Washington Park Zoo – Michigan City IN


The Washington Park Zoo is thought to be the only zoo completely designed and landscaped by the WPA (Works Progress Administration) and its predecessor agencies (FERA – Federal Emergency Relief Administration, and CWA – Civil Works Administration.) It spans across 15 acres on a hilly sand dune in Michigan City, IN, close to the southeastern tip of Lake Michigan and to this day houses more than 220 animals of 90 different species from around the world.

Planning for a zoo board first began when Albert R. Couden was appointed city manager in 1928. He hoped the zoo would work as a recreational and educational outlet for both the people of the Michigan City area and those who came to visit the town each summer. The zoo board changed the location of the zoo to the hilly sand dunes where it now stands, and began to build the structures for the zoo out of materials they scrounged up from the surrounding area. They used everything from recycled limestone to old slabs of brick to crumbling pieces of concrete. With the help of the FERA (from 1932-1933), then the CWA (from 1933-1934), and later the WPA (1935-1938), the zoo was completely redesigned. They agreed to provide $10 of labor hours for every $1 of material the zoo could find and the zoo grew and expanded using their recycled materials.

The first major project the zoo undertook included the construction of Monkey Island in 1933. This consisted of a small island with a surrounding interior moat and a high exterior wall and access tunnel to reach the animals. It was completed in 1934. Two more buildings followed soon thereafter. One such building was the observation tower, a 220 ft. tall building that overlooks Lake Michigan on one side and the town of Michigan City on the other. It was constructed from a steel railroad tower, used limestone, and a compression chamber from the city’s first fire engine. The second major structure was constructed in 1937 and is known as the “castle.” It houses all the small mammals of the zoo and is a replica of the insignia of the Corps of Engineers from the U.S. Army. Eleven buildings in the zoo are now on the National Historic Register of Places.

More recent renovations include the removal of the elephants from the zoo in order to turn their habitat into an educational facility, the addition of new feline and otter houses, and replanting many areas of the zoo to make way for more native species of plants. Monkey Island was closed as of March 2013 in order to make new changes and restore the structure. Still, as it stands today the Washington Park Zoo is a historic place that is one of the only zoos built completely out of recycled and donated materials.


According to Sharon Carnes, 5th Ward City Councilperson for Michigan City, “The Greenhouse was purchased by Michigan City Redevelopment Commission in Spring 2016 and seemed destined for demolition. However, a resolution by the Michigan City Common Council helped raise awareness of the historical and cultural importance of this building and the remaining WPA architectural elements throughout Washington Park and Washington Park Zoo.

The Redevelopment Commission held a public workshop in August 2016 to discuss the future of the Greenhouse and the overwhelming opinion was in favor of preservation.”

Source notes



Sturdy, Marianne. “History of the Washington Park Zoological Gardens.” New Crier [Michigan City, IN] 08 08 1973, n. pag. Print.

Project originally submitted by Susan Ives, Sayla Blackwood, Sharon Carnes on April 1, 2013.

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Location Info

115 Lakeshore Dr.
Michigan City, IN 46360

Coordinates: 41.726684942162095, -86.90006252380374

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