Jackson’s Zoo When It Was New

It’s weird how often my travels through old newspapers will lead me unexpectedly to an article that sheds light on a topic currently in the news. That very coincidence happened recently when the news broke that the organization that runs the Jackson Zoo is considering attempting to move to another site, idealing at Lefleur’s Bluff State Park. I prevaricate with “considering attempting” because this non-profit organization, which occupies the city-owned site on West Capitol, somehow thinks they can raise the $50 to $100 million dollars ($50 million is their estimate, $100 million is a more realistic suggestion that has been floated) to build a brand-new zoo when they have been apparently unable to raise the vastly smaller sums to maintain their big-draw animals such as the elephants, which had to be sent away in 2010.

Although I’m not a connoisseur of zoos, I like this one, and I support the zoo at its current location and want the City and the zoo (and I wish the state, but that’s probably too much to hope for) to invest in the neighborhood it is in and “consider attempting” ways to get at least some of the big-draw animals back, including expanding the zoo to allow larger animal exhibits required by current accreditation standards while maintaining the smaller existing exhibits. As I see it, visitor numbers declined with the recession and then further as each big animal species got sent to other zoos, so the only way to get people back is to bring back animals they want to see. I have to believe that surely, this approach wouldn’t cost anywhere in the range of $50 to $100 million??

If you’ve been to the zoo, you know that it’s a special place, an intimate setting from a time when zoos didn’t have all the bells and whistles expected at many big-city zoos today. Many of the buildings are in a Craftsman style with barrel-tile roofs and are clad with that distinctive yellow-orange Catahoula stone, and the same stone forms the low knee walls that line the pedestrian walks through the park.

And then there’s the wacky castle complete with turrets and towers on the southern end of the park. It’s still called Monkey Castle even though nowadays it stands at the center of an alligator exhibit.

I’ve known that many of these structures were “built by the WPA,” but I was never clear on whether it was actually the WPA or one of the other alphabet-soup agencies of FDR’s New Deal, and I had never seen any real documentation about the building project that gave the zoo its 1930s character. So imagine my surprise when looking for something else entirely, soon after reading the April 2018 Clarion-Ledger article about the zoo, to come across this other Clarion-Ledger article, a full page complete with pictures, from 1941 that told me almost everything I wanted to know about this fascinating place and how it came to have these wonderful stone structures.

Turns out, Josh Halbert (1893-1981), the city’s public works director, was a zoo guy and he pretty much planned the whole thing in the new “natural-habitat” design that took the animals out of cages and out amongst the highly planned but seemingly informal environments of Halbert’s “studied design.” (If you recognize Mr. Halbert’s name, congratulations! After his retirement, the city recognized Mr. Halbert with the still-cool-and-shady and still-watery (in contrast to Smith Park) Josh Halbert Garden on the west side of Jackson City Hall). The article also takes care to note the reddish-brown stone of the Monkey Castle and names the two different local quarries that the two different types of stone came from. All in all, I emerged from this article with even more appreciation for the zoo and its place in Jackson’s history and culture than I had before, and I’m even more energized to see it come back from its recent woes and flourish in the same place that Mr. Halbert and many others in the city took so much care to create.

Monkey Island Features ‘New’ Jackson Zoo With Formal Ceremony Today

Livingston Park zoo blossoms forth Easter Sunday in a new dress, heralding opening of a completely transformed zoological center.

An informal ceremony presenting the new zoo quarters to the citizens of Jackson will be held at 3 o’clock Sundat afternoon when Park Commissioner R.M. “Bob” Taylor releases forty new monkeys onto the Monkey Island.

Mayor Walter A. Scott and Commissioner A.F. Hawkins and many other city officials are expected to be present for the short program which climaxes a rebuilding program under way since 1938.

Individualistic in design, the zoon has been modelled on the moat system, provding natural surroundings for the animals and eliminating unsightly cages and fences.

Livingston Park Zoo is being heralded from all quarters and is receiving praise from thousands of visitors as comparable to any zoo setting in the country.

Particular praise has been proffered on the Monkey Island and unique castle which is statedly the center-piece of the transformed zoo.

With Commissioner Taylor authorizing the reformation program and submitting many helpful ideas, the zoo has been transformed into a zoological garden as well as zoo quarters for many species of animals. The artistic landscaping and arrangement of gardens and flowers has added immeasurably to the zoo design.

New deer and waterfowl enclosures

Planned by Halbert

The entire zoo layout was planned and supervised by Josh Halbert, city director of public works, and carried out by the park department with cooperation of various other city departments.

Opening of the Monkey Island brings the original zoo transformation program to over half completion, leaving the “cat” moats, natural quarters for the lions, tigers, bears and smaller animals still to be constructed into the master plan.

The city some time ago acquired a rock quarry located at Raymond, and all the stone and rock used in the zoo walls and moat construction is quarried by the government for the city at a very low cost. This feature alone has enabled the rebuilding program to be carried out in a casual naturalness always lacking in an artificial design.

One of the unusual features of the new zoo is the prevalence of grass on the moats, something few other zoos have been able to effect in their layouts.

The new Monkey Island and imposing castle is a combination of all the best ideas gathered from other monkey islands over the country and is constructed of the local rock. The smaller rocks and stone used in the castle construction came from Ainsworth lake in Rankin county and are altogether different in texture and color.

Natural Rocks, Grass

The moat is 120 x 80 feet in size and the Island is completely enclosed by a wide waterway which prevents the more curious monkeys from venturing into other sections of the park via the walls. The Island combines a natural rock and grass terrace, with the grassy center being finished in concrete resembling a lawn. This effect was secured after considerable experimentation with color and concrete mixtures. It affords a greater degree of cleanliness in washing and cleaning, it was pointed out.

The castle is three stories high, with four towers of medieval design adorned with festive flags and has a drawbridge under which a stream trickles steadily over the rocks.

There is large connecting tunnel underneath the castle, opening under the summer house just north of the Island. This areaway enables caretakers to reach the Monkey Island without use of boats of unsightly bridges so often found on other Monkey Islands.

The castle is finished inside, equipped with gas, electricity and running water and is fully ventilated. There are a numener of rooms under the summer house which are used as winter quarters for the many birds of the zoo.

The problem in arranging such an original layout was to accomplish a casualness without betraying the effect of studied design and this idea was artistically secured in the arrangement of stones about the yard and placement of two large, scraggily artificial concrete trees in the front yard. Thick vines are hung about the two trees for the monkeys to travel on or swing about.

Spotted Many Times

All caves under the rocks on the moat have been arranged and spotted many times before finally having been approved in their present location.

The Monkey Island is larger and has more monkeys residing on it than any other in the South, it was pointed out. Many visitors who have seen the Island have told city officials it surpasses those of many zoos.

The castle has several large double doors of medieval design and a number of small windows placed about in the towers. Several of the windows operate on hinges, enabling the young colonists to romp through the building.

On the extreme south end of the moat, there is a large sandy-like beach, with a miniature village including a town hall, fire station, jail, general store, church, saloon, and beach hotel. There is one springboard and a see-saw arranged near the water on the beach edge which the more venturesome monkeys try and then leap backward much to the delight of spectators.

The new Castle residents are natives of Indian and are of the Rhesus species, ranging in age from 16 to 18 months.

Birds Strut

The bird lagoons are particularlly inviting because of the mirrored feeding stands which constantly attract the pea-fowls, pelicans and lesser regal birds.

These larger birds strut back and forth, preening themselves and showing off to their likeness and any other observers—either bird or zoo spectator.

Improvements continue under the direction of the park department and other city divisions cooperating, with planting of flower beds, rock gardens and pools constantly being brightened to add additional units to the garden-like setting.

The walkways have been entirely replaced, new benches provided for tired visitors and the inviting collness of the vine-covered summer house already beckons many a weary mother or nursemaid.

Much of the beautiful moat sections were recleamed from unused portions or undeveloped areas of the zoo while other units emerged from behind unsightly fences or captive cages.

These areas were cleaned of underbrush, thich bushes and rebuilt into the attractive moats. Trees and shrubs were replanted to enhance the natural background for the particular animals occupying the moats.

Ideas for the present new sections of the zoo were gathered by Mr. Halbert during vacation periods over the past few years, spent visiting zoos all over the country.

Jackson’s Zoo is fast growing into one of the country’s finest examples of natural habitat design as well as from national honors in types of anumals and success in raising young in captivity.

Clarion-Ledger, April 13, 1941


Categories: Architectural Research, Cool Old Places, Historic Preservation, Jackson, Mississippi Landmarks


18 replies

  1. Thanks for this post. We take our kids to the zoo almost every time we visit my in-laws in Jackson, and it both fascinates me and horrifies me at the same time. Monkey Island is my favorite, and I love hearing my husband’s stories of visiting in his youth and my mother-in-law’s stories about visiting the park in its prime, and even swimming in that lake. Like every visit to Jackson, it is a history lesson/Time Machine come to life. I hope they don’t move, but I agree some additional financial investment is much needed. Living in Atlanta, where every attraction is priced out of the reach of the average family, one of the things that always impresses me about Jackson is the high quality and relative affordability of all the museums (art, childrens, natural science), but the Zoo has always seemed the outlier in terms of quality.
    Love your blog!

    Liked by 1 person

    • I am a member of the zoo society board and I’m writing s history of the zoo at Livingston park. Please get in touch with me.
      JoAnne morris
      601 813-1302


    • I am a member of the zoo society board and I’m writing s history of the zoo at Livingston park. Please get in touch with me.
      JoAnne morris
      601 813-1302


  2. unfortunately anyone and everyone who would or could care about the zoo, or any zoo have left jackson, I grew up in west Jackson. When I HAVE to visit Jackson, I get a a motel/hotel outside of town and even gas car out side . Jackson has become as unsafe as some larger citys.


  3. That was Livingston Lake, and the zoo was called the Livingston Zoo, named for Samuel Livingston from whom the city purchased the land. But I remember the big orange and white water tank and the planes flying very low over the zoo. We were there in the late 40’s or early 50’s and a plane had crashed in the park. There were plane parts strewn everywhere. Obviously this was not that unusual. There were Dutch flyers at the airbase during the war and there is a section at one of the cemeteries that has the graves of those who were killed in training accidents. Jackson Public Schools sponsored field trips to the zoo every year for the elementary school students, and pardon the pun, it WAS a zoo with all those kids running loose through the Zoo.


  4. The monkeys were at Monkey Island until there was a TB outbreak. Even though they could have been successfully treated, they were ordered to put them down. It was believed they caught it from an infected person throwing food over the moat.
    I loved coming to this zoo when I was a child. At the time the entrance was across from the round snack shop. We would get peanuts and Orange Crush and stop on the low walls to eat our snack. My favorite animals were the sea lions. I don’t know how long they’ve been gone but their habitat was destroyed to make way for the Mississippi habitat many years ago. They were up the hill from Monkey Castle.
    I will be sad to see this go but I don’t know that there’s any way to maintain it where it is. Investors won’t pledge money as long as the city neglects the neighborhood. And the city doesn’t have any money to spend either.


  5. I totally agree that the zoo should stay where it is. The neighborhood and the zoo need more investment, but the average zoo patron has nothing to fear going there.

    Did you find out where the WPA or whatever agency came into this; was there really any federal involvement?


  6. Nice article, thank you for sharing. Once again the City needs to get its act together. Why not form a support group that would focus on fund raising and other tasks? I’ve seen this done and it works with the right management.


  7. If the city administration wants to make Jackson welcoming to visitors, FIX THE POTHOLES first and foremost. Nothing else should take priority! If you can’t drive the streets in Jackson, then you WON’T come to Jackson! And you won’t come to (or can’t get to) the zoo! Just sayin’! Why is that so difficult to understand?


    • I agree, and the streets around the zoo are especially jarring. If the goal of the zoo’s board in all this is to jolt the City into getting a plan for the area around the zoo, then I support that.


  8. Great find E.L.–thanks for sharing! Jackson doesn’t need a zoo like all the others across the country. The Zoo Board should be thinking about capitalizing on the zoo’s uniqueness–all part of what makes Jackson an interesting place, despite the potholes.

    Liked by 1 person

  9. Thanks for your article and especially for the 1941 Clarion Ledger story. Fascinating! As to the potential move, I’ve got mixed emotions. I’d prefer that it stay where it is for more reasons than I will attempt to list here, but in order to get the numbers of visitors it needs to not just survive, but flourish, the surrounding infrastructure and neighborhoods will have to be improved to a level that probably can’t happen in less than many, many years. More years than the zoo can survive with the trend in declining visitation. So if a miracle can happen, and there’s always hope, I’m all for it. I live in Jackson and I know full well that the area is safe to visit if you’re willing to dodge a few pot holes (just like virtually anyplace else in Jackson), but virtually no one in the surrounding area believes that and, again, it will realistically take years to change that perception. Likewise, the real economics of moving the zoo are probably unattainable, particularly given its decline in visitation and thus in support. Not a pretty situation and not easily resolved no matter what. Geez, after writing this I’m starting to think that a miracle is the only hope!


  10. I love the zoo and I would love for it to stay in the neighborhood.


  11. Save the Jackson Zoo, this is part of Jackson’s history. Imagine the regret if this zoo is demolished.


  12. Speaking of the Catahoula Stone, I passed by Wagon Wheel Video Store(former Wagon Wheel Restaurant) on 49 South of the Cloverleaf and saw a track hoe in progress(sic) of demolishing the building down to the basement. The facade of that building was composed of Catahoula stone veneer over concrete block. Two large piles of splintered lumber and concrete bloc dot the site, but I saw none of the stone.
    Maybe the stone was salvaged before the demolition.


  13. Hello. The zoo has a nice collection of animals, but I seen some of the of the pictures of them online, and it seems that their habitats are outdated and artificial. The animals’ surrounds do not resemble the natural habitats of their regions. For instance, the birds are in cages with no live plants and/or items that help to remind them of their native habitats, such as a forest. I been thinking it must be a lack of education and/or resources that are contributing to the conditions of the zoo.

    I wondered did many staff members of Jackson Zoo visited other zoos in the US to learn and experience more about the animals habitats.

    I hope that the zoo will be better soon for visitors and animals. Have fun and faith in God.


  14. The Zoo will never flourish in the city ofJackson…would,Iove to see it outside the city limits. It could be improved and enlarged like the zoo inMemphis…would be wonderful addition to tourism…but Iwould not go into the city of Jackson for anything…armpit of the South!


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