Mystery, renovation and award for a zoo bathroom

August 20, 2008 4:05:40 PM PDT
You may have heard the phrase "turning a sow's ear into a silk purse," in other words, taking something very unpleasant and transforming it into a thing of beauty. That's what has happened on the grounds of the Lincoln Park Zoo, where an old eyesore is now an architectural gem. It's called the Carlson Cottage and dates back 120 years, to the late 1800s. The old brick structure is just south of Cafe Brauer on the west side of Lincoln Park Zoo. Now, after extensive renovation, this building is about to receive a prestigious architectural award.

"The award is for preservation excellence. That's given by the Chicago Office on Landmarks, and we will be receiving it on September 4th," said Neal David, vice president of facilities at Lincoln Park Zoo.

Looking at the newly renovated Carlson Cottage, it's easy to see why it's about to win a big award. And that's despite the fact that from 1888 to the 1950's, this was a brick outhouse--a public restroom.

When it was built it was called a "comfort station," and it provided comfort and refreshing pauses for over half a century. But about 50 years ago, it fell into disrepair. It became an eyesore, and renovation was difficult because there were no old photos.

"They weren't taking photographs of what were essentially outhouses at the time. Not a very popular subject. There was just nothing that existed. The best we could find was an engraving," said David.

The engraving was found in an old construction trade newsletter, giving the restoration accuracy. It took almost $1 million to restore the exterior and the interior, which is now headquarters for the zoo's volunteer gardening program.

There's also a story of the pistol found in the flue of a pot belly stove.

"It could have been someone in the park who just committed a crime and had to get rid of the weapon and it could have been something more exotic. We just don't know," said David.

The pistol and the old outhouse; yet one more great Chicago unsolved mystery.


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