1920s Zoo Brought Tropics' Looks, Smells to NW

Eighty years ago, Victor Evans, left, brought wild animals from the tropics to his zoo in Northwest. Above, his wife, Zenobia, communes with the birds.
Eighty years ago, Victor Evans, left, brought wild animals from the tropics to his zoo in Northwest. Above, his wife, Zenobia, communes with the birds. (Underwood & Underwood Collection, Library Of Congress)
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By John Kelly
Tuesday, September 23, 2008

On a warm day not long ago, I parked my car at Battery Kemble Park in Northwest Washington and went looking for wild animals.

I saw plenty of squirrels and the occasional chipmunk. But I didn't see a single zebra, African bush pig or DeBrazza's guenon, a forest monkey whose distinctive white mustache and beard make it look like a tiny, furry Gandalf.

Things would have been different 80 years ago, when a wealthy patent lawyer named Victor Justice Evans owned a big chunk of land west of Foxhall Road off of Hawthorne Lane NW. It was there that he built a 10-acre private zoo, filled it with all manner of beasts and fowl and christened it "Acclimation Park." The name, he said, reflected his conviction that animals from the tropics could be conditioned to live in Washington's climate. History does not record how Jiggs the orangutan and Toto the chimpanzee felt about that.

I don't think Washington has many characters like Evans anymore: self-made millionaires with voracious intellectual appetites and bizarre hobbies. Born in Ohio in 1865, Evans moved to Washington as a boy, attended public school here and learned drafting. He excelled at drawing the illustrations that accompanied patent applications and turned that skill into the country's largest patent law firm, with hundreds of lawyers and offices in four states.

The cover of a 58-page pamphlet Evans's firm sent to hopeful inventors shows an Indian brave atop a cliff overlooking a valley. Down below, a factory belches smoke while a biplane floats in the sky. The title of the illustration is "Progress."

As more tinkerers came to him with inventions related to the airplane, Evans got involved in aviation himself. He became president of the Rex Smith Aeroplane Co. of College Park and in 1911 sponsored a $10,000 prize for the first person to fly from St. Louis to New York City. An aviator named Henry Atwood completed the trip in 28 hours, 58 minutes; he later complained that the money barely covered his expenses.

Evans also had a mania for Native American artifacts, an interest that started, he said, when members of a Western tribe came to his office to hire him in a suit against the federal government. It's unclear how much assistance Evans actually provided the tribe, but they certainly were able to help him. Evans was a Shriner, and in 1923 he organized the fraternal organization's national convention in Washington. An amphitheatre was built across from Union Station, and 130 Indians were brought to town by train, along with dozens of cowboys and hundreds of horses and cows. A highlight of Evans's Western pageant was the Indian "attack" on a stagecoach filled with society women.

Evans's affection for things Native American spilled over into the Victor Building, the headquarters he constructed, and which still stands, at Ninth and G streets NW. When his patent firm occupied the sixth floor, nearly every square inch was decorated with items from his collection: baskets, blankets, paintings, masks. Evans left the collection -- about 3,000 pieces in all -- to the Smithsonian.

"It's quite substantial for a private collection," said Candace Greene, an ethnologist at the National Museum of Natural History. She wishes she knew more about how Evans put it together. "We have tried very hard to find out more about how he assembled the collection and ideally to find a catalogue that shows how he acquired the items. And we've never found it. People have been searching for 70 years now."

And I went to Battery Kemble Park, searching in vain for any trace of his zoo: a bit of cage, a rusty feeding trough, a vine-covered outbuilding like something from the second "Jurassic Park" movie. After all, this is where Evans once kept more than 300 animals, including rare pheasants, two dozen species of parrots, several mustache monkeys, a mountain goat known as a Himalayan tahr, a Chapman's zebra and three types of antelope (a black wildebeest, a blackbuck and a common eland, for those keeping score).

Evans died in 1931 and left the animals -- minus, his will stipulated, those pets his widow, Zenobia, wanted -- to the National Zoo. He left no direct descendants and neither, said the Smithsonian, did his animals. He was buried in Rock Creek Cemetery.

I like to think that on certain nights, when the moon is full and low, his spirit returns to Acclimation Park, communing there with the long-dead shades of the animals he loved so much.

My e-mail: kellyj@washpost.com.

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