By Bobby Tanzilo Senior Editor/Writer Published Aug 21, 2021 at 9:01 AM

The precursor of the Milwaukee County Zoo was the beloved Washington Park Zoo, which closed in 1963 when the last animals were moved to the current zoo, which had opened on a much larger site.

Opened in 1892 when the park – designed by Frederick Law Olmsted – was still called West Park, the zoo was the sixth largest in the country by 1907.

As I wrote in this article a while back, by the twilight of the 1930s, the Washington Park Zoological Gardens was beginning to show serious signs of wear and was also hemmed in, with no room to grow. By 1947, the search for a new home had begun.

Fourteen years later, a new, 190-acre, $12.6 million zoo was opened in the Milwaukee County Zoo's current location.

Read about the construction of the current zoo here.

But many still fondly recall the old zoo’s monkey island and sheep mountain, and so we are happy to share these photographs taken during the earliest years of the zoo, before 1920, by photographer Joseph Brown, whose photos can be seen in a Wisconsin Historical Society collection.

Brown's studio was located just northeast of the park at 3803 W. Lisbon Ave. and was active from around 1890 until the mid-1940s.

These images, shared with us by the Milwaukee County Zoo, include some really interesting shots, including one of Richard Raasch, first superintendent of West Park, and his family feeding the deer at the park, and of the elephant Countess Heine.

She arrived in Milwaukee in 1907 and was named for Henry "Heine" Bulder, a Milwaukee alderman who raised the funds to purchase her and who can be seen seated atop her in one of the images. Another shot shows the Countess with zoo director Ed Bean.

Another interesting photo is of the polar bears that arrived at the zoo in 1912.

Having been orphaned in Greenland, there were three males – Silver King, Clown and Borealis – and one female, Sultana.

Sultana and Silver King were the parents of Zero, who was born in December 1919, and was the first polar bear born in captivity in North America to survive.

It's also interesting to note that according to his 1942 obituary, architect Alfred C. Clas was likely responsible for most of the zoo's structures.

“He planned and supervised the construction of near all of the older park buildings in the county, including those of the Washington Park Zoological Gardens,” the Journal wrote.

Enjoy this look – courtesy of the Milwaukee County Zoo – into Milwaukee’s classic Washington Park Zoo and stay tuned because we have a dozen more, including a map of the zoo, to share soon.

Herbivore building, 1899

Black bear, circa 1905

Fox, wolf and bear exhibits, 1905

Countess Heine and Heine Bulder, 1907

Animal house, 1909

Countess Heine with Ed Bean, circa 1910-15

Seal exhibit, 1914

Animal house with pond, 1914

Bear dens, 1914

Polar bears, circa 1915

Animal house, 1918

Lion house & public lobby, circa 1920

Heron, undated

Wildebeest, undated

See 14 more vintage Washington Park Zoo images, including a map of the zoo exhibits here.

Bobby Tanzilo Senior Editor/Writer

Born in Brooklyn, N.Y., where he lived until he was 17, Bobby received his BA-Mass Communications from UWM in 1989 and has lived in Walker's Point, Bay View, Enderis Park, South Milwaukee and on the East Side.

He has published three non-fiction books in Italy – including one about an event in Milwaukee history, which was published in the U.S. in autumn 2010. Four more books, all about Milwaukee, have been published by The History Press.

With his most recent band, The Yell Leaders, Bobby released four LPs and had a songs featured in episodes of TV's "Party of Five" and "Dawson's Creek," and films in Japan, South America and the U.S. The Yell Leaders were named the best unsigned band in their region by VH-1 as part of its Rock Across America 1998 Tour. Most recently, the band contributed tracks to a UK vinyl/CD tribute to the Redskins and collaborated on a track with Italian novelist Enrico Remmert.

He's produced three installments of the "OMCD" series of local music compilations for and in 2007 produced a CD of Italian music and poetry.

In 2005, he was awarded the City of Asti's (Italy) Journalism Prize for his work focusing on that area. He has also won awards from the Milwaukee Press Club.

He has be heard on 88Nine Radio Milwaukee talking about his "Urban Spelunking" series of stories, in that station's most popular podcast.