Renovating History

December 21, 2015

Originally published in the November 2015 issue of Connect, A publication of the Association of Zoos & Aquariums

Famed author Kahlil Gibran wrote, “In one drop of water are found all the secrets of all the oceans.” This quote comes to life in the Toledo Zoo & Aquarium’s new Aquarium in Toledo, Ohio. After being closed for two and a half years, the completely renovated Aquarium reopened to rave reviews in March 2015.

The Aquarium building, opened in 1939, was originally constructed by unemployed craftsmen due to the Great Depression as a Works Progress Administration (WPA) effort. It utilized recycled river shale, salvaged clay brick and lumber, concrete and new glass block. At the time, it was the world’s largest freshwater aquarium. More than 75 years of bearing the immense weight of thousands of gallons of water and the corrosive effects of saltwater took quite a toll on the historic building, prompting the restoration plans.

After considering all options, including a new location, construction of a new facility on the current site and partial re-construction, it was decided to keep the historic exterior and completely modernize the interior. EHDD, a San Francisco-based architectural firm and an Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA) Commercial Member, and Rudolph/Libbe Inc., a local construction management firm, were hired. The goal was to create a state-of-the art interactive Aquarium while preserving the WPA-era building. This goal presented unprecedented challenges, including spatial constraints, building flow and capacity and balancing animal needs with public space.

The spatial constraints posed difficulties for architects and construction crews. While the foundation of the historic building was impressive, column spacing and the floor plan proved problematic. Massive new quarantine tanks, the size of the largest public exhibit in the previous Aquarium, were to be placed in the basement of the building. The column spacing necessitated that several of these new tanks be brought in piece by piece instead of pre-built.

Another spatial constraint was precipitated by budget. It was cost efficient to keep as much of the historic structure as intact as possible. The complete interior overhaul required engineered shoring to be placed indoors to support the building’s envelope, main structural components and roof. The shoring then had to be revised with every step of renovation process. The Zoo’s facility manager, Rick Payeff, likened it to a chess game during which each movement was precise and then perfectly countered. For example, some of the custom-designed acrylic exhibit panels, which weighed in excess of 7,000 pounds and measured 25 feet by 7 feet, were too large to fit through doorways. Ingenuity and a crane were utilized to maneuver those panels through a temporary roof opening, around the shoring and into place.

Another example of the spatial constraints was the installation of modern life support systems. While these new systems use much less water and energy than older models, they still require water reservoirs and space for Aquarium staff to utilize and service the equipment. Instead of infringing on the public or exhibit areas, the basement was excavated, and some of the air conditioning ducts were placed on the outside of the building to conserve valuable space.

The next major obstacle was the flow and capacity of the building. In the original Aquarium, there were two entrance points with two-way traffic. The new design called for a single entrance leading to a one-way circuit traffic pattern and one main exit point. The new entrance is actually located where an entrance was originally constructed by WPA workers but had not been used as such. Additionally, plans included utilizing the Aquarium as an event space for after-hours functions. To make the space even more efficient, the Captain’s Room, a separate intimate space with access to the Aquarium experience, was created. Another compromise made to accommodate use as an event facility was a movable wall. During the day, this wall provides part of the necessary darkness required to best see the unique flashlight fish, while during an event it can be pushed back for additional space.

The next challenge was balancing the exhibit expectations with the size of the building. In the original Aquarium, the exhibits were small and all framed in brick, which Aquarium curator Jay Hemdal equated to viewing fish through a porthole. In the new Aquarium, several exhibits have expansive floor-to-ceiling viewing panels, which fill the visitors’ entire field of vision with water, creating the illusion of the exhibit being even larger than it is. Other exhibits were scaled down to “jewel” or single species tanks that provide visitors an up-close experience with unique creatures and serves as a nod to the Aquarium’s humble beginnings.

Due to programming needs, some of the original concrete exhibits were also retained. This posed another set of challenges, including creating diversity from identical tanks, eliminating visitors’ view of keeper workspace and extending the tanks’ lifespans. To help solve these problems, tanks were merged to create varying sizes, artistic above-water dioramas and in-tank exhibitry camouflaged workspace and the concrete was re-conditioned and waterproofed. This recycling effort not only helped keep the project within budget but also features the animals in unique settings.

Size and scope also came into play with the two interactive touch tanks, the shark and ray pool and the invertebrate Ocean Lab. The challenge was to provide adequate space and water depth for the animals while ensuring the sea creatures were accessible to all visitors. This problem was solved through extensive research on proper habitats and construction of a ledge around the pool for younger visitors to stand. In addition, the exhibit features a specially designed inboard lip to keep the animals from jumping out. The lip curves back toward the water, so when a ray swims up the side, it will be guided back to the water and not out of the exhibit. Additionally, the center of the pool serves as a resting area for animals, still visible but out of the reach of visitors.

The incredible popularity of the touch tanks has provided its own unique set of issues. With the one-way circuit design, the touch tanks are the first exhibits visitors encounter. The interactive nature makes them a huge but time-consuming draw that can create congestion. To resolve this and provide the best visitor experience possible, during busy times the traffic flow is reversed so guests visit the Touch Tanks last and may spend as much time as they wish. This reversal also required visitors to rinse the salt water off their hands and apply hand sanitizer after utilizing the touch tanks. This action eliminates the problem of the mixture being spread like fingerpaint throughout the building and creating a difficult-to-clean film on exhibit glass. With frequently more than 8,000 visitors touring the Aquarium per day, spontaneous adjustments to the queue system and internal operations have also been necessary.

The only adverse comment from visitors is the restricted access of strollers and wagons in the Aquarium during busy periods. These restrictions were put in place for traffic flow, safety and optimal viewing for all guests. For guest convenience, a monitored stroller/wagon parking area is provided directly outside the entrance. The Zoo was able to address this concern via social media and offer non-peak time slots to visit. Additional measures to combat the lines associated with the Aquarium’s immense popularity have been to provide a photo opportunity to help pass the wait time and to “pulse” visitors into the exhibit in small groups.

While the challenges were unique, the Aquarium overhaul was a resounding success. The entire project stayed within budget and was completed on schedule. The renovation increased the amount of water volume from 48,000 – 182,000 gallons. It also increased the amount of public space by 74 percent. The new Aquarium is home to 271 species in 32 exhibits. All of this was accomplished while keeping the impressive vestige of history and modernizing the systems, exhibits and space within. One of the best examples of this is the largest exhibit, The Reef, generously supported by Owens Illinois, Inc. Its 90,000 gallons are housed within the historical rotunda, providing visitors six unique views through expansive windows.

The new Aquarium was unveiled to the public in a grand re-opening ceremony on 27 March 2015. As of 1 July, well over 405,000 visitors have enjoyed discovering the deep blue. On busy days, approximately 1,800 people per hour are appreciating the over 3,000 sea creatures living at the Aquarium. The Aquarium renovation is the Zoo’s latest step in providing a more participatory experience for our guests. Everyone is invited to dive in and explore the world beneath the waves at the Toledo Zoo’s new Aquarium.

By Kim Haddix, Jay Hemdal and Rick Payeff

Kim Haddix is the Communications Coordinator at the Toledo Zoo & Aquarium

Jay Hemdal is the Aquarium Curator at the Toledo Zoo & Aquarium.

Rick Payeff is the Director of Facilities and Planning at the Toledo Zoo & Aquarium

All photos copyrighted Toledo Zoo & Aquarium, photographed by Bruce Damonte 


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