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Zoo carousel plan spins through design review

By Elizabeth Wiener...Current Staff Writer...

The District may soon get a second carousel, just south of the lions and tigers at the National Zoo. But because the Zoo focuses on conservation and education, this carousel would have children riding models of endangered species, and potentially spinning courtesy of solar power.

The U.S. Commission of Fine Arts last week unanimously approved concept plans for a carousel off Olmsted Walk on a grassy slope between the Great Cats exhibit and Lemur Island. Ideally, Zoo planners say, ticket sales would eventually cover the cost.

The commissioners had one initial concern: Would the noise bother the animals? The Zoo’s landscape architect, Jennifer Daniels, said she’d shared that worry until various keepers reassured her.

“The closest animals are 250 feet away,” Daniels said. “And because they’re in a zoo, they get desensitized to sound.”

The Zoo’s master plan identifies the lower reaches of the park as a place for children’s activities. Daniels called the site, along the main pathway to the Great Cats, “a wonderful opportunity, a moment in the park with no animals, purely for visitors.” The carousel would be “in the hub of a highly active zone, with many intersections,” she said.

Carousels, in a variety of designs, are a feature of many zoos. According to Daniels, 80 percent of the nation’s top accredited zoos — including the Bronx Zoo — entertain young patrons with carousels.

The preferred design for the National Zoo at this point is a classic-looking structure with stone-covered piers, topped by a pavilion roof of slate shingles, with a smaller roof on top — in carousel-lingo, a “pre-fabricated clerestory dodecagon pavilion,” Daniels said. The materials would echo those on the nearby Mane Restaurant and other older Zoo buildings.

The ticket booth would be on Olmsted Walk, with amphitheater-type seating carved into the slope on the other side of the carousel.

Some of the fine arts commissioners were skeptical about the aesthetics and practicality of solar power, especially after Daniels showed a photo of the carousel at the Woodland Park Zoo in Seattle, its roof dominated by solar panels.

“That’s a traditional design, and solar panels on the roof seem out of place, and look very strange,” said commissioner Diana Balmori. “Could you put them somewhere else?” Member Edwin Schlossberg noted that it would take a great expanse of solar panels to completely power the carousel.

Daniels said planners are still exploring solar power for the carousel, and “aggressively pursuing a sponsor. It would be exciting to have a solar-run carousel.”

There was also some skepticism about the educational value of a carousel. Member Pam Nelson said she had taken her grandchildren to a zoo in Dallas with a similarly themed endangered-animals carousel. “They never knew,” she said. “They come and ride, shrieking. I don’t think most of the children who ride it have a clue.”

The Zoo, part of the Smithsonian Institution, has faced financial constraints of late. The popular Kid’s Farm almost shut down for lack of operating funds, for example, until State Farm Insurance Co. pledged $1.4 million.

But a carousel, Daniels and other Zoo officials said, could turn into “a revenue generator,” even producing funds for other Zoo needs. They hope it will open by spring 2013.

This article appears in the Sept. 21 issue of The Georgetown Current newspaper.