Lincoln Park’s Coolest New Homes Are For Real Animals

Penguin exhibit drawing

Penguin exhibit diagram courtesy of Lincoln Park Zoo

The newest residences being built in Lincoln Park are going to have butt-clenchingly strong air conditioning.

The Chicago Plan Commission has approved the construction of new habitats for the Lincoln Park Zoo’s polar bears, and a new flock of endangered African penguins.

The zoo will spend $22 million on “new, expansive digs” designed by The Portico Group in Seattle and Chicago’s Interactive Design Architects, for the polar bears, and an open-air habitat for the penguins.

You may remember the former Penguin/Seabird House. The 34-year-old enclosure was pretty much just a large aquarium inside a fake underground grotto. It was dark, noisy and smelled like the business end of a whale’s digestive tract. But it did have exceptional Clearwire internet reception, and many an article for this blog was pecked out on a lightly glowing laptop on a dank concrete bench to the chatter and whistles of seabirds.

Those besuited birds left Chicago long ago, landing in various zoos across the country. The new flock will focus on an endangered variety of penguins that enjoy warm weather. They only live on two dozen islands off the coast of Africa, and it’s estimated that just 55,000 of the birds are still alive. So why bring them to Chicago?

According to the Lincoln Park zoo, “The zoo has a successful history of producing African penguin chicks. The new habitat will allow the zoo to once again contribute crucial aid to the population of this endangered species.”

The zoo describes the new space this way:

A large viewing shelter with a floor-to- ceiling window will offer split-level views so all zoo visitors will be able to see the animals waddling on the rocky shore and gliding under the water.

The entire site will be extensively landscaped using trees, shrubs and other perennials that fit the respective ecological themes for each exhibit. Buildings associated with the new polar bear and penguin exhibits will feature ecologically-friendly green roofs. Both exhibits will offer zoo visitors year-round viewing of these species throughout summer and winter.

The old penguins left Chicago long ago, so they won’t be in the way. The same cannot be said of the polar bear, sun bears, Andean bear, or the hyenas. They’re being given the heave-ho, and will be relocated to other zoos while their exhibit spaces are torn down and rebuilt.

Polar bear exhibit drawing

Polar bear exhibit diagram courtesy of Lincoln Park Zoo

The new space is going to be much larger than the old space, and the zoo wants to play matchmaker with a breeding pair of bears, hoping to hear the pitter-patter of tiny, ferocious, flesh-tearing bear paws in the near future. The polar bear was one of the zoo’s most popular attractions, but make no mistake—polar bears will kill you dead.

The Lincoln Park Zoo has a long history with polar bears, dating back to at least 1884 when two were bought by the zoo. Others came as gifts.

One gift bear named Iceberg came as a present from Russia in 1939, and was paired with a female named Snowflake. He was Snowflake’s fourth partner; she is suspected of killing the previous three, Forty Below, Silver King, and Icicle in various ways, like some kind of ursine Agatha Christie book.

Another polar bear was a gift from the Alaska Elks, who were in town for their 1956 national convention. His name was Mike, and he was best known for ripping the (artificial) arm off a visitor who got too close.

Skaza didn’t wait for someone to climb the fence to make friends. She climbed out of the exhibit on a sheet of ice from a leaking hose, but didn’t eat anyone.

Miki-luk was born at the zoo in the 1970’s.

The current polar bear is Anana.  She’s a 16-year-old scorpio from Rochester, New York who tips the scales at a svelte 700 pounds. She enjoys long dips in the pool, and gnawing on the raw bones of other mammals.

Polar bear at the Lincoln Park Zoo

Photograph courtesy of the Lincoln Park Zoo

When the current polar bear attraction opened in 1983, it was considered state-of-the-art. Its 3,000-square-foot swimming pool was thought to be exactly what a big, furry arctic carnivore would want. But in the three decades since then, more research has led zoos to understand that the bears actually would have a little more deck, and a little less pool.

“The new habitat is being designed based on the latest scientific research which indicates more land is better than water-dominated space,” explained Steve Thompson, senior vice president of
capital and programmatic planning for the zoo. “Lincoln Park Zoo has always been a leader in animal care and welfare and will continue to use science to guide our plans to ensure we provide the most enriching environment possible for wildlife while also enhancing the guest experience and providing new and novel opportunities for visitors to learn about animals at the zoo.”

The new space has been designed to look and feel more like the arctic tundra than before. It features an ice cave, a den, softer ground, and a stream with a waterfall.

Construction is expected to begin this fall, and both projects should open by the time it gets warm in 2016.

When the time comes, if you’d like to send the new polar bears a house warming gift, according to city documents, the polar bears’ official address is 2300 North Cannon Drive.

Author: Editor

Editor founded the Chicago Architecture Blog in 2003, after a long career in journalism. He can be reached at

Share This Post On