Modern Makeover

In the world of zoological gardens, accreditation by the Association of Zoos and Aquariums holds the key to legitimacy. It separates seasonal zoos with only exterior exhibits from those that maintain year-round operations and offer enclosed exhibit areas as well.

In its quest for the coveted AZA designation, the Turtle Back Zoo in West Orange, N.J. recently underwent a major expansion and facelift that included the construction of an enclosed reptile exhibit area, a new education center, gift shop and administrative section. The education center now incorporates the zoo’s new exhibits, and replaces classroom and office facilities spread throughout the original 40-year-old complex, which is owned by Essex County Park System.

Breaking It Down

The modernization and expansion effort carefully mirrors the zoo’s master plan developed by Clarke Caton Hintz Architects of Trenton, N.J., which designed the exhibit area and education building. The new 12,000-square-foot facility is divided into three main areas with differing roof heights to match the appearance of adjacent buildings.

The exterior materials--some 1,000 square feet of gray, coated steel and aluminum standing-seam roofing, and 4,100 square feet of white, green and gray, galvanized steel and aluminum siding--complement the existing Tudor and wood-framed buildings. Moreover, the corrugated metal panels and large overhangs, in concert with the heavy timber entrances and wood members, give the zoo a distinct “jungle-like flavor.” Even the zoo’s entrance, with its clever signage and imitation reptile fossils, projects a playful image.

The museum-quality reptile center houses a number of smaller exhibit tanks and three large exhibits, including the featured black dragons. The interpretive exhibits allow ample visitor interaction and provide an ideal educational setting, according to George M. Hibbs, Partner-In-Charge at Clarke Caton Hintz.

A Diverse Population

The goal of the main exhibit is to show the diversity of reptiles, a theme implemented through the use of animals recruited from various environments, including tropical rain forests and deserts. “In a relatively small space, the exhibit spans the globe and shows environments and specimen from tree tops to lake bottoms, from drenching, saturated deep earth soil to hot, arid, sandy climates,” Hibbs said. “The architecture responds to each of these program elements.”

With an eye toward continuity, Hibbs sought to continue the “storybook” design theme of the original Turtle Back Zoo, using a wood and stucco-like approach and a false, half-timber façade treatment. “We envisioned a scaled down version of a Norman medieval structure,” Hibbs noted. “So we updated the half-timber appearance using white corrugated metal panels in lieu of stucco and oil-stained Douglas fir lumber.”

Metal was the hands-on choice, Hibbs explained, adding that no other product or material could provide the desired architectural treatment. “The education building had to respond to a complicated series of criteria,” he said. “It needed two faces – one as seen from the parking lot or entry point, and another as seen from the zoo side or exhibit entry.”

Selecting Materials

The corrugated metal wall panels have proven to be a durable, handsome material, far less expensive up front than any of the other material options reviewed. Additionally, various methods were used to install the metal siding, resulting in “a depth of shadow and surface that otherwise would not have been attainable,” Hibbs said. The metal panels and the façade design are so popular that zoo administrators have decided to use them on buildings that surround the reptile exhibit area, including restrooms, docent offices and animal barns.

Visitor Interaction

Upon entering the reptile exhibits, visitors come face to face with a 20-foot-long, life-like pterodactyl flying down from the ceiling. A 12-inch high riser at the base of all exhibits allows children to better view them. Signage and graphics appear at multiple levels. This allows children and those close to the exhibits to easily read the animal indentification panels. In addition, backlit signage appears overhead for those further back awaiting their turn to view the animals.

The concern for visitor and staff safety is clearly demonstrated through the use of laminated tempered safety glazing throughout the exhibit area. The glazing provides large expanses of clear viewing, yet protects visitors in the event of an emergency.

“Visitors seem to like what they see, as evidenced by the tremendous feedback zoo officials are receiving,” Hibbs noted. “In fact, the zoo recently broke its all-time attendance record, a development that we think speaks volumes about the success of the expansion and modernization effort.”