Once iconic Great Ape House torn down at the Kansas City Zoo

The Great Ape House at the Kansas City was dedicated in 1966.
The Great Ape House at the Kansas City was dedicated in 1966. File photo by Tammy Ljungblad

The space-age Great Ape House that blasted the Kansas City Zoo into the future in the 1960s is falling to Earth.

A demolition crew this week began taking down the curved glass panes and towering concrete supports that awed generations of children who were excited to see the gorillas, chimpanzees and orangutans that it housed.

It sat empty for more than a decade on choice real estate at the zoo. After years of talking about taking it down, zoo officials are spending nearly $300,000 to clear the land for a future exhibit tentatively labeled Predator Canyon.

Zoo director Randy Wisthoff explains why iconic structure is being demolished.

“It was just time for it,” said Zoo Director Randy Wisthoff. “People would walk by it and wonder why is that thing still standing? What is it? Are they ever going to do anything there?

“As we move forward and look at next projects it just became apparent it had served its life here at the zoo,” Wisthoff continued, “and it’s time to knock it down.”

For some, the building was immediately obsolete as the zoo world was even then moving toward more naturalistic environments for their animals. The Great Ape House was basically a prison for the intelligent primates. The inside was dark and the outdoor areas were deep concrete pits.

The apes would often hurl excrement at zoo visitors, to which Wisthoff can personally attest.

But many are nostalgic for the Great Ape House.

Art teacher Elizabeth Baddeley took her students to the zoo earlier this week to do some sketching and posted her feelings on Facebook.

“Our zoo’s primates now live in much more comfortable, natural habitats, which is fantastic,” Baddeley wrote. “But it’s still a little sad to see this old relic go.”

Baddeley’s students told her the ape house reminded them of Jurassic Park.

Amy Neely visited the zoo in 2012 and posted her disappointment on Facebook.

“I was so sad to see it’s retired,” she wrote of the ape house. “It was so bad-sci-fi-movie creepy awesome.”

The 55-foot tall Great Ape House was dedicated in 1966 and was dubbed the “Monkey Hilton.”

“It was a Kansas City icon,” recalled Matt Elder on Facebook. “You’d see its image promoted on various forms of city memorabilia and on local TV...I’m all for the zoo expansion, but see no reason not to incorporate older unique architecture.”

The zoo opened its huge new African section in 1995 with bonds approved by voters. It was time for the chimpanzees and gorillas to get lush new homes.

But the orangutans continued to languish for years in the deteriorating and leaking ape house. The plan was to build an equally ambitious Asian section at the zoo.

“It was going to be their next project,” said Wisthoff, who was associate director at the Henry Doorly Zoo in Omaha before coming here in 2003. “It didn’t happen as planned.”

The zoo came under pressure from the animal welfare division of the Department of Agriculture to do better for its orangs. The zoo almost lost its professional accreditation from the American Zoo and Aquarium Association, partly over the ape house.

Former Kansas City Zoo Director Mark Wourms considered sending the orangutans to other zoos. Instead, parks officials chose an interim solution and in 2002 they opened a $2 million exhibit that included a 27-foot tall “primadome.” The apes went from a concrete pit to a cage. The zoo promised it would only be temporary.

The former ape house largely sat empty, although it was dressed up as a haunted house for Halloween in 2003.

This spring the zoo opened a $6 million exhibit that allows its orangutans to climb artificial trees in an expansive open-air environment.

Loved or loathed, the Great Ape House is now part of zoo history.

Wourms, who once likened the building’s appearance to a nuclear reactor, talked grimly of having a public contest where the winner would get to help push the plunger to implode the thing. Late Kansas City parks Commissioner Bob Lewellen suggested letting the orangutans do it.

Wisthoff thought about selling raffle tickets and giving people a whack with a sledge hammer.

“But I figured the concrete was so thick you’d never get through it.”