April 12, 2024

The San Antonio Zoo’s historic Monkey House will soon be a nationally recognized landmark and open to visitors for the first time. 

A nomination of the 1930s structure to the National Register of Historic Places, supported last week by the Historic and Design Review Commission with the backing of the Texas Historical Commission, is likely to be approved by the National Park Service later this year. 

This photo was taken during the 1935-1937 construction of the Commissary/Monkey House building at the San Antonio Zoo.
This photo was taken during the 1935-1937 construction of the Commissary/Monkey House building at the San Antonio Zoo.University of Texas at San Antonio Special Collections

It was only when animal cages surrounding the building were removed five years ago that Tim Morrow, the zoo’s president and CEO, and his staff realized that the Spanish Revival building was a real gem. Its red clay tile roof, rubble limestone walls and arched doorways had been obscured by a fence and oak trees, but it has real beauty and historic ties to San Antonio’s cultural and natural landscape, he said. 

RELATED: Brackenridge Park panel to choose projects to address neglect

“This building is so beautiful, and it’s been hidden for decades,” Morrow said. “We want to make it a centerpiece of what we do in our entry plaza going forward.” 

A rendering shows an overhead view of the San Antonio Zoo's new entry plaza, with the renovated Monkey House at the top of the image. The zoo hopes to have the project completed late this year.
A rendering shows an overhead view of the San Antonio Zoo’s new entry plaza, with the renovated Monkey House at the top of the image. The zoo hopes to have the project completed late this year.Courtesy / PGAV Destinations, San Antonio Zoo

The 86-year-old building, called the Commissary/Monkey House in its National Register nomination, initially housed a food-handling facility where meals for animals throughout the zoo were refrigerated and prepared. It later also housed small primates that were exhibited in outdoor cages connected to exterior walls and metal gates, so the monkeys could be moved inside during cold spells. 

Lemurs, mangabeys and gibbons are among the animals that have been kept at the Monkey House. But as welfare standards improved, the zoo has shifted toward larger enclosures and moved some of the animals to sanctuaries or other zoos. The zoo still has lion tamarins and Fracois’ langurs — species once kept at the facility.   

A rendering shows the San Antonio Zoo's new entry plaza, with the renovated Monkey House to the right. The zoo hopes to have the project completed late this year.
A rendering shows the San Antonio Zoo’s new entry plaza, with the renovated Monkey House to the right. The zoo hopes to have the project completed late this year.Courtesy / PGAV Destinations, San Antonio Zoo

Based on guest feedback, the zoo will convert the building for three visitor functions. One end will be a retail shop with sunscreen, hats and stroller and wheelchair rentals and other goods and services to start a zoo visit. The other end will house a cafe, serving pastries, breakfast items and sweets. In the middle will be large, accessible men’s and women’s restrooms, diaper-changing stations, family restrooms and a nursing mother’s room. 

“For the first time ever, people will be able to walk through that building and see it inside,” Morrow said.  

It may no longer be called the Monkey House. But the zoo, which initiated the register nomination process, intends to clean and restore the structure and provide text explaining its history. 

This 2018 photo show cages around the San Antonio Zoo's Monkey House. Zoo officials said they realized when the cages were removed that year that the building had beauty and historic integrity. 

This 2018 photo show cages around the San Antonio Zoo’s Monkey House. Zoo officials said they realized when the cages were removed that year that the building had beauty and historic integrity. 

Photo courtesy of the San Antonio Zoo

The nomination says the building meets criteria for the register through its connection to Depression-era New Deal programs, “rustic design” seen throughout the zoo and the noted architectural firm Adams & Adams, which also created plans for other features in the zoo and some of San Antonio’s most recognized structures, including Jefferson High School.

Origins of the zoo date to 1914, when George Washington Brackenridge, who’d donated land 15 years earlier that became Brackenridge Park, provided buffalo, deer, elk and other animals to start a zoo collection. But the zoo struggled during the Great Depression and relied on federal programs to maintain and expand its operations.  

RELATED: Brackenridge project starting despite tree controversy

According to the nomination prepared by Post Oak Preservation Solutions of Austin, the Commissary/Monkey House building, with exposed interior wood rafters and concrete floors, “retains good historic integrity” and is an “excellent example of the ‘New Deal-era buildings and structures.’ ” Some of the small exterior openings that provided access in and out of the building for the animals remain intact, with the metal doors fixed shut. 

A golden lion tamarin keeps warm by a heating lamp at the San Antonio Zoo during a cold snap in 2012. Tamarins were among the primates kept at the zoo's Monkey House. That facility no longer accommodates animals, but the zoo still keeps some lion tamarins. 

A golden lion tamarin keeps warm by a heating lamp at the San Antonio Zoo during a cold snap in 2012. Tamarins were among the primates kept at the zoo’s Monkey House. That facility no longer accommodates animals, but the zoo still keeps some lion tamarins. 

Kin Man Hui/San Antonio Express-News

It was built from 1935-1937 at a cost of $18,000, “during a pivotal moment in the evolution of the San Antonio Zoo,” the nomination states.

Then-zoo director Fred Stark oversaw more than 100 workers of the Works Progress Administration. Since the zoo was built on a quarry, limestone produced there reduced construction costs. Other facilities funded or built through the WPA included aviaries, a Hippopotamus House, Elephant House and Reptile House.

“While other zoos across the country were also undergoing New Deal-era expansion projects using federal funds, none had the abundance of natural stone at their disposal,” the nomination said.