One of Brookfield Zoo’s oldest buildings has new life, thanks to a $5.5 million renovation that took two years to complete. 

You won’t see any more alligators inside their formerly steamy exhibit spaces at the former Reptile House, the limestone clad, classically detailed building facing the reflecting pool inside the zoo’s South Gate.

Instead, you’ll be likely to find students or cubicles manned by volunteers in those spaces. The building, built in 1927, has been transformed into the Mary Ann McLean Conservation Leadership Center.

The renovation allows Brookfield Zoo to consolidate staff formerly scattered throughout several buildings on the zoo grounds into a state-of-the-art, energy-efficient home. The building houses the Chicago Zoological Society’s Conservation, Education and Training (CET) Department and also serves as a home base for zoo volunteers.

In addition, the building will host students and zoo visitors of all ages in spaces designed to teach them about conservation.

 “The idea was that the zoo has a conservation mission, and this is the Conservation Leadership Center,” said Ron Reed, senior construction project manager for the Chicago Zoological Society. “We want to use the building as a teaching tool. Just the reuse of the building was itself a conservation decision.

The Reptile House closed to the public in 2005, but retained its use as an animal holding area. In 2009, the zoo started planning for the renovation, which was funded by a variety of government and private grants. The new center is named after Mary Ann McLean, a longtime Chicago Zoological Society trustee and head of the zoo’s Conservation and Education Center for more than 10 years. 

According to Alejandro Grajal, the zoo’s senior vice president of conservation, education and training, the Chicago Zoological Society sought not to just create a building in which it could spread its message of conservation, but to create a building that embodied that mission.

“We wanted to make it as green as possible,” said Grajal.

Carpets are made of recycled materials, all of the wood products used for furnishings are certified as sustainable by the U.S. Forest Service. The building attempts to optimize natural lighting and uses energy-efficient mechanical systems.

Outside, the landscaping surrounding the building includes native plantings that can also serve as outdoor classrooms and be used to teach about conservation. Doors give direct access between classroom spaces and outdoor planted areas.

“Students can go to and from the classrooms, and the flora and fauna support that educational product,” Reed said.

The education wing of the building also includes its own animal holding area, allowing zoo educators to incorporate small animals into their classes with students.

Classes now held at the Discovery Center near the North Gate will be moved to the Conservation Leadership Center. The building’s classrooms and large, airy central conference room — formerly home to closed-in rows of small aquarium exhibits for snakes, amphibians and other animals — can be used for educational seminars and meetings.

The building’s lobby, which includes some information on the zoo’s conservation mission, is open to the public, but the building is mainly there to support its conservation education and volunteer missions. It will house between 50 and 55 employees, according to Grajal.