South wing, Bird House, National Zoo - Washington DC
The south wing of the Bird House at National Zoo – which had been left off the original building in 1927-28 – was constructed in 1936 with funding from the Public Works Administration (PWA). It completed the the imposing, Romanesque style Bird House, adding space for more cages/exhibits and housing the Bird Resource Center.
The PWA contributed around $1 million to several zoo improvement projects in the 1930s, including new elephant house, a small mammal house and an addition to the bird house. The separate cost of the Bird House addition is undetermined. The original building had been design by Albert Harris and the addition was based on that design, although William Hill Clark was the architect of record on the zoo additions of the 1930s. Construction was supervised by the Treasury Department Procurement Division’s architectural office and undertaken by the Charles H. Tompkins Co.
The National Zoo did its best to keep up with changing practices in the care and exhibition of the animals. As Price notes: “The difference between the south room or wing built in the 1930s and the original portion of the building was primarily in how the birds were exhibited, with the latest or most current ideas placing the birds behind glass-fronted cages, the continued use of skylights (although operable), and the placement of service or service access to the enclosures to the rear of the display area. Likely, too, the innovative penguin display contributed to this sense of a dramatic departure from how things were done before.” (Price 2006, p. 14, note 52)
The Civil Works Administration (CWA) also contributed to the improvement of the Bird House in 1933-34. As zoo director, William Mann, explained:
“Beginning in November  activities were considerably expanded when the CWA took over the supplying of labor, both skilled and unskilled, and some money was made available for the purchase of materials to be used on the projects. This permitted the undertaking of a considerable volume of urgently needed work which could not be previously attempted. The more outstanding repairs and improvements undertaken with CWA materials are as follows: ….construction of brick smokestack at bird house to replace the metal one that was in very bad condition… construction of a large cage for condors and lammergeyers; the construction of a service road between the silver gull cage and the Bird House; and revision of plans for the completion of the bird house.” (Price 2006, p 34 note 147)
Work in the 1930s provided for tree sockets in the floors of the exhibit areas; pipe sleeves provided by the National Park Service were set into the floor as the concrete was poured, so trees were part of the planned environment from the outset. (Price 2006, p 38 n 154)
Several artworks were commissioned by the New Deal’s Treasury Relief Art Program (TRAP) to enliven the exhibit halls, restaurant and grounds at the zoo. For the Bird House, there were background murals along the back of the two panorama cages for tropical birds and penguins, a floor mosaic at the main entrance, carved lunettes over two doorways, and two carved panels on the outside walls. Metal bas-relief for the cages have been lost.
The bird house is currently undergoing a renovation and is closed to the public.
Virginia Price, Historic American Building Survey, National Zoological Park Bird House, HABS No. DC-777-C. Washington DC: National Park Service. c. 2006.
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.
Ernest P. Walker, “Improvements at the National Zoological Park,” Parks & Recreation (American Institute of Park Executives), May 1938, pp. 467-474.
Fiscal year reports of the National Zoo, found in the annual report of the Board of Regents of The Smithsonian Institution, 1934-1941.
Project originally submitted by Brent McKee on January 12, 2020.
Additional contributions by Richard Walker.
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