The first zoo in Seattle was a small collection of animals owned by the Lake Washington Cable Railway and maintained at Leschi Park. Their animals were given to the city soon after they purchased Woodland Park, and it is interesting to note that Carkeek Park’s first use was as a vegetable garden for the zoo animals.
In 1899, the City of Seattle purchased the Woodland Park estate of Guy Phinney for $100,000, which created a furor. Vigorous protests insisted that the price was too high, and that the park was too far out of town. However, the wisdom of the City Council decision has proven to be of ever-increasing value.
Guy Phinney was English by birth and invested $40,000 in his estate to develop a traditional English park. He built a large house and laid out a formal rose garden, constructed a pump house to bring water from Green Lake to his gardens, erected an impressive stone entrance on 50th Avenue, and installed an electric trolley line along Fremont Avenue for his private streetcar. The aristocratic tradition also demanded a deer park and by 1893, when Phinney died, a small herd had been established in the park.
The city leaders engaged the famous Massachusetts landscape architectural firm of the Olmstead Brothers to create a public park out of Guy Phinney’s estate. The choice was apt, since the work of the Olmstead office, which included Central Park in New York City, was an inspired outgrowth of the English landscape tradition.
They retained the formal gardens of the Phinney estate, laid out new pathways, and created several great spaces with animal quarters on the periphery, after the fashion of the day. Lower Woodland was left as an informal wood.
In 1930, City Engineer W.B. Barkuff developed a plan to bisect Woodland Park with a six-lane highway. Councilman George Hill, who had earlier taken City Engineer R.H. Thompson on a tour of Europe to “cure him of the habit of putting roads through parks," formed a coalition to defeat the highway plan and proposed an alternate route following the contours of the land. Despite a public referendum vote against the plan, Aurora Avenue was constructed and the park cleaved in two.
Although frequent visitors to Woodland Park Zoo are familiar with much of the art here, it is easy to miss the most obvious examples. That is because, quite literally, Woodland Park Zoo is itself a work of art.
The zoo's long-range plan was infused with the art of landscape architecture as it applies to exhibitry, which means employing illusion to create larger spaces, closed environments, and natural surroundings.
Exhibit designers consciously strive for effects that are both psychological and aesthetic, as in other forms of art. In fact, exhibit landscape architecture has its roots in the romantic era of scenic landscape painting, which was recognized as the highest form of art for centuries. Paintings of this type serve as backdrops in some of the zoo's exhibits; the best example is Rob Evans' 70-foot mural in Northern Trail's Tundra Center.
The talent of Seattle artist Tony Angell is well known to WPZ visitors through his extraordinary and popular bronze pieces at Northern Trail, and his sculpture, on permanent display at the Education Center.
The zoo's collection of artworks includes many sculptures that serve as educational enhancements to the exhibits. Of the bronze sculptures, the first was Lon Brusselback's baby elephant near the Elephant Forest. Next came Georgia Gerber's gorilla exhibit, and more recently, the ravens, otters, and wolf pups by Tony Angell at Northern Trail.
These sculptures help people to understand the actual size and detail of the animals represented. Location is extensively researched for the sculpted animals to ensure authenticity of setting. The ultimate example is the orangutan sculpture in Tropical Asia, true to the orangutan's arboreal nature it is among trees.
There is also a rock and mosaic tile installation by Larry and Peterson Buckingham, actually serves as a viewpoint at the African Savanna. Seattle Art Institute's stylized animals atop the gates greet zoo visitors.
Also appropriately placed are the mosaics by Hawthorne Elementary students at the Seattle Rotary Education Center and the Henry Moore etchings, "Animals in the Zoo," at the Activities & Resource Center.