by Amy Dee Stephens
“You’re glowing today.”
That’s what my co-worker said when I arrived at work on Sat, Feb 18th, 2017. I didn’t know it showed, but it was a proud day for me. The day represented the culmination of twelve years of hard work: rescuing lost zoo history, saving an important building from destruction, reminding folks that the zoo is in the entertainment 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. This stone structure, currently named the Patricia and Byron J. Gambulos ZooZeum, has a place in history this is a result of many people over many years.
It 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 Oct 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 bathhouse’s original purpose was for swimmers to the lake, but over time, the bathhouse also housed the 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 building that had stood watch from the corner of the zoo since 1935.
In 2011, the ZooZeum opened with the purpose of helping guests discover the zoo’s history and reconnect with their own zoo memories. Landing on the National Registry came with the blessing of zoo director, Dwight Lawson, and the assistance of the Oklahoma State Historic Preservation office, who navigated the complicated paperwork with the U.S. Department of the Interior.
The weather was beautiful on Feb 18th. 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 Lawso
n and Blake Cody, representing the Byron Gambulos Family, unveiled the bronze plaque placed 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, an oak sapling was planted: 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 a historic oak landscape.
I had gone to the source of an underwater spring on the other side of the lake to collect the bucket of water for guests to ladle onto the sapling. The spring originally fed zoo lake—and was the reason why the bathhouse was built in the first place. The child attendees really seemed to enjoy putting their dippers into the bucket and giving the tree little drinks of water. It made me happy.
After the dedication, I returned to my office, changed back into work uniform, and got back to my Saturday-as-usual routine. I walked among many zoo visitors who didn’t know about the history-making ceremony that had just taken place. But I knew that something important had happened that day. 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. Sherri Vance, Yvonne Lever and Karen Jones who helped guide the formation of the archive and galleries housed within the bathhouse walls.
This article was published on the Oklahoma City Zoo website blog: https://www.okczoo.org/blog/posts/zoozeum-added-to-the-us-registry-of-historic-places