Lion House: Rewriting the Story of Chicago’s Historic 1912 Wildlife Center

Chicago’s Lincoln Park Zoo has had a historic lion house as a centerpiece for many years. The original structure was preserved by Goettsch Partners (GP), who sought to expand it while creating a new spatial experience. It is home to four African lions and red pandas from Canada, red pandas, and snow leopards.

Goettsch Partners (GP), a Chicago-based firm, has additional offices in Shanghai as well as Abu Dhabi. The office has completed projects on five continents, representing a variety of sizes and types. It approaches every design with constructability, environmental impact, and the human experience. The firm wanted to provide guests with immersive, “nose-to nose” viewing experiences from both inside and out for Lion House. The Pepper Family Wildlife Center is a $41 million renovation, restoration, and expansion that nearly doubles the size the former lion habitat.

© Tom Harris

The facility, which covers 54,000 square feet, provides more transparency and an immersive experience for visitors. It also restores the architectural integrity of the original landmark building. The habitat was created in collaboration with PJA, Seattle’s zoo exhibit experts. It focuses on giving animals choices and enhancing their wellbeing. This includes everything from heating and cooling zones to intricate rockwork and climbing trees, according to the team.

© Tom Harris

Patrick Loughran, FAIA PE, LEED AP technical principal at GP, says that “the renovation and restoration work revitalized one of Chicago’s historical architectural gems.” “The facility’s new features and functionality will allow it to better serve visitors and the zoo.” This is the second major project by GP at Lincoln Park Zoo. The firm also designed the Regenstein Center For African Apes in 2004. The building needed to be improved, as there had been very little work since 1990’s last major renovation. The zoo aimed to significantly improve the habitat for lions, with a special focus on them and the visitors.

© Tom Harris
© Tom Harris
© Tom Harris

The design creates new circulation routes and facilitates viewing from Lion Loop. This sunken, elliptical path leads visitors from the TAWANI Great Hall to the habitat’s center. Visitors can view the lions from every angle, with skylights above. A demonstration training wall will also be included in the project. This wall will allow visitors to see lions with staff members. The building’s educational focus is on the ongoing conservation efforts of the zoo in Africa.

© Tom Harris

The new habitat for lions spans the entire northern side of the building. It was designed using data collected over several years by the Zoo on lion behavior, space use, and preferences. The outdoor lion area is viewed through large, 1 1/2 inch thick glass panels. This habitat is savanna-style and features intricate rockwork that allows for climbing and expands environmental options for the lions. It also includes embedded heating and cooling elements to regulate climate.

Tree structures and deadfall made from certified trees by the Forest Stewardship Council are used inside. Food ziplines provide enrichment opportunities for the lions. Joachim Schuessler is the GP’s design principal. He says that a major goal of the zoo and the design team was to significantly improve the lion habitat. They also wanted to focus on the well-being of the animals. “In addition, our design enhances the visitor experience by eliminating visual barriers and creating closer connections between humans and the lions.”

© Tom Harris
© Tom Harris
© Tom Harris

The zoo’s pride lions, which included 9-year old male Sahar and five-year-old female littermates Kamali, Zalika, left the Zoo to prepare for renovations. The African Lion Species Survival Plan was used to transfer them. This coordinated population management program is overseen by the Association of Zoos and Aquariums. The renovations were planned with the lions in mind. The zoo’s animal welfare specialists have been closely monitoring the behavior and habitat preferences of the current pride of lions for the past several years.

© Tom Harris

The historic lion house, which is located in Lincoln Park Zoo’s heart, is the only privately-run free admission zoo. It was designed by Dwight Perkins in 1912. It was named a Chicago Landmark by the Chicago Landmarks in 2005 for its ornamental brickwork, terra-cotta ornament, and lion mosaics. The Commission on Chicago Landmarks worked closely with the design team to preserve, restore and improve the architecturally important features of the original Arts and Crafts structure. This included the copper gutter, copper gutter, clay tile roof, and masonry. As the most distinctive feature of the Lion House, the vaulted ceiling is light and structurally bears similar weight to old-world cathedral vaults.

© Tom Harris

The building’s east and west entrances were the first to be restored. This included brick, stone and terracotta masonry repairs and full mortar repointing. Cast iron arched windows and entrance restoration were also part of the primary restoration. The building’s original Arts and Crafts color scheme was restored using paint microscopy. This is a significant and distinctive part of its authenticity. Andrew Fox, associate at Goettsch Partners, said that the lion house is an enduring reminder of Lincoln Park Zoo’s existence for over 150 years. It provides a timeline of the evolution in animal habitat design since its initial construction. The zoo’s commitment to animal welfare and care is evident in Pepper Family Wildlife Center. It boasts state-of the-art elements and data-driven design while also celebrating the past.