Carousels are unusual in the way the rides combine beauty, artistry, and entertainment in a low-cost activity that both the young and young at heart enjoy. The National Carousel Association notes that at one time there were thousands of carousels across North America; in 2008, that number is down to about 350. But don't assume that carousels are a quaint relic of a bygone era: New York City parks currently boast six carousels (two more once existed in Brooklyn until the 1930s—one at Canarsie Park and another at Sunset Park) with three more in the works (two restored carousels and one new carousel), proving carousels to be treasured low-tech holdouts in this high-tech world with no signs of losing popularity.
Beginning the Ride
Carousels (or some semblance of what we now agree constitutes a carousel, including a merry-go-round) have a long tradition dating back to at least the 1600s and perhaps even earlier. With roots in Europe, especially England and Germany, carousels first appeared in the United States in the 19th century, the craft brought by immigrants, especially German immigrants. Each of the figures—often horses, but not always—were handmade by woodworkers. While carousels were popular in the late 19th and early 20th century, carving horses was not necessarily a full-time job, so carvers in the United States also worked as furniture makers. Coney Island in Brooklyn was a major center of carousel carvers and manufacturers, and modern New York City reflects that history with Parks's collection of carousels.
The "first" carousel in the United States is disputed, and several vie for the honor, including the merry-go-round in Manhattan's Jones Wood (1845) and a structure in Long Branch, New Jersey (1850s). The first patent for a carousel, often called "flying horses," was granted in 1850 to a Greenpoint, Brooklyn firm.
The folk art tradition of carousel making in the United States originated in Philadelphia in 1860 with Gustav Dentzel, a German immigrant from a family of carousel fabricators. The first carousel designed by the G.A. Dentzel Steam and Horse Power Carousel Company debuted in the Philadelphia area in 1870 and was soon dismantled and reinstalled in Atlantic City, New Jersey.
While Dentzel's horses are marked by more lifelike features reminiscent of the "Philadelphia" style, a second tradition emerged at Coney Island. There carvers, including Marcus Charles Illions, developed a more fanciful, colorful style at firms like the William F. Mangels Company, Charles I.D. Looff's studio, and the Artistic Caroussel Manufacturers of Williamsburg. Coney Island had several notable carousels, including Charles Looff's first carousel (1876) and the elaborate El Dorado at George C. Tilyou's Steeplechase Park (1913). Coney Island's style, as one might expect of the area, was flamboyantly colorful and flashy.
Parks Reaches for the Brass Ring
Four of New York City's six carousels are vintage carousels: The Muller Carousel in Queens's Forest Park, Friedsam Memorial Carousel in Central Park, the Flushing Meadows Corona Park carousel in Queens, and the carousel at Prospect Park in Brooklyn.
The Muller Carousel in Queens' Forest Park opened in 1973 after an earlier carousel dating to about 1910 was destroyed by fire in 1966. The carousel's figures, which date to the early 1900s, were carved by master carver Daniel Muller (1872-1951), a trained sculptor who worked for Gustav Dentzel's firm in Philadelphia. The carousel came from Lowell, Massachusetts via a Connecticut collector who helped restore the carousel's 54 figures. The carousel operated until 1985, when it fell into disrepair and was out of commission for three years until it was renovated again in 1988.
The current carousel at Central Park originally was located in Coney Island and replaces an earlier carousel, once powered by a mule, which dated to 1871 (the mule was replaced by an electric motor in 1912). The carousel features 57 wooden horses and two chariots on a 50-foot diameter turntable. The Central Park horses are large (three-quarters life size) and fierce looking, and the carousel is fast. The chariots are big as well, holding up to ten people. The most popular horses at the Central Park carousel are Big Red, a "lead horse" decorated in ornate armor, and Bubbles, another lead horse. Only four of the 57 horses are stationary, a carousel rarity.
The replacement carousel had a history of its own before coming to Central Park; it was commissioned in 1908 and built by Artistic Caroussel Manufacturing Co. of Williamsburg, Brooklyn. The larger-than-life Coney Island-style horses were carved by Sol Stein (1882-1937) and Harry Goldstein (ca. 1882-1945).
The Central Park Carousel was originally located at Coney Island at Surf Avenue and West 5th Street for four years before it was acquired by the Brooklyn-Manhattan Transit System. It eventually ended up in storage. The Coney Island carousel was moved to Central Park in 1951 after a fire on November 8, 1950 destroyed the original carousel. New animals to decorate the carousel were created by the artisans in Parks's shops. The organ was replaced as well after the old one was destroyed in the fire; it features 86 keys, 2 drums, a tambourine and cymbals, and plays 20 paper roll records.
The Michael Friedsam Foundation sponsored the carousel's yellow and red brick patterned hexagonal shed along with the structure that houses the Prospect Park Carousel, which opened in 1952. Friedsam was the head of B. Altman & Co., the department store, and a philanthropic and civic leader in New York City until his death in 1931. The carousel and building received structural repairs in 1996, thanks to the Makkos Organization, which assumed responsibility for the carousel in 1995, and restoration of individual horses has progressed thanks to grants from the Central Park Conservancy. Restoring the horses is difficult and time consuming, requiring conservators to strip up to 30 layers of paint and varnish to get to the original surface. Eight horses are being restored at a time, and this will continue until all 57 are refurbished.
The Flushing Meadows Carousel, an example of the "Illions" style, is a combination of two earlier Coney Island carousels, the Feltman Carousel (ca. 1903) and the Stubbman Carousel (ca. 1908). The Flushing Meadows "hybrid" debuted at the 1964 World's Fair. The carousel is one of only six extant examples of Marcus Charles Illions' work. Illions (ca. 1871-1949) was born in Poland and ran away from a woodcarving apprenticeship to England. Illions found employment in Frederick Savage's carousel company in England and honed his carving skills before immigrating to Brooklyn, opening a shop on Dean Street. Illions mastered a flashy, colorful style that suited the excitement of Coney Island. Carlos Colon, at one time the carousel's operator, was responsible for the whimsical colors of the horses, and the carousel stands today as one of Flushing Meadows Corona Park's most loved artifacts from the site's World's Fair days.
There have been three carousels in Prospect Park. The first, a "Yacht Carousel," dated to 1874 and was sited on the Prospect Park Lake. Images of the carousel show a circular merry-go-round contraption propelled by wind via nine large boat masts. A second carousel, located at the edge of Long Meadow, was destroyed by fire around 1932. The current Prospect Park Carousel was first opened in 1952. Its 56 figures were carved by Charles Carmel (1865-1931) around 1912. Carmel was a Russian immigrant who also pioneered the Coney Island-style of carousel, distinguished by its flamboyant details. The carousel was originally owned by the McCollough Brothers, who operated it at Coney Island at Surf Avenue and West 8th Street until they turned it over to Prospect Park in 1952. When the carousel was renovated in 1990, it was the first major project undertaken by the nascent Prospect Park Alliance. Prospect Park's carousel is also notable for its Wurlitzer organ, loud enough to attract passersby from the street, much to the consternation of Lucio Schiavone, the carousel's manager.
Lucio Schiavone and Sal Napolitano, Carousel Caretakers
Working daily at carousels in Central Park and Prospect Park, Sal Napolitano and Lucio Schiavone are two of the city's carousel experts. Parks' It's My Park television show interviewed both for an upcoming episode, and they shared their stories.
Since 1970, Sal Napolitano has taken care of the carousel at Central Park. Starting out as a summer job at 15 with "no intentions of staying," Napolitano soon fell in love with the carousel, and after graduating from college dropped plans for law school to devote himself to the historic attraction. Napolitano figures he has welcomed millions of children in his 38 years of taking care of the carousel. Some of his notable clients have included Billy Joel, Madonna, and Angelina Jolie, and Napolitano notes that as many adults as children ride the carousel, especially Midtown workers on their lunch breaks. When asked what makes carousels so enduring, Napolitano explains that it is because it is a fantasy ride, not a thrill ride: "That is why the carousel never loses its charm … you can be anything you want on the carousel."
Meanwhile, in Prospect Park Lucio Schiavone has been operating the carousel there since 1990. Schiavone worked on the carousel's renovation and, after it was completed, was asked to stay on as the carousel's operator. "I like my job," Schiavone says, "I wouldn't be here for 17 years if I didn't like it."
But carousels are not just artifacts. They continue to thrill children and adults, which is why two newly built carousels recently debuted in parks. Staten Island was once home to more than a dozen carousels, but it did not have its own carousel in a city park until 1999 when the "Carousel For All Children" opened in Willowbrook Park. The $1.5 million carousel was funded by then-Borough President Guy Molinari's office. Parks Commissioner Henry Stern commented that Staten Islanders are "entitled to have a carousel of their own, without having to pay $6 to cross a bridge." The handicapped-accessible carousel, built by Carousel Works, Inc. of Mansfield, Ohio, features 51 exotic animals from all over the world and artwork depicting scenes from Staten Island's history, including Staten Island landmarks such as Conference House, High Rock Park, and the Tibetan Museum. In addition, a St. Bernard figure on the carousel hearkens back to an earlier carousel, a reproduction of a similar figure on the Tirelli Carousel that operated at Midland Beach until 1957.
The carousel at Bryant Park in Midtown Manhattan was installed in the park's south side in the summer of 2002. It was manufactured by Marvin Sylvor's Fabricon Design Group, a Brooklyn-based firm that specializes in resin-cast ornamental art. Influenced by the European roots of carousels, "Le Carrousel," as it is known, is intended to complement Bryant Park's European style, and its 14 animals spin to the sound of French cabaret music. The animals on Le Carrousel are reproductions of several notable figures, some of which are elsewhere in city parks—lead horse "Granny's Folly," for example, reproduces one of Daniel Muller's horses from the carousel at Forest Park. In addition, the cat and rabbit figures are modeled after William Dentzel (the son of Gustav Dentzel) designs.
Sylvor, who died this past April at 75, grew up admiring the city's carousels. After earning an art degree from Pratt, he began a window decorating business but soon turned to designing carousels. In the five decades he was active, Fabricon designed carousels as far away as Brazil, New Zealand, and Saudi Arabia, as well as right here in New York at Bryant Park and Riverbank State Park in Upper Manhattan.
What Comes Around: Continuing the Tradition
Several new carousels are in the planning stages around New York City. Part carousel, part sculpture, the aquatic-themed SeaGlass Carousel planned for the south end of the Battery in Lower Manhattan is one of the most impressive upcoming projects sponsored by the Battery Conservancy. The SeaGlass Carousel will build on the Battery's maritime tradition by focusing on the site's history, including the Aquarium that was housed at Castle Clinton from 1896 to 1941. Breaking with the notion that carousels are simple machines, the traditional carousel horse will be transformed into whimsical fish at the SeaGlass Carousel, and glass panels will simulate a descent into the ocean, making this carousel experience more high tech than the typical carousel. Elegant lighting will allow for riders to enjoy the carousel until late into the evening, but it will also illuminate the area around the carousel, drawing more users into the park.
Once home to as many as 25 carousels, Coney Island lost nearly all of its carousels and was in danger of losing its last carousel before the City saved the B&B Carousel in 2005. The 50-horse carousel had delighted children of all ages beginning in 1932 at its Surf Avenue location across from the Astroland Amusement Park. Operated by the McCullough family since 1973, the McCulloughs also owned and operated what would become the Feltman Carousel at Flushing Meadows Corona Park and Prospect Park's carousel (the family also owned a hotel and several shooting galleries at Coney Island). After finally getting out of the carousel business, the family put the carousel up for auction, at which point the nonprofit City Carousel Conservancy stepped in to advocate for the City to purchase the carousel to preserve a part of Coney Island's history and keep it intact as a functioning ride instead of the valuable horses being sold piecemeal to collectors.
With help from the Coney Island Development Corporation, the City purchased the carousel in August 2005 for $1.8 million, which City Carousel Conservancy's Dan Pisark believes is one of the most expensive carousel purchases ever. As of 2008, a conservator has been selected and the fully intact carousel will soon move to a new spot in Steeplechase Park between KeySpan Park and the boardwalk, keeping the tradition of carousels at Coney Island alive for many more generations of riders.
In DUMBO, Jane Walentas and her husband, developer David Walentas, have restored a Philadelphia-style carousel salvaged from a site in Youngstown, Ohio back in 1984. Details about where it will eventually go are still pending, but some plans call for it to be installed at Brooklyn Bridge Park.
At between $1.50 and $3 a ride, one thing is for sure—the great tradition of carousels will continue to be embraced in New York as these new attractions come on line.