It was started in 1902 by a German immigrant to Louisville from Kesse, Germany named Frederick Carl Senning, who immigrated to the Derby City in 1868. Prior to opening the park, he and his wife Minnie founded the Senning Hotel at 2nd and Jefferson in downtown Louisville, as well as the first bowling alley in Louisville, at the corner of 8th of Main in downtown Louisville.
The park started on two and a half acres owned by Fredrika Oswald before he died. It benefitted from being only a block from the loop that electric streetcars used on Fourth Street. Initially it did not have a zoo, but instead focused on dancing and dining; picnics and political rallies were common at the facility.
The zoo was started during the Prohibition era, and barely survived the Great Depression. In 1920, the Sennings' son William began the zoo operations, with his parents going on a trip to Europe. Animals present in the zoo included alligators, bears, deer, exotic birds, leopards, lions, monkeys, ostriches (for riding), and tigers. However, the keep of the exotic animals became expensive, and in 1939 the park was closed due to Frederick Senning's death. The park was sold at auction for $15,000 the following year. The new owner, B. A. Watson, opened a restaurant on the property called Colonial Gardens, and promptly closed the zoo. Its successor, the current Louisville Zoo, would not open until 1969.
Colonial Gardens featured big bands during the 1940s. However, it had its own difficulties as well; it lost its right to sell rationed foods in 1944, and was found to have an illegal gambling device on the premises on January 13 1948. A fire on August 16 1950 caused $10,000 in damages. In the 1950s it served as both a hangout for teens, as well as a bar. Jerry Lee Lewis is said to have performed at the restaurant; also, local oral history holds that Elvis Presley had an unscheduled performance at the restaurant in 1956, as it was close to the home of his grandparents, whom he was visiting at the time.
Currently, Colonial Gardens is an abandoned building, after closing in June 2003. It is in danger of being demolished, although a hold on any demolition is in effect until August 11 2008. There is a petition to name it an "Individual Local Landmark", in hopes to save the building, said to be the last of the beer gardens that once dominated the South end of Louisville.