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.