The Toledo Zoo2 Hippo Way
Toledo , OH 43609
419-385-5721 | https://www.toledozoo.org
Depression Era Programs and the Development of the Zoo
The Toledo Zoo has incorporated canal and Depression era history into the foundation of a number of its buildings. The WPA-era buildings and Federal One sculptures and murals offer zoo-goers a one-of-a-kind experience that blends nature, culture, and history.
The Toledo Zoo was founded in 1900 with a donation of one woodchuck. During the early years of operation it was on the road to becoming one of the finest zoos in the country. The zoo’s success was put on hold when the Great Depression rocked the Toledo area. The city's unemployment rate soared above the state average, devastating the economy. In the 1930s, President Franklin D. Roosevelt implemented the New Deal, his plan to aid recovery of the US economy. Programs created under the New Deal, such as the Works Progress Administration and the Civilian Conservation Corps, created jobs for unemployed Americans and helped revitalize the nation’s physical landscape. Toledo Zoo officials enlisted the WPA and the CCC to construct buildings, creating jobs for hundreds of people in the Toledo area. Acquiring the appropriate resources and materials for the project was no easy task. Zoo Director Frank Skeldon secured salvage rights to older buildings in the area, recycled brick, stone, lumber, and limestone from the decaying Miami and Erie Canal, Milburn Wagon Works, and Wabash Railroad shops. What resulted is the largest collection of one-of-a-kind WPA-era buildings that incorporate the areas’ industrial history into their structure.
In 1935, a subdivision of the WPA, Federal One, was created to provide job opportunities for artists, actors, writers, and musicians. During the late 1930s and early 40s, local Toledo artists were hired under Federal One to create sculptures and murals throughout the Toledo Zoo. Hired artists included Forest “Woody” Laplante, responsible for the naturalistic murals still on display in the Reptile House, and Arthur Cox, a stone carver who created some of the zoo’s most iconic sculptures and carvings. Art was contributed by several artists, and though not all of it still exists today, much of their original work – which is now almost one hundred years old – can be viewed and enjoyed by visitors. Funding for the Federal One program was cut before the dissolution of the WPA program in 1943, but the sustained existence of art created by Federal One artists is a testament to its importance and the benefits it provided to struggling local artists and their communities.
Notes for Travelers
The Toledo Zoo has grown over the last century, and today visitors can experience all that the zoo has to offer, while traveling through a collection of historically significant structures. Following its revitalization during the Great Depression, the zoo continued to follow the plan originally developed under the New Deal, creating jobs for the community while using recycled materials to create new, unique buildings and art. Today, the Reptile House, Amphitheatre, Museum of Science, Aviary, and Aquarium are all WPA-era buildings that continue to operate and serve the visitors of the Toledo Zoo as a nationally and historically significant assemblage of structures.