Proposals for a zoo below the ruins of the Dudley Castle began in 1935 (Fig 1). The site was owned by the Earl of Dudley and together with Ernest Marsh, a local businessman, and Captain Frank Cooper they formed the first board of directors of the Dudley Zoological Society Limited. The animals came from Captain Cooper, now best known for Cooper’s Marmalade, who owned Oxford Zoo. Dr Geoffrey Vevers, the Superintendent at London Zoo was appointed as their Advisor. Vevers had recently worked with Tecton Architects, lead by the Tbilisi-born Berthold Lubetkin, at London where they had designed the Gorilla House and Penguin Pool. The success of these projects led to Tecton’s appointment at Dudley. Following this Lubetkin contacted the engineer Ove Arup who he had worked with at London Zoo, initially for Christiani and Neilsen and since 1934 for JL Kier and Co Ltd as the director responsible for designs and tenders.
The directors set a timetable for the zoo to open in spring 1937 and the design and construction had to proceed at a rapid pace, from design to completion in 18 months. In addition to the tight programme there were further pressures from dealing with the Ancient Monuments Department of the Office of Works, which was concerned about the setting and integrity of the castle. There were also unexpected engineering challenges from the unrecorded tunnels and mines below the site for the extraction of limestone and coal. The consequence of all this was that it appears that much of the final design was developed on site by Kier’s resident engineer, Ronald Sheldrake, and the project architect Francis Skinner. The design changes are most evident on the Bear Ravine structure where an almost complete circular stepped form had to be re-designed to a level viewing platform and a less than semicircular plan.
The zoo opened to the public on 6 May 1937 and two weeks later the front page of the Dudley Herald reported, “Bewildering Bank Holiday Traffic Scenes on Castle Hill. Estimated 150,000 visitors – 50,000 admitted”. By the end of that first summer the zoo had nearly seen 700,000 visitors. The main interest was to see the animals but for many it was likely to have been their first experience of modern architecture. All but one remain of the 13 buildings constructed for either the animals or visitors, and are now listed either grade II or II*. Together they form arguably the most complete set of buildings of the Modern Movement in the UK. The national and international importance of these buildings led to them being placed on the World Monument Fund’s watch list in 2009.
The design team of BPN Architects and Stand Consulting Engineers was appointed in 2011 to prepare an application to the Heritage Lottery Fund (HLF) for the repair and refurbishment of four of the structures. These were the grade II* entrance, Bear Ravine, and a nearby kiosk, together with the grade II listed shop, originally known as the Station Café. The design team brought together a vast expertise in 20th century buildings and an overview on conservation issues, as well as Stand Engineers’ involvement on the casework committee of the Twentieth Century Society and the ICOMOS International Scientific Committee on Twentieth Century Heritage.
The four structures were generally in a poor condition although some parts of the Bear Ravine were in a very poor state with extensive areas of spalled concrete due to corrosion of the reinforcement. A number of previous repairs had been carried out, including some using polymer modified mortars. None of the repairs had addressed the underlying issues or prevented further damage and some of these had also failed. A number of reports written before our involvement had concluded that a combination of major repairs and partial rebuilding was required.
None of the structures was being used as originally designed. Both the Bear Ravine and Kiosk were abandoned. The Entrance was used occasionally, but three of the five ticket kiosks were boarded up. The Station Cafe had seen much change over the years and was at the time being used as an entrance to the zoo and gift shop. Much of the building was closed off and used for storage.