Palace of the Apes

by Lucas Wetzel

While the Power and Light building, The Scout statue at Penn Valley Park, and the sculptures atop Bartle Hall are much more likely to be regarded as Kansas City’s definitive landmarks, the most distinctive building I can think of is one that’s tucked away in a densely overgrown area, no longer in use.

For almost four decades, the Great Ape House at the Kansas City Zoo served as the home of the great apes and a gathering place for more advanced primates to observe them. Opened in 1966 and vacant since 2003, the Great Ape House has since become the subject of the kind of nostalgia and chatter usually reserved for decommissioned roller coasters.

Much like Worlds of Fun, the Kansas City Zoo offered a genuine escape from ordinary urban or suburban life. Both parks were illustrated in cartoonish maps of different regions one could travel to by foot or miniature train, with plenty of snack stands and gift shops along the way. Whether it was the distinctive rainbow water tower at Worlds of Fun, or the giant whale at the Zoo that you could walk through, the architecture never let you forget that you were in a special place.

The Great Ape house inspired fear, awe and respect — and not just because of the smell. The crown-like shape was similar to the scoreboard at Royals Stadium, and the building towered over the leafy zoo grounds like a jungle fortress. Its cylindrical design looked a bit like the U.S. Safety building in Lenexa, which as a child I confused for the ape house itself, always marveling at how close the monkeys lived to I-35. Others have compared its spires to the Metropolitan Cathedral in Liverpool.

Inside, the Great Ape House was a humid mishmash of primates, birds and vegetation. The apes would swing around on what vines they were allowed, or stand glumly amid rocks and water in the outdoor trenches. Although my firsthand memories are faint, a quick Web search turns up several similar impressions, such as this one from a forum:

I used to visit this when it was used and it was very hot and very smelly inside. I never thought it was a good place for the apes housed in it because of the heat and the lack of space for the apes. Even though the exhibits weren’t tiny, they were very sloped and the apes just seemed to be mostly huddling up by the building whenever I visited. Of course, that could just be what I saw when I was there, but I do remember feeling sorry for the animals when I saw them in those exhibits.

A friend of mine recalled visiting the ape house with a classmate who threw a rock at one of the gorillas in order to rile it up. The gorilla got angry, grabbed a stone, and threw it right back at them, just barely missing. “It was a real Planet of the Apes moment,” my friend said. “But that was a very Planet of the Apes kind of place.”

On a more recent visit, I saw the structure had been largely overgrown by trees and plants, giving it a more authentically tropical look than it had during its not-so-distant days of operation. Just when I started thinking of taking a closer look, I saw a zoo employee sitting on a tree stump reading a book, either on lunch break or there to ward off would-be visitors like myself. When I asked if there were any plans for the building, she said it was full of asbestos and any renovations would cost millions of dollars. Zoo architecture has come a long way since the ’70s, she explained, with animals introduced to environments more similar to their natural habitats.

A post by writer Mike Dutch described the Zoo’s evolution:

The gorillas and chimpanzee populations now experience more of that same freedom of movement that the large cats do. Trees, grass and lack of cement seem to do wonders for the demeanors of these magnificent and proud animals. As where gorillas used to sit, not move and literally look depressed, they now move about and interact with each other. The chimpanzee population is no longer confined to swing around on manmade rope swings and can swing around the indigenous trees of the zoo. It really is wonderful to see.

Lest these remarks be written off as the sympathies of animal rights activists, hard evidence exists that the apes themselves found the environment intolerable. In 1990, the ape house made headlines from Lawrence to Los Angeles when an 18-year-old orangutan named Cheyenne unscrewed several bolts and broke out into the visitor area, sending stroller-pushing parents into a panic.

Cheyenne’s 20 minutes of freedom proved to be a watershed moment in the annals of captive primate resistance, as noted in PETA’s extensive list of domestic Primate incidents (pdf).

Although primates at the zoo clearly have it better off today than Cheyenne did 22 years ago, a look into the historical record reveals that the controversial structure wasn’t always so reviled. In fact, the Great Ape House was regarded as quite innovative for its time, even appearing on the cover of The American City magazine in February 1967 for a story about zoo expansion and citywide efforts to contain the spread of Dutch elm disease.

The 2009 book Kansas City Zoo Tales: A Wild 100-Year History describes the exhibit as a unique modern concept that was being hailed as the “Monkey Hilton.”

A vintage postcard with a photograph by Fred Preisler described the structure in similarly optimistic terms:

The Great Ape House in Swope Park, Kansas City, Mo., symbolizes today’s remarkable artistry which aptly blends function with beauty. Chimpanzees, orangutans, gibbons and the great gorillas frolic and eat in their indoor-outdoor cages in full view of spectators. Inside, the Great Ape House is a tropical experience with an abundance of palm trees and colorful birds. Light streams through towering 55-foot-high roof to illuminate the animals in their cages. Outside, a moat 12 feet deep isolates the animals from contact with viewers.

By 2003, the structure was no longer in use, due to structural contamination, innovations in zoo architecture, and perhaps a lingering shame about the claustrophobic conditions to which we’d consigned our genetic relatives. Still, the place’s monumental presence is undeniable, with some ZooChat commenters calling for the ape house to be preserved as a prime example of archaic zoo architecture. Another asked, “Why not slap an engine into this monstrosity and blast visitors into outer space?”

As exciting as such an event would be, more practical plans are in store for the grounds, which have been cited as a potential home for the new “Predator Canyon” tiger exhibit. Even if it is torn down to make way for something new, the Great Ape House’s legend will endure. For those of us who visited in our early years, the magnetism of such a unique and foreboding structure never really fades.

Categories: Essay