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Canalside carousel called a perfect fit as waterfront attraction

Carousels are like nostalgic dreams, with colorful horses, whirring lights and band-organ music recalling images of happy families and unfettered childhood.

It’s also why, proponents say, the whimsical amusement ride is made to order for Canalside.

Supporters want to purchase a historic carousel once carved by German and other early 20th century European immigrants at the Allan Herschell Company in North Tonawanda and operate it alongside a planned children’s museum at the former Memorial Auditorium site.

They’re not alone: A cultural master plan for Canalside issued in October 2011 and commissioned by Erie Canal Harbor Development Corp., the state’s waterfront agency, also endorsed the idea.

“A carousel would be a great destination maker at Canalside. It’s the smartest idea I’ve heard for the waterfront – it’s a home run masquerading as a single,” said historian and entrepreneur Mark Goldman, who pointed to Jane’s Carousel in Brooklyn Bridge Park as a successful example of a popular carousel attraction near water.

Goldman and other proponents say a carousel powered by solar energy would merge a family attraction with the region’s industrial history; use of the Erie Canal, where the factory shipped its carousels by rail to far-off clients; and regional use of renewable energy, recalling how Niagara Falls first capitalized on the use of hydropower to generate electricity.

A carousel could be a great fit for Canalside, agreed Rep. Brian Higgins, a longtime catalyst for change on the waterfront.

“A carousel is an attraction that combines Western New York’s unique history and family-friendly fun. Those are characteristics we are certainly looking to highlight along Buffalo’s waterfront,” Higgins said.

Longtime Erie County Legislator Joan Bozer has pursued putting a carousel on the waterfront for years. The idea originated 10 years ago with Laura Briggs, formerly a Cornell University professor who is now chairwoman of sustainable architecture at Parsons The New School for Design in New York City.

“A solar carousel would be a self-sustaining, family-friendly magnet. It is our legacy, it is our heritage,” Bozer said.

Bozer approached University at Buffalo’s School of Architecture and Planning at the time, and graduate students created a model of how a carousel might look on the waterfront. Around the same time, a Herschell Carrousel merry-go-round was donated and stored for such a purpose. But carousel experts later determined the parts and mechanisms were too deteriorated to be viable.

Earlier this year, two updated models were built by UB teaching assistants Hossein Naghavi and Vincent Krause under the supervision of architecture adjunct professor Irene Ayad. These models placed the canopied carousel, with rectangular solar panels, in the context of “placemaking,” showing a terraced sitting area, river view and nearby shops.

“This is more than just a carousel, but a place where the public can come together, with a link to the local history and something manufactured here,” Ayad said.

Ayad loves the idea of an attraction at Canalside that draws young and old alike.

“People are very responsive to anything nostalgic. That’s almost a universal trait. Everyone likes a carousel, right?” she said.

Rae Proefrock, director of the Herschell Carrousel Factory Museum in North Tonawanda, believes a carousel at Canalside or on the outer harbor would be a wonderful way to link the company’s and region’s role as one of the foremost manufacturers of carousels during its heyday in the early 20th century. North Tonawanda was once home to four carousel makers.

“We’re very enthusiastic about the idea. It’s something we think would be an asset to Buffalo,” Proefrock said.

She even envisions the creation of a Western New York Herschell Carrousel trail, where visitors could take a stamped passport to carousels on the waterfront, the Buffalo Zoo, Olcott Beach, the National Museum of Play in Rochester and the carousel factory museum.

The potential for a carousel was recognized in the consultant’s final report to Erie Canal Harbor Development Corp.

“The recommended initial capital project is a children’s museum and potentially a solar-powered carousel,” Lord Cultural Resources and Ralph Appelbaum Associates said.

It suggested the carousel could be located next to the museum, or on the rooftop of a proposed adjacent public market, “thus creating efficient use of space and allowing the carousel to market the children’s museum and Canalside from a distance.”

Robert D. Gioia, chairman of Erie Canal Harbor Development Corp., said the idea of a carousel on the waterfront has considerable merit.

“When we look at the history of North Tonawanda and the Herschell Carrousel, I think it’s a great idea, and it’s something we should absolutely look into,” Gioia said.

Explore & More Children’s Museum recently finished its master plan for a museum on the waterfront, which will be presented to the waterfront agency in the fall. If all goes well, and fundraising goals are met, the museum could open in 2016, according to Barbara Park Leggett, the East Aurora museum’s executive director.

Leggett said she, too, saw great potential in putting a carousel on the waterfront.

“I’m a fan of carousels, personally, and obviously anything for children and families will strengthen what we’re planning and what we’re doing,” Leggett said.

Bozer is planning to lead a small delegation next month to the National Carousel Association conference in Leavenworth, Kan., to develop leads on acquiring a Herschell Carrousel-made merry-go-round. The opportunities to do so – acquiring one that’s wooden, or later models of aluminum, or a combination of both materials – don’t come often, said Bette Largent, the association’s president.

Largent estimated it could cost $100,000 to $500,000 to acquire a carousel, depending on the size and condition, split about evenly between the purchase price and the cost for restoration, including mechanical upgrades, and transport. Menagerie figures the company made would go for more. But carousels don’t come up for sale often, she said, recalling only one Herschell carousel in the last four or five years.

“You have to be ready when one comes on the market. You can’t then take six months to get together with the financing because someone else is going to buy it,” Largent said.

The 1909 carousel she maintains in Riverfront Park in downtown Spokane, Wash., has become a leading tourist attraction, she said.

“It’s right in the heart of the city, in an area where there were railroad tracks and warehouses, and you couldn’t even see the river. I don’t think there’s anyone today who doesn’t know where the carousel is, hasn’t ridden on it or taken someone to visit,” Largent said.

Many carousels are self-sustaining financially, she said, and include a gift shop. They can also be useful in eliminating “the riffraff,” she said, since people exhibiting bad behavior don’t usually like to demonstrate it around families.

But the most important contribution carousels make, Largent said, is improving the public’s quality of life.

“That’s an aspect a lot of people don’t look at, but it’s the input that the public has given time and time again,” Largent said.