and the design team should be recognized for their success. We are especially excited to see more of the north façade of the building’s exterior opening up as well as the significant improvements to the lion habitat.

Preservation Chicago supports the restoration of historic features on the principal facades of Lincoln Park Zoo’s Lion House, its interior Landmarked features and of proposed alterations in general. These improvements will make significant improvements to the well-being of the animals and improved public access to the historic building. Despite a few minor differences of opinion, Preservation Chicago submitted a letter of support to the Commission of Chicago Landmarks and testified in support of the project.

Preservation Chicago encourages the Lincoln Park Zoo and the Department of Planning and Development, Historic Preservation Division, to consider a thematic Landmark District to incorporate the historic buildings forming the historic core of Lincoln Park Zoo. These buildings could include the Primate House (1927), the former Reptile House (now the Park Place Café cafeteria building), The Bird House (1904), the former Academy of Sciences Matthew Laflin Memorial Building (now the Lincoln Park Zoo Administration Building, 1893) and the rounded “Landmark Cafe” Building (1899).

A Landmark designation of these structures would be much in the spirit of Cafe Breuer (1908) and The Lion House (1912), both by Dwight Perkins, and would further ensure good preservation practices going forward. The Lincoln Park Zoo should also encourage a celebration of its landscape and the landscape design work of Swain Nelson and Olaf Benson to which the grand promenade or east-west access may be part of the original overall design. This should be further studied and considered before the construction of the “Animal Holding Building.”

Additional Reading
Lion Habitat Plans Revealed at Lincoln Park Zoo, Lincoln Park Zoo Press Release

Landmark Lincoln Park Zoo lion house is getting a $35M makeover; Before work can begin, the zoo will say goodbye to its current pride of lions, Jay Koziarz, Curbed Chicago, 5/10/19

New $35 million Lincoln Park Zoo lion house to include food zipline but not the current lions, Steve Johnson, Chicago Tribune, 5/9/19

The Circus “NO SPIN ZONE” blog, Wade Burck, 12/10/11

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