National Zoo: Mortellito Murals (Lost) – Washington DC


In 1937, Domenico Mortellito painted habitat background murals for the Bird House and the Pachyderm (Elephant) House and added murals to the zoo restaurant.  These murals were commissioned by the Treasury Relief Art Project (TRAP), which aimed to put unemployed artists back to work.   Mortellito used a rubber-based paint for the animal house murals and carved linoleum for the restaurant.  

It appears that all have been lost over the years, though two murals at the Bird House are said to survive (this  needs to be verified).

Mortellito is shown in the photos below painting the background murals in the Elephant House, including those for the giraffe cage and hippopotamus pool.  These delightfully luminous murals have disappeared in various renovations over the years. 

The interior of the Bird House was repainted in 1959 and cages in the New Deal (south) wing were redecorated and there were further renovations in the 1960s. At one of those times, the murals were removed or painted over (Price 2006, p. 38, n. 155).

The restaurant building (today’s Mane Cafe) was decorated with a set of murals known  as “Noah’s Ark”.  The National Zoo’s 1941 annual report made note of the murals: “… The main dining room is beautifully decorated with murals of carved lacquered linoleum, executed and mounted by Domenico Mortellito.”   They still existed in 1951, but at some point the cafe interior was modernized and Mortellito’s murals disappeared. 



Source notes

“Report on the National Zoological Park,” in Appendix 7 of the Annual Report of the Board of Regents, The Smithsonian Institution: Showing the Operations, Expenditures, and Conditions of the Institution, for the Year Ending June 30, 1940, Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1941.

Virginia Price, Historic American Building Survey, National Zoological Park Bird House,  HABS No. DC-777-C. Washington DC: National Park Service. c. 2006.

Project originally submitted by Richard A Walker on December 4, 2011.
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Location Info

3001 Connecticut Avenue
Washington, DC 20008

Coordinates: 38.9319, -77.0524

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