British Listed Buildings

History in Structure

If you log in, you can comment on buildings, submit new photos or update photos that you've already submitted.

We need to upgrade the server that this website runs on. Can you spare a quid to help?.

Elephant House at Dudley Zoo, Dudley

Description: Elephant House at Dudley Zoo

Grade: II
Date Listed: 20 August 1970
English Heritage Building ID: 217922

OS Grid Reference: SO9475690673
OS Grid Coordinates: 394753, 290670
Latitude/Longitude: 52.5139, -2.0787

Location: Castle Hill, Dudley DY1 4QB

Locality: Dudley
County: Dudley
Country: England
Postcode: DY1 4QB

Incorrect location/postcode? Submit a correction!

Listing Text


An elephant house, designed by Lubetkin and Tecton, built 1935-7, with later alterations.

Reason for Listing

The Elephant House at Dudley Zoo is designated at Grade II, for the following principal reasons:
* Architectural interest: the building is one of twelve surviving structures at the zoo designed by Lubetkin and Tecton, with engineering by Ove Arup, built in 1935-7;
* Design interest: for the clever use of the terraces and slopes of the hill on which it stands, to both minimise its impact on the sensitive setting of the medieval castle, and to allow the building to form an integral part of the vertical circulation around the zoo;
* Group value: the enclosure demonstrates a strong group identity through the sharing of form, scale, materials and finishing with the other purpose-built structures created by Tecton for the zoo;
* Setting: the enclosure is designed to sit on the steeply-terraced slopes below the ruins of the medieval Dudley Castle, in whose grounds the zoo was created.


The idea of a zoo at Dudley Castle was first mooted in 1935. The site belonged to the Earl Dudley and he, together with Ernest Marsh (director of Marsh and Baxter, a meat producer) and Captain Frank Cooper (owner of the marmalade factory) combined to form the initial board of directors of The Dudley Zoological Society. Captain Cooper owned Oxford Zoo and wanted to sell his own collection of animals. They appointed Dr Geoffrey Vevers, the Superintendent at London Zoo as their Advisor.

Vevers had previously worked with Berthold Lubetkin and Tecton at London Zoo, where their Gorilla House and Penguin Pool were completed in 1934 and 1935 respectively. It was through him that the practice received the commission. In addition, the contractors were J L Kier, for whom the engineer Ove Arup was working at the time, prior to establishing his own company. The resident site engineer was Michael Sheldrake and the job architect was Francis Skinner. The budget for the work was roughly £40,000 and there was pressure from the clients to open the new zoo for the summer season of 1937 and, in Lubetkin’s words, ‘to get as many goods as possible in the shop window’. In the event, the zoo opened on May 6, 1937 and a crowd of c.250,000 arrived, of whom only 50,000 could be admitted.

The thirteen buildings designed by Berthold Lubetkin and Tecton included a restaurant and two cafés. As the Architectural Review of November 1937 made clear, the problem for the designers was as much one of circulation and town planning as of building. A solution was found by free planning, which utilised the natural features of the castle site. At the centre was Dudley Castle, a Scheduled Monument in a state of semi-ruin, dating from the C11 to the C16 and built around a central courtyard.

The site for the zoo was the surrounding grounds of about thirty acres, which slope steeply down from the castle on all sides, forming terraces at different levels. The site had the advantage that the railway station and tram terminus were both within a few yards of the entrance, but several disadvantages had to be overcome; these included the steepness and shape of the site, which reduced the number of possible positions for buildings and enclosures and made construction work difficult. Transport problems to most parts of the castle grounds meant that the existing roads and paths, laid out as carriage drives and pathways in the C19, were used wherever possible, and construction work could not take place in wet weather. Moreover, extensive caverns associated with limestone workings from the C17 and C18 undermined large parts of the site and no accurate maps existed to guide the architects in choosing safe building locations. During construction of the foundations, an unexpected cave, at least fifty feet in depth, opened up beneath the bear pit.

Almost as difficult was the fact that the limestone, which formed the castle mound, was particularly hard, and although this created good foundations, blasting and clearing substantial areas of the site was considered unfeasible. Another consideration was that the castle was scheduled, and the Ancient Monuments department of the Office of Works had a degree of control over development of the castle grounds. Their position was that the educational value of the castle would be increased by the construction of the zoo buildings. Permission was allowed for buildings on the approach slopes to the castle, but those structures which were near to the castle, namely the restaurant, one café and the Elephant House and Sea Lion enclosure, had to be kept as low and inconspicuous as possible. It was also requested that the Sea Lion pools and the Restaurant should incorporate some areas of rubble stone walling to blend with the castle. Further considerations were drainage, and the fact that half of the site was in shadow for most of the day.

A planned route, grouping types of animals together, was not possible. Instead, the buildings had to signal the fact that they were related and the product of one overall scheme through congruities in their design; and functional buildings, such as cafés, lavatories and exits, had to indicate their purpose clearly. The sloping site allowed the architects to create designs which often incorporated two levels, and allowed the public access to viewing platforms above the animal enclosures.

Lubetkin described his role in the creation of the zoo buildings as ‘designing architectural settings for the animals in such a way as to present them dramatically to the public, in an atmosphere comparable to that of a circus’. This attitude was not universally popular at the time and has since been superseded by a desire to give animals more privacy and where possible, a naturalistic setting. Several of the buildings have changed their function since the zoo opened; these include the Reptile Enclosure, the Polar Bear enclosure, the Tropical Bird House, the Bear Ravine and the Elephant House, all of which now house different animals. Both of the cafés, which were originally open-air, have been adapted to be fully enclosed; and the kiosks which formerly sold cigarettes and chocolate are no longer used for this purpose as they do not meet modern environmental health standards for the sale of food. The nature of the construction of the buildings, in reinforced concrete, has caused problems with rusting and spalling of the concrete surfaces, and repairs have been necessary, including patch repairs and a covering of colour wash. Only one major building has been demolished: the Penguin Pool, which was smaller than that at London Zoo, was filled with salt water which reacted with the reinforcement rods embedded in the concrete body and caused rapid and extensive corrosion. The building was demolished in 1979.

Dudley Zoo continues in use as a visitor attraction, and participates in numerous captive breeding programmes to contribute to the conservation of species under threat.

The Elephant House was built not only to house elephants, but camels and Shetland ponies. Constructed in one of the more sensitive locations in the zoo, just outside the castle moat and in clear view from the ruins above, the Elephant House was built into the slope between two terraces, in order to be as unobtrusive as possible. The roof of the building doubles as a viewing platform, and is level with the higher terrace; integral stairs at either end of the range give access to the lower terrace, which has access to the interior of the building. Like the other large animal houses, it therefore had a dual purpose, both housing and displaying animals, and also cleverly linking the paths and roads at different levels, and thus almost imperceptibly providing the majority of the vertical circulation around the zoo, avoiding the need for visitors to make frequent, steep climbs up the slopes.

The building has undergone significant alterations since its completion, including changes to its lower-level main elevation. It ceased to house elephants in 2003.


PLAN: The main section is rectangular on plan, with a narrow, gently convex range to the south-east, longer than the rectanular section. At either end, a flanking staircase rises from the lower level to the upper terrace.

MATERIALS: Reinforced concrete.

EXTERIOR: The structure is built into the slope between two terraces, a single-storey range, with a gently curving glazed front (clad in split-pale timber at the time of inspection in 2011), set under a deeply-overhanging roof plate with projecting balconies. The parapet with raised coping used for all the Tecton animal houses around the zoo - the low wall has its coping raised on elliptical-section steel struts, giving adults a raised surface on which to lean, and allowing children to view the animals without being lifted up - is here employed as a balustrade and handrail to the flanking staircases, which allows access to the viewing area on the upper level, and continues as a wall around the roof terrace above the animal house. A clerestorey with obscure-glazed square timber windows rises through the roof terrace, lighting the indoor areas, and forming the only part of the building visible from the castle. The lower terrace retains iron rings formerly used for tethering the elephants' feet.

Source: English Heritage

Listed building text is © Crown Copyright. Reproduced under licence.