Pepper Family Wildlife Center: A Walk Through History

October 13, 2021

A journey through Pepper Family Wildlife Center reminds guests of the zoo’s rich, 153-year-old history, with its historic building elements.

When zoogoers explore Pepper Family Wildlife Center for the first time, many will be amazed at the transformation of the historic lion house into a state-of-the art habitat. Although brand-new, Pepper Family Wildlife Center contains many of the same historic elements and unique features from the original, revered lion house—thanks to an extensive restoration and preservation process from Goettsch Partners, the architect for the project.


The original lion house was constructed in 1912 and designated a Chicago Landmark in 2005, with the designation report considering it “one of the most significant individual buildings located in Chicago’s parks.” The building is an exceptional 1912 Arts and Crafts structure with a rich material palette of many different colors of brick, terra cotta, clay tile, cast iron, and wood.

As you step inside Pepper Family Wildlife Center, be sure to look up and admire its rare Gustavino ceiling—a vaulted ceiling built of white terra cotta. The vaulted ceiling is lightweight yet structurally bearing in a similar fashion to old-world cathedral vaults. The Gustavino ceiling is the lion house’s most unique feature.

Preservation and restoration of the lion house required a careful balance of restoring the building’s historic features while designing new, distinctively modern elements to incorporate seamlessly with the more than 100-year-old structure. These new elements were essential to facilitate improvements in animal care and welfare, as well as an enhanced visitor experience.

Primary restoration of the building focused on the east and west entrances of the building, including brick, stone, and terra cotta masonry repairs, full mortar repointing, and cast iron arched window and entrance restoration. The original Arts and Crafts paint color scheme, a distinctive, rich, and significant part of the building’s authenticity, was also restored with the use of paint microscopy.

Preserving and restoring historic landmarks, such as the lion house at Lincoln Park Zoo, helps us connect to the past and understand history—reminding us how long the zoo has been in operation.

“The lion house is a noteworthy and enduring reminder that Lincoln Park Zoo has been in operation for more than 150 years,” said Andrew Fox, associate at Goettsch Partners. “It provides a chronology of how far animal habitat design has progressed since its original construction. Pepper Family Wildlife Center is a shining example of the zoo’s dedication to furthering animal care and welfare with its state-of-the-art elements and data-driven design, all while celebrating the past.”

Pepper Family Wildlife Center opens to the public on Thursday, October 14.

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