After eighteen months in existence, the Boston Aquarial Gardens were re-baptized the Boston Aquarial and Zoological Gardens, and moved to Central Court, off Washington Street. 

The building was expressly designed for the new gardens. The great central tank, 25 feet in diameter, was the dominant attraction. There were 56 smaller tanks, probably arranged in a circle around the central tank. The lower hall was reserved for the zoological specimens. The inaugural announcement promised that the new rooms would be well lit, warmed, and ventilated, and that "marine plants and animals will be on display in new and more elegant tanks."

The gardens were officially opened to the public on October 5th, 1860. The zoological department had added a moose, a leopard, an African python, and several seals. The prices remained fixed at 25 cents for adults and ten cents for children.

In February of 1861, a newly discovered species of sea anemone, Trochartea pendula, was presented at the Boston Aquarial Gardens. It was the first specimen ever found and had been named by Louis Agassiz. By that time, the Aquarial department had grown to include a collection of eels, trout, haddock, shrimp and dogfish.

By May of 1961, the fish were accompanied by an encased swarm of bees and a collection of yellow-collared parakeets. Outside cages were added featuring bald eagles and a silvery gull. Downstairs in the zoological department, an alligator shared a cage with a snapping turtle, a box turtle, and an African ibis. There was also a pair of lions, a leopard, a grizzly bear, black bears, assorted monkeys and parrots, an albino flying squirrel, deer, owls, and foxes. The "den of serpents" included an anaconda, pythons, a pine snake and a black snake.

Alongside the zoological additions, the gardens presented a great variety of constantly changing spectacles. These included “South African Aborigines attired in their native costumes,” Mademoiselle Lanista demonstrating "her extraordinary power over the wildest animals and most repulsive reptiles" and a Mohawk chief, his wife and family. In January of 1861, attractions included lectures on practical science, the Queen of Magicians, a ventriloquist, a dramatic presentation of "The Robbers of Baghdad," and even a burlesque show. In the animal department, the Gardens were visited by a sacred cow from India, trained bears, an Arabian horse, and performing elephants. More and more the aquatic displays were becoming a backdrop to curiosities and non-aquatic animals.

By 1860, steam engines were able to convey salt water through pipes direct from the harbor to the Gardens. As a result, in May 1861, a beluga whale was put on display in the great central tank. It was 12 feet long and weighed 2500 pounds. When skeptics protested that the whale was in fact an albino porpoise, Louis Agassiz spoke publicly to dispel their doubts. One account described the whale as a specimen that Barnum had captured in the St. Lawrence River for the American Museum and had loaned to the Boston Aquarial Gardens. More likely the beluga was stranded on Boston’s North Shore and rescued by Henry Butler. The whale survived for more than a year, longer than whales Barnum had exhibited previously, which were notoriously short-lived. In August, Barnum loaned two more of his St. Lawrence belugas to Boston prior to their installation in New York. Having failed to maintain previous pairs of belugas, it seems likely that he tried to learn the technique of keeping whales alive in captivity in Boston before moving them to their final destination. However, when the two whales were moved to New York, they quickly expired.

So, for a short period of time, the central tank was crowded with three whales, a gray shark, a ray, a green turtle, a lobster, and a sturgeon, along with assorted eels, bass, cod, haddock, and pollock. On the strength of these new acquisitions, the Boston Aquarial Gardens proclaimed itself the only complete aquarium in the world.

James Cutting, who had been so successful with the "learned seals," Ned and Fanny, was entrusted with the training of the beluga whale. But Cutting seems to have reacted against the direction the Gardens were taking. In a public letter dated May 25th, 1861, Louis Agassiz congratulated Cutting for "a return to a higher style of exhibitions in his establishment, to say the least and for his understanding that the performances formerly carried on in it, from which nothing could be learned, was at last to be stopped." The performances did, in fact, cease for nearly a year and the aquatic and zoological displays became, once again, the sole attraction.

In 1862, it was announced that P. T. Barnum had bought the establishment and closed it for extensive renovations. When it reopened, he announced that the Gardens would be associated with the American Museum in New York and that he hoped "to form such a happy blending of amusement with instruction so as not to depend solely upon the scientific public for support, but to render this establishment attractive and popular with all respectable classes."

James Cutting was then engaged to remain at the Gardens and take charge of the living whale, the seals, and other rare animals. The Gardens were renamed the Barnum Boston Aquarial Gardens. During the summer of 1862 Barnum sailed to the Caribbean to collect tropical fish, some of which came to the Boston location. A sea lion was introduced in July 1862.

Barnum presided for eight months over the Boston Aquarial Gardens, which became an adjunct of his American Museum. A dog show was followed by a baby show; Tom Thumb, Colonel Nugget and the Albino Family were subsequent attractions. From December 1862 to February 1863, such "dramatic performances" got top billing and the marine life exhibits were mere background. February 14th, 1863, was the final day of Barnum's Boston Aquarial Gardens. The contents of the Gardens were moved to the American Museum in New York.

For many years Barnum had both competed and cooperated with the nearby Boston Museum on Tremont Street, adjacent to the King's Chapel Burying Grounds. The Boston Museum and the Gardens under Barnum had become very similar; perhaps Barnum decided that Boston wasn't big enough for both.

Henry Butler managed the New York American Museum until it was destroyed by fire in 1865. He then presided over a rebuilt American Museum until that too burned to the ground a few years later. Butler reappears in 1876, contracted by Adolphus Busch, of Budweiser fame, to manage an aquarium being founded in St. Louis. And James Cutting did not last long in his new role under P.T. Barnum. Before the end of 1862 he was committed to a lunatic asylum in Worcester in a "weakened mental state."

Most of the exhibits perished when the American Museum went up in flames. One of the few survivors of the fire was Ned the seal. It was reported at the time that Ned was saved by a Brooklyn fireman who pulled him out of the fire, put him in a champagne basket and conveyed him on a cart to Fulton Street, where a fish tank was found for him.

The South Boston Aquarium (1912 - 1954)