ZooZeum Added to the U.S. Registry of Historic Places

“You’re glowing today!”

That’s what my co-worker said when I arrived at work on Saturday, Feb 18, 2017. I didn’t know it showed, but it was a proud day for me. The day represented the culmination of 12 years of hard work--rescuing lost Zoo history, saving an important building from destruction, reminding folks that the Zoo is in the recreational memory-bank of nearly everyone in this state for 115 years!

Landing the Zoo’s bathhouse on the U.S. Department of Interior’s Register of National Historic Places was a triumph—but not just for me. The stone structure, currently named the Patricia and Byron J. Gambulos ZooZeum, has a place in history that is a result of many people over many years.

The building came into existence during a dramatic time in America’s history—the Great Depression. President Franklin D. Roosevelt enacted the Civilian Conservation Corp and a unit of young men arrived at the Zoo in October 1933. The men lived in tents on Zoo property, rose to a bugle call each morning and reported to the flagpole to receive their daily work orders. Over several years, they built some amazing structures that have stood the test of time. Many are still in evidence in the Zoo today--roads, picnic benches, the amphitheater and the bathhouse.

The original bathhouse served as a convenient amenity for swimmers who visited Zoo Lake. Over time, however, the bathhouse housed the Zoo’s train and stored Halloween props. In the mid-2000s, the idea for restoring the building and turning it into a Zoo history museum started coming to fruition. Zoo director Bert Castro saw the value of preserving the culture and memories of the Zoo in the bathhouse, which had stood watch from the corner of the Zoo since 1935.

In 2011 the ZooZeum opened, and has been helping guests discover the Zoo’s history and reconnect with their own Zoo memories. Now, six years later, landing on the National Registry came with the blessing of Zoo director Dr. Dwight Lawson and the assistance of the Oklahoma State Historic Preservation office, which navigated the complicated paperwork with the U.S. Department of the Interior.

The weather was beautiful and the ceremony was simple. A small stage, podium and flag sat in front of the bathhouse. The guests were people who cared about the building’s architectural legacy. After a few short speeches, Dwight Lawson and Blake Cody, representing the Byron Gambulos Family, unveiled the bronze plaque secured on the bathhouse door.

For me, the next two activities were most symbolic, although most people probably missed their significance. First, the public was invited to walk up the twisted staircase into the ZooZeum tower for the first time ever.  Second, we planted an oak sapling in honor of the day, in honor of the CCC “tree Army” boys who built the bathhouse, and in honor of the Zoo’s location in an historic oak landscape. I had gathered water in a bucket from the source of an underwater spring on the other side of Zoo Lake so that guests could ladle water onto the sapling. The spring originally fed Zoo Lake and was the reason the bathhouse was built in the first place. The children participating really seemed to enjoy putting their dippers into the bucket to give the tree little drinks of water. It made me happy.

After the dedication, I returned to my office, changed back into my work uniform and began my Saturday-as-usual routine. I walked among many Zoo visitors who hadn’t heard about the day’s history-making ceremony. But I knew that something important had happened. After a decade of work, I’d helped save the bathhouse for all those people--for future generations!

That’s why I was glowing.

Special thanks to:

The CCC boys who built the bathhouse and all the Zoo directors who came afterward and kept the building intact; the Zoo caretakers, such as Ernie Wilson and Tommy Bryant, who provided maintenance to protect the building from deterioration over many years; the Gambulos family who funded the conversion and are honored with their name on the building; and Sherri Vance, Yvonne Lever and Karen Jones who helped guide the formation of the archives and galleries, which are housed within the bathhouse walls.

--Amy Dee Stephens, Education supervisor, naturalist

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