The historic lion house has long been a central element of Chicago’s Lincoln Park Zoo. When global architecture firm Goettsch Partners (GP) set out to renovate and expand the structure, the aim was to preserve the original building while increasing the usable area and creating a new spatial experience. The facility is home to a pride of four African lions, as well as Canada lynx, red pandas and snow leopards.
Goettsch Partners (GP) is a firm based in Chicago, with additional offices in Shanghai and Abu Dhabi. With completed projects spanning five continents and representing a diverse range of types and sizes, the office approaches each design through constructability, environmental impact and human experience. For Lion House, the firm wanted guests to have immersive, “nose-to-nose” viewing opportunities from both inside and outside the building. Called the Pepper Family Wildlife Center, the $41 million renovation, restoration and expansion nearly doubles the size of the previous lion habitat.
The 54,000-square-foot facility provides increased transparency and a more immersive experience for visitors while restoring the architectural integrity of the original landmarked building. Designed in collaboration with Seattle-based zoo exhibit specialists PJA, the habitat focuses on providing choices for the animals and enhanced wellbeing. As the team explains, this spans everything from thermal comfort zones for heating and cooling to intricate rockwork and trees for climbing.
“The renovation and restoration work revitalizes one of Chicago’s historic architectural gems,” says Patrick Loughran, FAIA, PE, LEED AP, technical principal at GP. “New features and functionality allow the facility to better serve the needs of the zoo and visitors well into the future.” The Pepper Family Wildlife Center marks GP’s second major project at Lincoln Park Zoo, with the firm having also designed the Regenstein Center for African Apes, completed in 2004. With limited work done since the last significant renovation in 1990, the building was due for improvement. The zoo wanted to substantially improve the lion habitat, with a focus on the animals, as well as the experience for visitors.
Creating new circulation paths, the design facilitates viewing from the Lion Loop, a sunken elliptical path leading visitors down from the TAWANI Great Hall into the center of the habitat. The loop provides visitors the opportunity to view lions from all around, including skylights overhead. The project also includes a demonstration training wall where visitors will be able to view the lions working with zoo staff. The overall educational focus of the building is the zoo’s ongoing conservation efforts in Africa.
As the team explained, the new lion habitat spans the full northern side of the building, with the design informed by data collected by the zoo over the last several years on lion behavior and space use to understand their preferences. Large 1 ½”-thick glass panels provide expansive views of the outdoor lion space. The savanna-style habitat includes detailed rockwork to introduce climbing features and expand environmental options for the lions while providing embedded heating and cooling elements for climate control.
Inside, tree structures and deadfall are made from trees certified by the Forest Stewardship Council, and food ziplines, simulating prey, provide an enrichment opportunity for the lions. “A major goal shared by zoo leadership and the design team was to substantially improve the lion habitat, with a focus on the wellbeing of the animals,” says Joachim Schuessler, design principal at GP. “At the same time, our design greatly enriches the experience of visitors by eliminating visual barriers and creating a closer connection between humans and lions within the space.”
To prepare for renovations, the zoo’s pride of lions – including 9-year-old male Sahar and 5-year-old female littermates Kamali and Zalika – had left for Rolling Hills Zoo in Salina, Kansas. Their transfer was in accordance with the African Lion Species Survival Plan, a coordinated population management program overseen by the Association of Zoos and Aquariums. The planned renovations were designed with lions’ specific needs in mind. Over the past few years, the zoo’s animal welfare scientists were monitoring the current lion pride’s behavior, habitat use and preferences.
Located at the heart of Lincoln Park Zoo, the only privately managed free admission zoo in the country, the historic lion house was originally designed by architect Dwight Perkins and completed in 1912. With its decorative brickwork and terra-cotta ornament, lion mosaics and grand hall with a vaulted Guastavino tile ceiling, it was designated a Chicago Landmark in 2005. The design team worked closely with the Commission on Chicago Landmarks to preserve, restore and enhance the architecturally significant features of the original Arts and Crafts structure, including the masonry, clay tile roof, and copper gutter, along with windows and doors. The vaulted ceiling is lightweight yet structurally bearing in a similar fashion to old-world cathedral vaults as the lion house’s most unique feature.
Primary restoration of the building focused on the east and west entrances of the building, including brick, stone, and terra cotta masonry repairs, full mortar repointing, and cast iron arched window and entrance restoration. The original Arts and Crafts paint color scheme, a distinctive and significant part of the building’s authenticity, was also restored with the use of paint microscopy. “The lion house is a noteworthy and enduring reminder that Lincoln Park Zoo has been in operation for more than 150 years,” said Andrew Fox, associate at Goettsch Partners. “It provides a chronology of how far animal habitat design has progressed since its original construction. Pepper Family Wildlife Center is a shining example of the zoo’s dedication to furthering animal care and welfare with its state-of-the-art elements and data-driven design, all while celebrating the past.”