ROYAL OAK, Mich. — The Detroit Zoo will be home to the largest center in the U.S. dedicated to penguins, thanks to the most substantial private donation in its 85-year history, the zoo announced Wednesday.
Construction on the $21 million facility will begin "in earnest" in March and is expected to open in late 2015, said Ron Kagan, the zoo's executive director and CEO.
"We don't think there is anything comparable," Kagan said at a news event that featured a 3-D film and "snow" that fell on attendees. "To the best of our knowledge, this is the largest ... facility that is entirely dedicated to penguins."
The 24,000-square-foot center is being made possible, in part, by the biggest private donation in the zoo's history, $10 million given by Stephen Polk and his family. Polk is vice chair of the zoo's board and a longtime executive with automotive information provider R.L. Polk & Co. The facility will carry the name The Polk Family Penguin Conservation Center.
Kagan said the zoo still needs to raise $8 million to reach the $21 million total.
The exterior of the center will look like an iceberg. Inside, visitors will have the opportunity to see the seabirds "deep dive" in a chilled 310,000-gallon, 25-foot-deep aquatic area. It is something that can't be seen anywhere else, even in nature, the zoo said.
"Penguins will literally be doing laps around us," said Kagan, who took several research trips to Antarctica, including this past January.
The feature is deeper and larger than the pool at the Arctic Ring of Life, one of the zoo's main attractions in which polar bears swim above visitors.
The center, which will be home to 80 penguins of four species – rockhopper, macaroni, king and gentoo – is to be built on a 2.1-acre site near the entrance to the zoo, which is in suburban Royal Oak. Officials said the penguins' habitat will be optimal for the animals' welfare and encourage wild behavior, including diving, nesting and rearing young.
The facility also will feature simulated arctic blasts, rough waves and snow.
It has been in the planning and design phase for two years and represents the largest project the zoo has ever undertaken. Kagan said it is fitting that the center will be at the Detroit Zoo, "which in the mid-'60s created the first Penguinarium of any zoo anywhere."
The Penguin Conservation Center was designed by Jones & Jones, the architects behind Disney's Animal Kingdom and the Detroit Zoo's Arctic Ring of Life.