Inspired by the renowned landscape architect Horace Cleveland in the 1870s, St. Paul sets aside 300 acres of former farmland to create the campus we now know as Como Park Zoo & Conservatory. The zoo gets its start in 1897 with the gift of three deer, while the conservatory gardens come to life under the direction of Frederick Nussbaumer, a German landscape designer from London’s Royal Botanical Garden at Kew. The New Deal ushers in a new era of expansion, with several new buildings created by the Works Progress Administration.
A Community Treasure Where Everyone Is Welcome
One of Minnesota’s most recognizable rooflines was erected in 1915. Made from a prefabricated kit that cost $65,000, Como’s Conservatory was one of the state’s first cultural treasures, attracting crowds with rotating flower shows and exceptional seasonal displays.
As the Baby Boom begins, a new generation comes to Como, making memories at the Sparky the Sea Lion Show and snapping photos of kids riding Toby the Tortoise. When a 1966 Citizens League report recommends closing the aging zoo and conservatory, several community groups rise up in support of Como’s survival. By the 1970s, Como’s Conservatory joins the National Register of Historic Places. In the 1980s, Como Zoo earns its first accreditation from the Association of Zoos and Aquariums, achieving recognition for a high standard of animal care that continues today.
Under the leadership of Como’s first director, John Fletcher, Como Zoo welcomes dozens of endangered animals and becomes the first zoo in North America to successfully hand raise Amur tigers.
Nagasaki, Japan presents its sister city of St. Paul with a watercolor garden design created by ninth generation landscape designer Masami Matsuda, and the Ordway family provides the funding to build it in 1979.
As the zoo and conservatory celebrate their first century, city and community leaders create a plan to combine operations into one campus and to create a single fundraising partner, now known as Como Friends. Since its founding in 2000, Como Friends has fueled a major transformation of Como’s campus, while protecting the free admission that serves nearly two million annual visitors. Through annual fundraising and three capital campaigns, Como Friends has brought nearly $48 million in new investment to Como Park Zoo & Conservatory.
Como’s Conservatory gets a new name and endowment fund through the generosity of the family of Marjorie McNeely, an avid gardener, former president of the St. Paul Garden Club and longtime Como supporter.
The 21st century vision for Como begins to take shape with the opening of the new Visitor Center that unites Como Zoo and the Marjorie McNeely Conservatory with a shared mission and immersive new habitats like Tropical Encounters.
Como’s education programs multiply more than six-fold with the help of new classroom space and Como Friends’ community of donors. With summer camps, school group programs, residency programs and other offerings, Como continues its evolution as a conservation classroom for families and field trip groups.
Como Friends’ next capital campaign raises funds for a new and improved Polar Bear Odyssey, designed following the guidelines in a new Como Campus Plan. When Polar Bear Odyssey opens, it spurs record-setting attendance of more than two million annual visitors.
Como Friends provides 100 percent of the funding for The Ordway Gardens, a new wing to the Marjorie McNeely Conservatory that showcases Como’s exceptional Japanese horticulture collections. To celebrate the 100th anniversary of the Marjorie McNeely Conservatory in 2015, supporters create a $1 million endowment fund to ensure the long-term horticultural care of the Charlotte Partridge Ordway Japanese Garden.
Creating more face-to-face encounters with nature is the goal of a series of major improvements at Como, from Gorilla Forest to the Giraffe Feeding Station. Como Friends’ advocacy efforts help to secure public bonding and Legacy Amendment funding to continue a steady pace of improvements and public programs at Como.
Como Friends begins funding the Conservation Champions program that provides grants to Como staff to advance conservation initiatives onsite at the zoo and conservatory or in the field around the world. Conservation Champions expands work on Como’s conservation mission and provides opportunities for Como staff to be immersed in field-based conservation work around the world.
The new SPIRE Sparky Show splashes down at Como Harbor, the $21 million seals and sea lions habitat supported by Minnesota taxpayers and private contributions to Como Friends. Opened in 2021, the state-of-the-art habitat transforms the heart of Como with the expansive KSTP Amphitheater and four-season saltwater pools for Sparky and her friends.