National Zoo: Additions and Improvements – Washington DC


The New Deal years 1933 to 1941 were arguably the best years in the history of the National Zoo, thanks to the many projects undertaken by the Roosevelt Administration.  Labor was provided by work-relief programs — the Civil Works Administration (CWA), Federal Emergency Relief Administration (FERA), and Works Progress Administration (WPA) — and construction was funded by the Public Works Administration (PWA) and, later, the Federal Works Agency (FWA).

New Deal agencies built or improved virtually every aspect of the zoo.  The PWA paid for a new elephant house and small mammal house and an addition to the bird house.  It funded a mechanical & carpenter shop building to supply wood and iron work for the zoo and a vehicle garage, as well as new boilers for the heating plant and addition steam pipes to exhibit houses.  Electric lines were put underground. The PWA also paid for a restaurant building to serve visitors to the zoo.

The buildings were all designed in 1935 by Edwin Hill Clark, lead architect for all the New Deal additions to the National Zoo, as well as the Philadelphia zoo in 1930s.  The work was supervised by the Treasury Department Procurement Division’s architectural office.  The actual construction was undertaken by private contractors.

Relief agency workers added new animal exhibits and other small buildings; service roads and parking lots; water lines, sewers, and drains; and graded, landscaped and planted the zoo grounds.  The Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) contributed 350 trees and shrubs. 

Several artworks were commissioned by the New Deal’s Treasury art programs to enliven the exhibit halls, restaurant and grounds. 

The Public Works Administration (PWA) contributed at least $983,000 (about $18 million in 2018 dollars).  The zoo’s 1937 annual report declared, in regard to PWA funding, that: “The fiscal year 1937 was probably the most outstanding in the history of the Zoo.” 

In 1936, zoo Director William Mann commented: “The Zoo has benefited a great deal from the work accomplished by the Works Progress Administration. There is no part of the park that hasn’t received some definite improvement. Some of these things have been needed for years. The Government property is in much better condition than ever before, which will be reflected in lower maintenance costs in the future than if the work had not been done” (quoted in Work 1936)

With the exception of the stone garage, all of the PWA-funded buildings are still in use as of 2019.  Most of the relief work is still there, too, though much of it is invisible. Many of the artworks survive, too, though some are in need of restoration.  Regrettably, managers do not seem terribly interested in the New Deal legacy at the zoo. 

The details on various New Deal accomplishments at the National Zoo are provided on the additional zoo pages, linked on the right.


Project Details

Federal Cost Local Cost Total Cost Project #'s
983000 983000

Source notes

Short, C. W. and R. Stanley-Brown, 1939.  Public Buildings: A Survey of Architecture of Projects Constructed by Federal and Other Governmental Bodies Between the Years 1933 and 1939 with the Assistance of the Public Works Administration.  Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office.

Fiscal year reports of the National Zoo, found in the annual report of the Board of Regents of The Smithsonian Institution, 1934-1941.

Works Progress Administration, “The Birds and the Beasts Were There… But the Zoo Welcomed WPA Assistance,” Work: A Journal of Progress, Vol. 1, No.3 (November 1936), pp. 28-29.

Ernest P. Walker, “Improvements at the National Zoological Park,” Parks & Recreation (American Institute of Park Executives), May 1938, pp. 467-474.


Project originally submitted by Brent McKee on January 1, 2020.
Additional contributions by Richard A Walker.

We welcome contributions of additional information on any New Deal project site.


Location Info

3001 Connecticut Avenue
Washington, DC 20008

Coordinates: 38.9319, -77.0524

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