Tuesday, March 26, 2013

Children's Zoo

The following is a guest post, written by JVNY reader Donica O'Bradovich, a writer and "lifelong New Yorker who can't quite get the city out of her despite a desperate desire to move to California."

Back in December, the Daily News reported on yet another victim of Hurricane Sandy, a demise that wouldn’t mean anything to anyone except the baby boomers who grew up in the New York City in the 60s and 70s. Jonah’s Whale, AKA Whaley, the one-time centerpiece of the 1961 Central Park Children’s Zoo, and unofficial Rockaway Beach mascot since 1996, had been swept out to sea, leaving only its tail behind. I hadn’t thought about that old zoo for years, but lately, I’ve been on a quest to bring it back, if only in my mind. I kept wondering what had happened to all the other gloriously whimsical Disney-like structures, which were lovingly financed by former Governor Herbert Lehman and his wife for their 50th anniversary, and if anything had been preserved.



When it first opened, the Lehman Zoo was a big hit. Walking through the ornamental Lehman gates (which are still there) and then through a small pavilion, kids were deluged with eye candy. Culled from Biblical tales, fairy tales, children’s songs, and even great literature, the zoo’s gorgeous structures were interactive and housed many small animals. You could walk up the plank to a Noah’s Ark sitting on a duck filled pond; visit a the Three Little Pigs house; climb up through an "enchanted" castle; wander through the Hansel and Gretel cottage; pet some animals at the Old MacDonald’s farm; or wrangle an invitation from the White Rabbit to the Alice in Wonderland tunnel.

Screen captures from an episode of the 1960s series “Naked City”--a treasure trove of vanished New York--show just how beautiful the zoo once was. And besides, where else could you find Robert Duvall and Whaley onscreen together?



But alas, time wasn’t kind to the zoo. By the time I was visiting in the 1970s, it had fallen into shocking disrepair. Whaley’s mouth aquarium was empty and broken, and the place was covered in garbage and filth. The animals that were still there had fallen into the same gloomy despair that had overtaken the entire economically strapped city. It was so badly decomposed that the city shut it down in the early 1990s. 

As it lay in ruins, financing came through and it was decided that a new children’s zoo would be constructed. But controversy soon swelled around the little old zoo, as battling factions tried to decide what would be best for the kids. Modernists wanted a dignified educational space, while preservationists pleaded to save the old structures. Others even made the absurd argument that the Jonah’s Whale and Noah’s Ark were inappropriately religious. Modernity eventually won out, and in 1997, a new zoo opened. Baby boomers were heartbroken, life moved on, and the old zoo became a forgotten relic of a bygone era. Or did it?



A New York Times article from the 90s gave me a hint: “Some of the zoo's old structures were given to the Museum of the City of New York, but the two largest, the whale and Noah's Ark, were promised to the Rockaways. The Ark crumbled to a heap of memories before it could be moved. But on an unusually cool and windy summer night, a truck carrying the whale left for the Rockaways.” Indeed, two photos in the Times archive show just how badly decomposed the Ark and the enchanted castle had become.

I emailed the Museum of the City of New York to see if they really had anything left. Much to my utter shock and delight a very informative archivist worked with me to provide another piece to the puzzle. Sure enough, the museum has quite a few items in their collection: a “Do Not Feed the Animals” sign; some tulip-shaped street lamps; and, best of all, a fully intact White Rabbit.



But after that tiny victory and many more dead ends, I decided to stop. I was getting more and more angry at the way the zoo was dismissed as a silly, outdated artifact instead of the charming wonderland that made generations of us kids very very happy. If all I have left are Google images, “Naked City” screen grabs, and some lovely memories, then I’m satisfied.

15 comments:

greg said...

There are also zoo scenes featured in the 1965 b&w film Who Killed Teddy Bear starring Sal Mineo and Elaine Stritch.

Mitch said...

Interestingly, an earlier generation of preservationists decried the construction of the original Children's Zoo. The wonderful book "Lost New York" bemoaned the construction of geegaws throughout the park, in contravention of Olmstead and Vaux's original contrast between wild and tame areas. It termed the Children's Zoo "grotesque". (See page 40.)

randall said...

Take heart. Kids these days wouldn't even appreciate those animals since they were not very "interactive" and didn't fit nicely on a four inch screen.

pcnyc said...

Sorry to hear the historical Whaley was swept out to sea.
Kids still love vivid imagery such as Whaley provided; it's remembered for a lifetime. It's a shame to have had it neglected and taken away.

Anonymous said...

Donica,

I promise I will find that picture of me in front of the whale if it means spending a day at my ancestral home and digging through boxes of junk.

xox
MysteryFriend

Donica said...

Greg: thanks for the heads up on "Who Killed Teddy Bear," a difficult movie to find, but yet another reason to seek out.

Gojira said...

Oh no, not Whaley! He was my favorite! Damn! Oh well guess he went home to his natural environment, the sea...RIP Whaley, you were such a delight to my four-year-old eyes the first time I saw you.

greg said...

Donica: I purchased a DVD of Who Killed Teddy Bear on Amazon. It plays on my Mac computer as well as my DVD player just fine.

There are also bootleg DVDs and video tapes on Ebay.

Who Killed Teddy Bear is just a wild ride through NYC in the 1960s. There are many street scenes, particularly in Times Square. Sal Mineo and Elaine Stritch are particularly good in their roles.

BabyDave said...

Wow. I hardly ever get up that way, so I probably had not thought of the place in many years. The 1970s financial crisis took its toll on a lot of things, and I guess this lovely site wasn't a priority.
Thank you, Donica, for taking me back. (And for the "Naked City" tip. I must see more episodes.)

Donica said...

Greg, I have heard SO many amazing things about that movie! I will be sure to check eBay!

James Meehan said...

This brought back a lot of memories. My father used to bring my brother and me here when we were very little in the early-mid '80s. I vaguely remember the arc, the castle and the Hansel-and-Gretel house that I had to go up to the barred window and look through everyday. But most of all, I remember that huge whale's mouth. Does anyone remember the Pinocchio doll that sat in a glass box in the whale's mouth, perhaps where the aquarium once was? It had somehow disappeared one day when I was about six years old, much to my chagrin. My dad said I should right a letter to the park, and so I did, complaining that I didn't want to look at a "big blob of nothing". They actually wrote back, apologizing for the "big blob of nothing" and explaining that Pinocchio had been stolen! We had to make due, but it was nice to have some explanation. How strange that that whale was lost in Hurricane Sandy! Fascinating post! Fantastic blog!

Donica said...

James Meehan: that is an utterly fantastic anecdote about the Pinocchio doll being there. I only ever remember the empty aquarium and broken glass. SO much about that zoo was so neglected..

Anonymous said...

Just a correction. It was not "Baby Boomers" who enjoyed the Central Park Childrens Zoo as kids (like myself) during the 60s and 70s, but Generation Xers. Baby Boomers for the most part are in their mid 60s right now. I am 46 years old (Born 1967) and my mom took me to that park as a child all the time. My parents being of the "Silent Generation" born just before or during the war. I remember the whale and Noahs Arc quite fondly. I also remember being taken there later when the ducks were gone, the water dank and smelly and the whale busted. Same with that old concrete Seal enclosure. Those Seals always seemed pretty happy considering the water always smelled horrible.

Anonymous said...

I remember a friend taking me to a children's zoo in Central Park around 1990 or late 1980's. I remember seeing some polar bears? Then I remember someone saying they got rid of it all. Can someone give me an update?

Donica said...

Thank you for the correction, but I did indeedused the term "baby boomers" correctly, since these would include people born 1946-1964. I was born in 63 and visited the zoo as a child.