“It was ludicrously ambitious for us. As you look in the rear-view mirror, you think, ‘What were we doing?’”
That’s how Paul Grayson, the Zoo’s Deputy Director and Senior VP of Conservation & Science, described the Indianapolis Zoo’s expansion and move from its old facility at East 30th Street to its new location at White River State Park back on June 11, 1988.
From Nov. 1, 1987, when the old Zoo closed to the opening of the new Zoo, everything increased roughly five-fold, from the size of the facility to the number of animals to staff roster. And while some of the changes were gradual, others happened virtually overnight.
Grayson, who has been with the Indianapolis Zoo for more than 30 years, was the Director of Education at the time of the transition. (That's him below in the early 1980s with a groundhog named Henrietta. But she's another story). He said the move certainly presented several challenges that he and other staff members had to take in stride. He recently shared one of many humorous stories from the move:
“It started with a broken shovel.
“Sunday, Sept. 8, 1985, was a scorcher. It was also the day of the groundbreaking ceremonies at the site of what would become the Indianapolis Zoo’s new home at a White River State Park that did not yet exist. The Zoo had set up the ceremony on the west end of the old Washington Street Bridge. Although actual construction would not begin until the following spring, many of the buildings that used to line both sides of old Washington Street had already been demolished. The new Washington Street Bridge and re-routed section of Washington Street had recently been opened, which was the green light for the Zoo to break ground.
“As far as ground-breaking venues go, this one was pretty bleak. There were no trees anywhere on the site — just exposed dirt and some patchy weeds. Over the summer of 1985, the ground had been compacted by heavy demolition equipment and baked for months under a hot sun. The result was that the ground was like concrete. Unfortunately, no one on the Zoo staff had given any thought to soil conditions or the strength of the very shiny ceremonial shovel.
“The shovel, which today hangs in the entrance lobby to the Zoo’s Administration Building, was little more than a display piece. It had a piece of metal welded to it and then was chrome plated. When former Indiana Gov. Robert Orr went to turn a shovel full of dirt, it just sort of glanced off soil. He then put some muscle behind it, and the shovel promptly bent at a 90 degree angle on the weld. Not the auspicious start that all of us wanted, but undeniably unforgettable.”
Though the broken shovel certainly wasn’t the last of the hurdles the Zoo had to overcome early on (the Whale and Dolphin Pavilion as well as the Deserts Dome opened late because of construction delays, then the hot summer of 1988 coupled with a lack of mature trees on Zoo grounds made for some steamy early days) but those are all fond memories now that the Zoo has come 25 wonderful years down the road.