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Lion House Roars Back

Project: Astor Court and Lion House, Bronx Zoo, New York, NY

Architect: FXFOWLE, New York, NY

Restoration Consultant: Building Conservation Associates, New York, NY

General Contractors: Hill International, New York; FGI Corp., Bronx, NY

By Eve M. Kahn

The Bronx Zoo's image in the public mind now is largely primeval. Visitors best remember glimpsing exotic herds and flocks nestled into simulated savannahs, Himalayan plateaus or rainforests – any architecture onsite pales by comparison. But one of the city's most cohesive Beaux-Arts complexes, on par with Columbia University's campus, lies little known at the heart of the zoo's 265 acres. Called Astor Court, the Neoclassical ensemble contains half a dozen circa-1900 structures plus balustrades, boxwood beds, grottoes and a sea-lion pool. The master plan and most of the buildings were designed by Heins & La Farge, a firm best known for colorfully tiled subway stations. The court's façades are a study in varied peachy-orange shades of Roman brick and stone or terra-cotta animals. The species portrayed – including reptiles, monkeys, pachyderms and big cats – once lived in cages along the court, and millions of visitors annually strolled the balustraded paths.

By the 1980s, the wildlife had been moved to roomier habitats elsewhere, and offices took over much of Astor Court. Its most ornate landmark, the Lion House, lay fallow while the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS), which is headquartered at the zoo, runs four other zoological parks in town and employs thousands of naturalists worldwide, pondered reuse options.

"It was such a shame to have such a beautiful building not open to the public, to not have life in it for our guests," says Susan A. Chin, WCS's director of planning. For six years, she has been overseeing conversion of the Lion House into a mini-Madagascar, complete with pliable rubber tree branches for lemurs to leap along and rockwork-walled tanks for 13-ft.-long crocodiles. Throughout the rest of Astor Court, meanwhile, a Chin-led team has recreated a Beaux-Arts landscape that, as Building Conservation Associates (BCA) project manager Claudia Kavenagh puts it, "had been altered over the years on an as-needed basis. It had lost a lot of its original logic and sense of place. WCS asked us to help them turn it back into a destination."

The court originally was a place where the elite – socialites, politicians and other celebrities – liked to be seen on balmy afternoons. The New York Times would cover their visits breathlessly, and report on the arrivals, births, escapes, surgeries and deaths of popular animals. Guests entered near Astor Court via the Rainey Memorial Gates, which Paul Manship sculpted in bronze with bears, deer, monkeys, owls and herons. Of all Astor Court's attractions, however, The Times called the Lion House "the handsomest building," as well as the most technologically advanced: "It has every possible modern improvement, many of its features being entirely novel."

Wire mesh, rather than the standard depressing bars, fronted the cages. Pneumatic pumps powered the heating system. Elevators, pulleys and floor-mounted tracks allowed caged cats to be safely moved throughout the 192-ft.-long building. Skylights as well as tile murals of jungles and deserts reminded the lions, leopards, tigers, pumas, cheetahs and jaguars a little of the great outdoors.

As early as the 1940s, the zoo began moving felines into more convincingly naturalistic settings with names like Lion's Island. As the rest of Astor Court was turned over to offices, plans were floated to use the Lion House as a conservation school or restaurant. But WCS has geared up in recent years for a high-profile $650 million capital campaign, Gateways to Conservation, emphasizing links between its local and global programs. So the Lion House made most sense as a showplace explaining how and why the society helps preserve habitats on the island of Madagascar, home to one percent of the planet's biodiversity.

In the exhibit opening in June – officially named "Madagascar!" – visitors will meander between carved-concrete cliffs and epoxy or concrete baobab trees (some of which conceal air ducts or structural columns). Skylights made of ETFE (ethylene tetrafluoroethylene, developed by Foiltec NA of Cohoes, NY) let in UV light that plants and animals need, but are etched with square patterns that can be overlapped for opacity on hot days. Mesh walls divide habitats, so lemurs' chatter will echo throughout the place. Photo-realist murals and mirrors back the exhibits, giving the narrow building an illusion of depth. Videos show animals under threats such as fires or forest clear-cutting, and under the care of WCS conservationists.

"We've created a stage set, with many, many layers to discover, so guests will keep finding something new each time they visit," Chin says. "We want to inspire respect for wildlife while giving people a sense of immersion in nature, a sense of what has threatened the creatures on the island, and a sense of hope for change."

"Madagascar!" is expected, of course, to boost zoo attendance while magnanimously educating the public. The building itself will also help the WCS revenue stream, since a rentable, restored events hall occupies 40 percent of the interior. Original truss work bands the hall's vaulted ceiling, and pilasters and columns are crowned in sculpted lions or flora. Along some walls, the architects set slats alluding to the vintage cages – the wood species chosen was, fittingly, zebrawood.

Mechanicals extend deep under the hall's polished concrete floor – the basement was lowered from 5 to 10 ft. into solid rock, and the building underpinned with steel to make room for equipment including a fuel-cell generator and a water-recycling system that also serves the nearby sea-lion pool. "There's been so much complexity into fitting cutting-edge exhibits into a landmark building while meeting LEED-Gold standards," Chin explains. The mechanicals protrude under a new back terrace, flanked by stone lions that originally guarded the front door. Chin explains that especially for young guests who can't read yet, "We didn't want lions at the entry that might confuse anyone about what's exhibited here now."

After spilling out of the "Madagascar!" exhibit, guests are likely to encounter free-ranging peacocks and peahens. New paths crisscross Astor Court's main lawn, which has been renamed the Peacock Garden, and boxwood and yew rows encircle flowerbeds in an adjacent Italian Garden. BCA's team dug trenches to conceal upgraded services, such as power and data lines, and hundreds of original granite curbs defining paths and lawns were reset. The monumental double staircase was completely disassembled and rebuilt; along its brownstone treads rise garlanded plinths, scalloped grottoes, carved jaguars by Anna Hyatt Huntington, and terra-cotta balusters (replacements came from Boston Valley Terra Cotta in Orchard Park, NY). Fluted lampposts (from Architectural Area Lighting of La Mirada, CA) sprout brackets for paired lanterns around the court.

When the Lion House reopens, BCA will also unveil its restoration of an antique Italian fountain, a tiered stack of dolphins, sea gods and goddesses, cattails, cherubs, octopus tentacles and a swan. "The rejuvenated fountain will be a crowning touch on an impressive ensemble," Kavenagh says. "It will be wonderful to enter the zoo again as elegantly as you were meant to originally." TB

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