For over one hundred years, Como Park has played a vital role in meeting the recreational needs of residents of Saint Paul and surrounding communities. Inspired in part by the landscape designs of H.W.S. Cleveland, Frederick Nussbaumer, Superintendent of Parks from 1891 to 1922, worked tirelessly to create an outdoor haven for the area’s urban population. Nussbaumer strongly advocated for a wide variety of free or reasonably priced recreational activities, services, and educational opportunities for all park visitors. The park as we know it today continues to carry out this original vision.
Today Como Park Zoo & Conservatory is operated by the Saint Paul Parks and Recreation Department. The zoo features a seal island, a large cat exhibit, a variety of aquatic life, primates, birds, African hoofed animals and a world class polar bear exhibit. The Marjorie McNeely Conservatory has two acres under glass with a number of different wings dedicated to a variety of plant life including bonsai trees, ferns, orchids and seasonal flowers. The Marjorie McNeely Conservatory also features many outdoor gardens.
In 1994, the initial program planning and design concept was completed for the Como Education Resource Center (now the Visitor Center). $3.9 million in state bonding passed for the building in 1998, and in 2000, $16 million in state bonding passed for Como Education Resource Center Phase 2. In 2002, Mayor Randy Kelly provided a city guaranty so that bidding of the Como Park Conservatory Restoration and the Visitor Center could go forward.
The Visitor Center at Como Park Zoo and Conservatory, developed by architectural firm HGA, opened for education classes in January of 2005 and celebrated its public opening in February 2005. The Visitor Center is 65,000 square feet and features meeting rooms, classrooms, and event spaces, in addition to a large auditorium and the Zobota Cafe. The Visitor Center links to the Como Zoo and Marjorie McNeely Conservatory, serving as the primary entrance to both.
On November 17, 2006, the Tropical Encounters exhibit opened in the Visitor Center. This exhibit is an immersion experience of a Central/South American rainforest and is the first exhibit to feature animals from Como Zoo and plants from the Marjorie McNeely Conservatory. It features turtles, frogs, fish, free-roaming birds, leaf-cutter ants, spiders, an anaconda, and Chloe the Sloth. It also highlights more than 700 plants.
The Zoo & Marjorie McNeely Conservatory is open year round. During the winter, the zoo and conservatory are open from 10AM until 4PM. During the summer, hours are extended until 6PM. Admission is free to the public, however a $4 donation is suggested for adults and $2 for children.
On Sunday, November 7, 1915, Como Park Conservatory opened. For the first time, St. Paul’s annual exhibition of chrysanthemums was viewed in one location while Snyder’s Orchestra played for the visitors. The Holiday Flower Show and Spring Flower Show traditions began in 1925. In 1937, the Holiday Flower included a faux pipe organ installed in the Sunken Garden.
On June 23, 1962, a severe hail storm caused major destruction at Como park Conservatory. Golf-ball sized hailstones crashed through and shattered the glass. Thankfully, there were no human injuries, but half of the glass in the show houses and two-thirds of the glass in the growing houses was broken.
On November 17, 1974, Como Park Conservatory was placed on the National Register of Historic Places. In 1984, the Como Conservatory’s Master Plan was published which helped the City of Saint Paul begin to solicit funds for a major restoration of these facilities. Major renovation of the Conservatory began in 1987 and was completed in 1992. All the glass was replaced, the heat system was updated, hydronic heat was added in the Sunken Garden, structural elements were sand blasted and repainted, new electrical lighting was added, and all new growing ranges were built. In September 2000, the growing house roof of the Conservatory was replaced impact resistant acrylic, improving the light intensity by 30%. Renovation of the upper planting beds in the Sunken Garden was completed in 2001.
The Como Park Conservatory received the Hortlandmark Award from the American Society for Horticultural Science on July 31, 1999 as a “beautiful Victorian glasshouse that has been carefully maintained and restored as it continues to be a fine example of horticultural education, beauty, and delight.”
In 2002, the Donald McNeely family provided a generous gift and the Conservatory was renamed the Marjorie McNeely Conservatory at Como Park as a memorial for a remarkable woman who made many contributions to arts and culture during her lifetime. The Marjorie McNeely Conservatory hosts a wide variety of events each year including Holiday Teas, Music Under Glass, and Valentine’s Day Dinners.
In 2005 the Fern Room and Orchid House was added to the Marjorie McNeely Conservatory. The new fern room houses tropical ferns from around the world together with eleven species of tree ferns. The room also features a cascading waterfall, three pools, and photovoltaic cells on the glass roof. Visitors can look the glass door to view a variety of Como’s genetically diverse and award-winning orchids.
From 2011 – 2018 Como created an Edible Garden which was open from June – September. The fruits and vegetables produced in the Garden were given to the zoo animals as enrichment or shared with community centers. The Edible Garden was replaced with a pollinator exhibit in 2019 and is open June – Labor Day. Both funded through the Legacy Amendment.
The Ordway Gardens opened in April 2013 and is a $2.5 million addition to the historic Marjorie McNeely Conservatory. It has created year-round viewing of Como’s nationally acclaimed Bonsai collection and the Charlotte Partridge Ordway Japanese Garden. The wing features a Bonsai gallery, outdoor Bonsai Garden and terrace, and realigned Pine Grove walk leading to the Charlotte Partridge Ordway Japanese Garden.
In 2015, the Marjorie McNeely Conservatory celebrated it’s 100th Birthday. In honor of the momentous occasion, Como opened the Centennial Garden, a new garden which is located north of the main sidewalk as you enter the Visitor Center. In 2017, the Minnesota Garden and the Circle Garden opened, which is located to the south of the main sidewalk as you enter the Visitor Center.
A Tradition of Japanese Gardens
In 1978, the City of Nagasaki Japan (St. Paul’s sister city) presented a garden design as a gift to the city of St. Paul. It was designed by Matsumi Matsuda , a well-known landscape architect. Funds were donated by the Ordway family, and the Como Ordway Memorial Japanese Garden was dedicated. In 1991, the Como Ordway Memorial Japanese Garden was completely renovated and rededicated.
In mid-August 1998, the first Japanese Lantern Lighting Festival was celebrated in the Como Ordway Memorial Japanese Garden. It has since expanded and is still held every year on the third Sunday in August. Reminiscent of Obon, when lanterns are lit in Japan to guide ancestral spirits, the Lantern Lighting Festival celebrates Japanese arts, music, martial arts, food, dance, and traditions. In 2017 the festival was renamed “Obon Festival” in order to encapsulate all the festivities of the day, while still highlighting the evening’s lantern lighting ceremony.
In 1897, the City of Saint Paul fenced-in a pasture in Como Park to hold three deer gifted to them, thus beginning Como Zoo. Thirty-some years later the first major construction project was federally funded through the Works Progress Administration (WPA). The 1930s’ WPA projects included the bear grotto, Monkey Island, the barn and the Main Zoo building.
By 1900, visitors could see deer, elk, foxes, and two “Cebu” cattle. Visitors driving in their automobiles to the park in 1915 could see two buffalo, a gift from Lieutenant Governor Thomas Frankson, who had his own private “buffalo pasture” in a hollow near the park. In 1926, a local citizen gave an American Black Bear to the Zoo. Since such an animal could not be kept in a fenced pasture, a cage was built from some old iron archways which had been standing in the park. These were covered with a strong wire mesh, making a structure with a distinctive rounded top. This shape characterized Como Zoo cages for years.
The first major construction at Como Zoo was in the 1930s. Federally funded works Progress Administration projects included the Beat Grotto, Monkey Island, Barn, and Main Zoo Building. The Main Zoological Building was completed in 1937 and used to house the majority of animals at Como. The area around the Zoo was paved.
In 1956 Archie Brand brought his famous Seal Show to Como Zoo and soon after the animal collection expanded to include valuable and endangered species, including gorillas, orangutans & Siberian tigers.
The First Director of Como Zoo, John A. Fletcher, arrived in 1957. There were six Zoo employees at the time and the yearly budget was $30,000. Under Mr. Fletcher’s management the animal collection was greatly expanded to include valuable and endangered species of animals, such as Siberian tigers, gorillas, and orangutans. Como Zoo was one of the first in the nation to engage in breeding loans of great apes to other zoos so that reproduction of these species could be improved. Como was also the first zoo in North America (and possibly the world) to successfully hand raise Siberian tigers.
In 1976 the Minnesota State Legislature approved a Master Plan and $8.5 million in funding for Como Zoo. This paved way for major renovations in the 1980s on the Large Cat Exhibit, the Aquatic Animal Building (including Seal Island, formally known as Monkey Island), the Primate Facility, the African Hoofstock Facility and the Land & Water Bird Exhibit.
The Aquatic Animal Building opened to the public in the fall of 1982. This exhibit is especially important in the view of Federal regulations and laws concerning acquisition, care and keeping of marine animals, which include Como’s Polar Bears, harbor seals and sea lions. The building includes exhibits for penguins, sea puffins, and freshwater fish. Another renovation that occurred in the 1980s was the transformation of Monkey Island to Seal Island. The Sparky the Sea Lion, which began in 1956, celebrated its 50th anniversary in 2006.
In 1997, Como Zoo celebrated its 100 year anniversary.
In June of 2001, an operant conditioning program began for the seals and sea lions. The program focused on building a trusting relationship between trainers and animals and on training husbandry behaviors such as physical examinations and tooth brushing, as well as behaviors that highlight the animals natural strength and flexibility. With the success of the training program in Aquatics, operant conditioning training programs were implemented throughout the zoo, including primates, polar bears, wolves, giraffes, cats, Galapagos Tortoises, and sloths.
In 2010 we celebrate the addition of the state of the art, world class habitat Polar Bear Odyssey. This world-class exhibit places bears in a natural environment that offers dramatically more land space and a multitude of opportunities for the bears to exhibit natural behaviors such as digging, swimming, foraging and hunting. Visitors delight in up-close and personal views of the world’s largest land predator. This year-round habitat offers a climate controlled “Outpost” to experience the bears all four seasons and wonderful open air views that will bring the polar bears as close as twenty feet.
In June 2013, Gorilla Forest opened, this $11 million exhibit redesign and overhaul features seven gorillas, six of whom are new to Como Zoo, and the largest all-mesh gorilla enclosure in North America. The 13,000 square foot outdoor space, almost three times larger than the previous space, was designed to give the gorillas ample room to play, climb, forage and display their extraordinary family and social dynamics to the public while minimizing stress on the gorillas and creating up close and personal views of the gorillas for visitors.
In 2015, Como Zoo will open a state of the art Giraffe feeding station giving visitors an opportunity to get even closer to these gentle giants.
Como Harbor: Pulling together the resources to reimagine Sparky’s new home has been a statewide effort, made possible by $15 million in public funding approved by the Minnesota State Legislature in May 2017. Como Friends, the nonprofit partner of Como Park Zoo and Conservatory, raised $5 million for the project through gifts from foundations, corporations and individuals.
Como Zoo is home to 9 of the 10 animal species visitors most want to see, and in habitats that allow visitors to observe them at close proximity.
“Creating memories and inspiring appreciation of the natural world.”
We at Como Park Zoo and Conservatory hold everything we do against the expectations laid forth in our mission statement. Every animal exhibit, flower exhibit, education class and youth camp is driven by this statement and our commitment to the community in which we live.
Owned and operated by the Saint Paul Parks and Recreation division, the Como Park is a 384-acre park located within the city. Visitors can experience a wide range of attractions geared towards all age groups. The Park offers a large area surrounding Como Lake dedicated to family and individual activities. Visitors can make use of 1.67 miles of paved paths, a fishing pier, picnic shelters, pavilions, paddleboat rentals, an amusement park, a golf course, a historic carousel, the Como Dockside restaurant and mini-golf.
Como Park’s history dates long before the Como Park Conservatory was constructed. In the 1840’s, Charles Perry owned, grew potatoes and farmed the land around Lake Como, which at the time was named after Perry’s birthplace in the Swiss-Italian Alps, Sandy Lake. Eventually Perry moved north. A gentleman by the name of Henry “King of Real Estate Dealers” McKenty, jumped at the opportunity to purchase the land from Perry and renamed it Como Lake after the famous Lake Como in the Italian Alps.
At this time the Minnesota’s Legislature appointed five commissioners, “whose duty it should be to contract for and purchase not less than five hundred, not more than six hundred and fifty, acres of land within a convenient distance of the city of Saint Paul, but beyond the present limits thereof, for a public park.”
The idea of a public park soon became a controversial issue. Many leaders feared that the city would not be able to financially support such an ambitious park project at a time of depression. Others questioned whether such valuable land should be “wasted” on a park.
Professor H.W.S. Cleveland, a renowned landscape architect, urged Saint Paul and other cities to set aside land for parks before land became scarce and too expensive. In 1873, three hundred acres of land on the shores of Como Lake was purchased with $100,000 of private money. Over the next fourteen years the park land changed hands several times and suffered from neglect.
In 1887, City funds were allocated to develop the area into a “landscape park” for “physical and moral satisfaction”. H.W.S. Cleveland was employed to “assess and report to this board (Park Commission) such a design and plan for the improvement of Como Park as he may think best suited to its topography…” The plans made by Cleveland in the late 1880’s promoted the preservation and development of natural features in the park. Cleveland believed parks were spaces for people to escape city life and appreciate nature’s beauty.
The vision that became Como Park Conservatory was born from a German man by the name of Frederick Nussbaumer. Nussbaumer spent his youth working in London’s royal Botanical Gardens, as well as one of the largest tree nurseries in France. H.W.S. Cleveland was impressed by the horticultural knowledge and experience that Nussbaumer possessed and invited him to work at Como Park as a parks laborer. In 1892, Nussbaumer was named Superintendent of Parks. He agreed with the naturalistic philosophy of Cleveland, but he also had a vision of a beautiful park with many great opportunities for recreation. During the thirty years Nussbaumer was superintendent, the park saw many great changes. Floral gardens were added, along with gravel walk ways, ponds, pergolas and fountains. In 1893, electric railcars reached the park making it easily accessible to all the citizens of St. Paul to enjoy.
Como Friends and Como Park Zoo & Conservatory History and Background
1980-90: A $12 million renovation of the Como Park Conservatory takes place with a combination of state funding and private dollars raised through The Saint Paul Foundation.
1991: Mayor Jim Scheibel and Saint Paul’s City Council appoint a task force to study and recommend a concept for a visitor center at Como Park Zoo and Conservatory.
1994: A project team whose members include Paul Verret, Leonard Wilkening, Jane Clements, Norrine Bohman and Lynne Wolfe develops a work plan to identify issues or barriers to moving forward with a new Visitor Center at Como.
1995: Based on the findings from the project team, Mayor Norm Coleman determines that Como Zoo and Como Park Conservatory will be managed as one campus with one administrative structure. The project team also recommends that one nonprofit organization represent the newly merged zoo and conservatory campus.
1999: The Como Zoo and Conservatory Society is incorporated.
2000: The Como Campus begins operation under one administrative function.
The Como Zoo and Conservatory Society becomes the sole nonprofit supporting the Zoo and Conservatory after the certificate of merger is filed with the Secretary of State.
2000: The Como Zoo and Conservatory Society and City of Saint Paul launch a $32.45 million capital improvement campaign for a new Visitor Center, a new wing of the Marjorie McNeely Conservatory, a new Tropical Encounters exhibit, a new Animal Support Building, and renovation of the WPA-era Zoological Building.
The Campaign Steering Committee leads the private fund raising campaign. Members include: Bob Bullard (chair), Bob Piram, Tim Ober, Stan Shepard, Barb Bachman, Jo Bailey.
2003: The campaign reaches its $32.45 million goal with $7.91 million secured from the private sector and $24.54 million secured from the public sector.
2005: The Como Visitor Center and the new wing of the Marjorie McNeely Conservatory open to the community.
2006: The new Tropical Encounters exhibit opens to the community.
2007: The Como Zoo and Conservatory Society convenes a Study Group to determine community interest in a new capital campaign for a polar bear exhibit and new wing of the Conservatory focused on its Bonsai collection and Japanese Garden.
The Como Zoo and Conservatory Society board approves the findings of the Study Group and agrees to participate in an $18.8 million capital campaign with the City of Saint Paul. $10.35 million is to be raised from the public sector and $$8.45 million is to be raised from the private sector.
The Campaign Steering Committee is recruited and convened to begin work raising the $8.45 million. Committee members include: Litton Field (chair), Jo Bailey, Scott Dongoske, John Huss, Elliot Jaffee, Greg McNeely, Nancy Nelson, Russ Nelson, Tim Ober, Marla Ordway, Kari Rominski and Wendy Rubin.
2008: The Como Zoo and Conservatory Society adopts a new name: “Como Friends.”
2010: Polar Bear Odyssey opens to the community in June.
Capital campaign secures $16.3 million toward $18.8 million goal.
2011: The Campaign for Como reaches goal: $18.80 million secured.
Site work begins on The Japanese Gardens Experience, a new wing to the Marjorie McNeely Conservatory.
Ground breaks on Gorilla Forest, a new exhibit funded 100 % with money from the state of MN.