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The Pueblo Zoo’s historic Animal House, undergoing the final phase of its rehabilitation this year, sports four whimsical cement sculptures on its roof. One of them, a proud-looking lion, is engraved with the name “Jno C. Sutton” and the number “40.” On December 15, 2005, the Pueblo Chieftain ran a photo of artist Richard Montano—who found the engraving—posing with the lion. Murano speculated that Sutton crafted the lion and several other animal statues that decorate the zoo’s historic district. Zoo officials knew nothing more about the artist, but hoped that a newspaper reader would step forward with new information that would enhance their interpretation of the Animal House and its wild statuary.
The Animal House is the Pueblo Zoo Historic District’s most significant resource. Partially funded by New Deal programs intended to help unemployed workers during the Great Depression, the sprawling single-story building sheltered and exhibited animals from 1940 to 1999. But this was no ordinary government project. Its hexagonal cupola and hand-set native sandstone exterior walls set it apart from other buildings and reflected a rustic aesthetic in vogue at the time of its construction. The district also includes Monkey Island, a habitat isolated by its own water-filled mote. A fake shipwreck rests on the island’s shore.
Until recently, all of these treasures—the Animal House, the sculptures, Monkey Island, and the shipwreck—were endangered because of serious deterioration. In 2001, Pueblo Zoological Society executive director Jonnene McFarland wrote to the State Historical Fund, asking for help. Requesting a grant for $264,000, she stated that the Animal House had been closed since 1999.
“People new to the community or visiting the zoo for the first time do not appreciate its historical significance,” McFarland asserted, noting that the resources comprise the only historic district within a zoo in the United States. “It is important that rehabilitation be accomplished before the generation that remembers the importance of the 1930s workers and craftsmen who created them is gone.”
Community members echo her sentiment. “Children who scrambled along Monkey Island in the 1930s and 1940s are today senior citizens and wish their grandchildren could play along the same paths they did,” wrote Pueblo city councilman Al Grule.
“The men who constructed the buildings were building them for their children and they built them with love,” added Joanne Dodds. “After the job was done, they and thousands of other Puebloans have brought generations of children to play at the zoo. Over time the zoo has become more than a physical presence, it is part of people’s memories.”
The $5 million preservation project, which began in 1997 when the zoo commissioned a master plan and continues today with the rehabilitation of the Animal House and Monkey Island, evolved into something more than a facility improvement program. The Animal House roof is under repair, windows are being replaced, walls are being cleaned, and mortar joints are being re-pointed. The fake boat is now in ship shape. But perhaps more importantly, the emotional bond between the community and the zoo has been strengthened.
The response to the Pueblo Chieftain’s December article about the engraving on the lion sculpture exemplifies that connection. Cañon City resident Gil Gillespie saw the engraving and identified the artist as his stepfather, John Sutton.
“My stepfather was an old Pueblo boy,” he told the paper. The self-taught artist created cement sculptures for the Pueblo Zoo before moving to Denver, where he did the same work for the Denver Zoo. Today’s visitors will recognize the two oxen pulling a wagon as his work. Later, he moved to New York City, where he built animal sculptures and naturalistic habitats for the Bronx Zoo.
“His animals were beyond description,” Gillespie said. “They were so lifelike you could swear they were going to crawl away or fly away, whatever the case may be.”
Sutton died in 1998, but his work lives on, thanks to the efforts of the Pueblo Zoo and its preservation partners and supporters.