A rare wooden carousel carved by European immigrants in a North Tonawanda factory nearly a century ago is in storage in northeast Ohio.
There are wooden horses in standing and jumping positions. Lion, tiger, giraffe, ostrich and deer figures. Painted scenery panels and rounding boards.
After decades of gathering dust, the vintage amusement ride – last used in a carnival in suburban Massachusetts in 1954 – could once again enchant children of all ages.
Its possible destination: the Buffalo waterfront.
“This could be Buffalo’s gem. There are nine remaining Herschell-Spillman park-style carousels in operation, and we would love number 10 to be back home in Buffalo,” said Laurie Hauer-Laduca, who located the carousel.
The carousel’s possible journey back to use in Buffalo is owed to a convergence of interests: a family’s refusal to sell the carnival ride piecemeal, a local group’s perseverence to return a locally made carousel to Buffalo, and a foundation that opened its wallet.
The Margaret L. Wendt Foundation is offering to pay $250,000 for the local group to buy the carousel and operate it with solar power.
But the offer comes with a hitch: It must be located at Canalside.
That leaves it up to Erie Canal Harbor Development Corp. to decide whether to reach for the brass ring.
There is also an approaching deadline: Buffalo Heritage Carousel, the not-for-profit that would own and operate the merry-go-round, must put down a non-returnable deposit for the carousel by July 1 or risk having it go to a private collector.
Robert Gioia, Erie Canal Harbor Development Corp.’s chairman, said he would welcome the carousel, and expects the waterfront agency to make a decision by the deadline, but several issues remain to be resolved and the outcome is uncertain.
Carousel enthusiasts say the chance to buy one of the last lavishly carved merry-go-rounds made in Western New York may not come again.
“This carousel is very rare, has exceptionally beautiful carvings and would draw people in with color, music and motion,” said Rae Proefrock, the director of Herschell Carrousel Factory Museum in North Tonawanda and an adviser to the local carousel group.
Gioia said he agreed that the carousel would be a wonderful addition to the waterfront, if details can be worked out.
“We would love to have the carousel on the waterfront. It is so consistent with what we are trying to do there. It’s not a question of if, regarding an attraction of this nature, it’s when and where,” Gioia said.
The carousel would become the second permanent children-oriented entertainment installation at Canalside. Explore & More Children’s Museum is still expected to be located at Canalside, Gioia said, despite recent unsuccessful negotiations with a developer to put it in a new building near the historically aligned canals.
A carousel and a children’s museum were both recommended for the waterfront in a cultural master plan issued in October 2011 by consultants hired by Erie Canal Harbor Development Corp.
An immigrant’s dream
The carousel has been owned by one family for close to a century.
Domenick DeAngelis, an Italian immigrant who came to the United States as a teenager in 1905, bought the carousel in 1924 with money saved from driving a taxi. But he had dreams of owning a carnival outside Boston. He eventually owned several, most prominently in Quincy, Mass.
DeAngelis died in 1952, and the land where the carnival was located was taken by eminent domain in 1954 to build a school.
The family put the carousel into storage that year. In 1988, they moved it to Carousel Works in Mansfield, Ohio, which restores carousels, for safekeeping while harboring hopes for its future restoration.
Over the years, the DeAngelis family rejected offers from private collectors to sell parts of the carousel.
“The money has seemed less important than keeping the carousel intact and exhibited properly, because it is their family’s legacy,” Hauer-Laduca said. “I think our obtaining it would be a dream come true for them.”
Hauer-Loduca, a carousel enthusiast and collector, learned of the carousel’s existence and went to Massachusetts to meet with the DeAngelis family. She was struck by how much the carousel meant to them.
“Domenick DeAngelis, the son, got very emotional talking about the machine. He had helped his dad run it. You could tell it meant lot to them that we weren’t a dealer. It is their jewel, and they didn’t want it hidden away in someone’s private collection. They want it to be a public amusement again,” Hauer-Laduca said.
That day will arrive when the 31 decorative animals rise and lower again on the spinning, three-row merry-go-round as lights sparkle and circus music plays.
Hauer-Laduca said the pending agreement carries one proviso: “The family’s grandchildren can ride free, forever,” she said with a laugh.
Herschell-Spillman Company and three related companies made roughly 3,000 carousels in North Tonawanda, but fewer than 20 were the fancier park-style machines.
The others still in operation include at Golden Gate Park in San Francisco, Griffith Park in Los Angeles, Henry Ford Museum in Dearborn, Mich., and Trimper’s Ride in Ocean City, Md.
“The last 10 are pretty darn rare,” said Bette Largent, the National Carousel Association’s president. She estimated the total number of vintage carousels remaining in the United States at 150, with some privately owned. These more elaborate park-style carousels were also manufactured by carousel makers in Philadelphia and Coney Island.
“The park machines were always the coveted ones because of their size. Even though they had made great advancements in amusement park rides, that park machine was the jewel of the crown,” Largent said.
Dan Jones, co-owner of Carousel Works in Ohio, which has restored 15 antique carousels over the years and carves new ones, said the merry-go-round that could come to Canalside is particularly special.
“It’s one of the fanciest ones Herschell ever made,” Jones said. “Apparently the owner went out to the factory all the time, and no one knows if he got to be good friends or just demanded a lot of stuff, but there is a lot of extra detail in some of the figures that you don’t ordinarily see,” Jones said.
Plans for restoration
Despite six decades in storage – 33 years in Massachusetts, 27 in Ohio – Jones said his company has restored carousels in much worse shape.
Employees in the restoration department would “reglue, redowl and repaint” the carousel once they get the go-ahead, he said.
What’s more, the carousel would be solar-powered. That is intended to signify the importance of renewable energy, and to shine a light on Western New York’s history of using alternative energy. It also would celebrate the region’s role as one of the handful of carousel-making centers during the industry’s heyday.
If the transaction can be completed, the antique carousel could be expected to open in 2017, with restoration projected to take about 18 months. A building also would have to be erected to house the amusement ride year-round.
During that time, Buffalo Heritage Carousel would be engaged in raising the $600,000 needed so the 91-year-old carousel can be restored, transported and installed. Ten percent – $60,000 – will be the deposit needed to start the restoration clock.
Carousel Works also would be asked to carve a handicapped-accessible Erie Canal barge to replace a missing chariot, which will include a buffalo and a Mule named Sal.
Carousels are popular attractions at many waterfronts. Among them are Baltimore’s Inner Harbor, Brooklyn Bridge Park in Brooklyn and Seaside Heights, N.J.. Locally, they can be found at Olcott Beach Carousel Park in Olcott, Lakeside Park Carousel in Port Dalhousie, Ont., and Ontario Beach Park in Rochester.
The idea for a solar-powered Herschell-Spillman carousel on Buffalo’s waterfront was suggested in 2003 by Laura Briggs, a Cornell University professor hired as a consultant by the Erie County Environmental Management Council to explore the use of renewable energy in public places.
The idea took hold with a small, informal group that eventually grew into the Buffalo Heritage Carousel. The group hoped to bring a carousel on the waterfront, in walking distance of the Metro Rail and bicycle paths.
“This would be a dream come true,” said Joan Bozer, a former Erie County legislator and one of the group’s founders. “The carousel is such an important icon for our region, since we manufactured more carousels here than anywhere else. The fact that we also exported them on the Erie Canal by ship, and later by rail, to other countries makes this a great Buffalo story for the whole region.”
Graduate students from the University at Buffalo’s School of Architecture and Planning updated a model in 2013 showing how a carousel might look on the waterfront, under adjunct professor and group member Irene Ayad’s supervision.
Elizabeth Nichols, another founding member who wrote the business plan, said Buffalo Heritage Carousel would seek historic designation for the merry-go-round to add recognition and prestige.
“There are people all around the country who like to see these historic carousels, and go from one to another to mark them off their list, like people do with Frank Lloyd Wright buildings,” Nichols said.