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Central Park

The Carousel

This text is part of Parks’ Historical Signs Project and can be found posted within the park.

When the Board of Commissioners of Central Park organized the competition to design Central Park in 1857, they did not stipulate that the plans include any specific features intended just for children. A few years passed before they decided to set up a "children’s district" with attractions for the younger park visitors. By 1872, the children’s attractions included the Carousel, the Dairy, the Kinderberg rustic shelter (now Chess and Checkers House), a playground (now Heckscher Ballfields and Playground), and the Children’s Cottage (demolished pre-1900). Central Park architect Calvert Vaux (1824-1895) designed nearby Playmates Arch with assistance from Jacob Wrey Mould (1825-1886). A Philadelphia pressed brick and Milwaukee yellow brick structure, it was installed to connect the features on either side of the West Drive in 1863.

There have been several carousels in Central Park. The first carousel opened in 1871, approximately 50 yards from the site of this one. At ten cents per ticket, it cost nearly as much as the average working class man made in an hour. In 1877, a sympathetic Park Board President cut the fee to nickel. For many more young New Yorkers, special occasions could now be celebrated with a trip to the Children’s District and its popular Carousel.

The early carousels literally ran on “horsepower” – a mule and a horse hitched to a central pole in the basement turned the mechanism around. Electrification took place around the turn of the 20th century, and a new carousel replaced the old in 1924. That carousel's brass ring was a memorable feature for many riders, including author J. D. Salinger whose classic novel The Catcher in the Rye describes a carousel scene. When that carousel burned down in 1950, Parks found this replacement at the old BMT trolley terminal in Coney Island. The City of New York had acquired that site in 1940 during the transit unification, and naturally the Board of Transportation had no use for a carousel in its scheme of improvements at the depot. It generously donated this carousel to Central Park.

Talented artists Sol Stein and Harry Goldstein crafted this Carousel, the Friedsam Memorial Carousel, with the Artistic Carousel Manufacturing Company of Williamsburg, Brooklyn in 1908. The fact that the sturdy Carousel still accommodates almost 250,000 riders a year attests to the quality of their work. It is one of the largest carousels in the United States, with 58 hand-carved, painted horses, and 2 chariots, all on a turntable 50 feet in diameter. A new mechanical organ, larger than the old one destroyed by fire, was installed with the Carousel. It has 86 keys, 2 drums, a tambourine and cymbals, and plays twenty paper roll records. The wrought iron fence that surrounds the open Carousel sides is bedecked with small, brightly-painted horses.

The most recent renovations to the Carousel and surrounding plaza took place in 1990 under the direction of the Central Park Conservancy. The Conservancy, a private, not-for-profit organization founded in 1980, manages Central Park under contract with Parks. Together, Parks and the Conservancy will ensure that future generations of children will be able to take a ride on this fine example of American folk art.

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