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Brookfield Zoo’s Reptile House Renovated into
Mary Ann MacLean Conservation Leadership Center
Historic Building Preserved and Updated, will Provide Space for Conservation Programs

Brookfield Zoo's former Reptile House has received a major facelift to bring it into the 21st century. The Chicago Zoological Society (CZS), which manages the zoo, has restored and updated the existing building to save its historic architecture, despite this move being costlier than razing the structure. The new Mary Ann MacLean Conservation Leadership Center will be home to staff in the Society’s Conservation, Education, and Training (CET) Department and the CZS volunteers. The building will serve as a place to educate students and zoo guests of all ages and backgrounds—from toddlers to high school and college students to researchers and educators—about conservation.

“Conservation is the cornerstone of every environmental, educational, and animal initiative we embark on and is embodied in our mission of inspiring conservation leadership by connecting people with wildlife and nature,” said Stuart Strahl, Ph.D., president and CEO of the Chicago Zoological Society.

Each year, through programs administered by the CET Department, zoo educators serve thousands of students visiting the zoo and hundreds of families attending zoo classes. In addition, the CET program is involved internationally, as its staff provides professional training to a network of Latin American education and conservation institutions to expand the scientific capacity for conservation in the region. Staff at the new center will conduct programs that range from nature-based early childhood learning to issues affecting global change. The Mary Ann MacLean Conservation Leadership Center will also house the CZS volunteers and staff that collaborate with the Association of Zoos and Aquariums and other science education networks nationally, as well as programs in Latin America and Africa.

The space itself will showcase the importance of conservation through visible finishes made of sustainable materials and the repurposing of a pre-existing building. Signs posted throughout the space will explain the greenness of the materials and processes used in the restoration.

Construction on the original Reptile House began in 1927 through the Great Depression-era Works Progress Administration and was completed in 1934, when Brookfield Zoo opened. Much of the building’s interior and exterior have remained intact since its original construction, but the design was outdated and lacked energy-saving Brookfield Zoo’s Reptile House Renovated into
Mary Ann MacLean Conservation Leadership Center technology. The architecture was maintained and has been updated to utilize modern technology and help the Society cut down on energy consumption

“From the very beginning of this project, it was important to maintain the beloved Reptile House building as a Brookfield Zoo landmark,” said Strahl. “We wanted to enhance the building’s energy efficiency while respecting the classic architecture.”

Energy conservation and sustainability measures added to the building include new energy-efficient skylights that supply natural light; a mechanical system that incorporates an ice storage component to allow for the reduction of high energy costs to air condition the building; attic insulation and ventilation to reduce thermal gain; low-flow plumbing fixtures; energy-efficient lighting; insulated glazed window units at smaller punched openings; and overall improvements to the insulation. The exterior of the 11,000-square-foot facility will feature nature gardens of primarily native plants that showcase the importance of conservation. The natural prairie landscaping will also include a rain garden and outdoor teaching area to bring the conservation education outside. All systems used in the building were designed in accordance with applicable standards of the American Society of Heating, Refrigerating and Air Conditioning Engineers and in compliance with minimum energy-efficiency requirements and are anticipated to help the building achieve LEED certification.

Up to 50 zoo staffers will be able to use the new compartmentalized space for their daily work, and up to 150 zoo guests can participate in educational experiences and learn about conservation programs inside the building. Animals that participate in conservation educational experiences—such as turtles, frogs, rabbits, snakes, and lizards—can be temporarily housed in the animal holding area. Programs in the new space will include student education programs, teacher training programs, and various other educational seminars and meetings.

The Mary Ann MacLean Conservation Leadership Center, which cost $5.5 million and created more than 200 construction-related jobs, is made possible thanks to the generosity of many donors: The Christopher Family Foundation, Sandy and Glen Dittus, Illinois Jobs Now Capital Construction Program—Illinois Department of Commerce and Economic Opportunity, Yvonne Johnson, Connie and Dennis Keller, Mary Ann and Barry MacLean, Northern Trust, and the Public Museum Capital Grants Program—Illinois Department of Natural Resources, Illinois State Museum. Thanks also go to the Society’s Board of Trustees, Governing Members, and Women’s Board and to the Forest Preserves of Cook County.