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Uncovered colors guide repainting of Canalside carousel figures

The menagerie carousel figures coming to Canalside in 2019 were a drab-looking bunch when they emerged from 61 years of storage earlier this year.

Now, in a temporary workshop in North Tonawanda, they're returning to form in dazzling fashion.

An exquisitely detailed deer, with replacement antlers and reconstructed hoofs, features a deeply carved coat of hair and a multi-hued saddle blanket engraved with a dog's portrait. Carved breeching is edged in aluminum leaf that will have colored glaze added, while a painted rope sits coiled next to the saddle.

Four decorative horses are also being painted by skilled volunteers after months of carving, sanding and priming. When the painting is finished – blocks from where Spillman Engineering Company built the carousel in 1924 – almost one-third of the 34 animals will be completed. The rest will be finished in 2018.

"They are coming back to life," said Laurie Hauer-LaDuca, Buffalo Heritage Carousel's executive director. "It's so exciting to see them refreshed, renewed and revitalized."

Janice Bough paints the horse “Ghost” at a workshop in North Tonawanda, blocks from where the carousel was originally built. (Derek Gee/Buffalo News)

All of the whimsical animals are to receive a dozen coatings to fortify the carousel for the rigors to come.

Each will have been given two coats of wood sealer, two coats of oil-based primer, one coat of oil-based Dover white, two color coats of either artist's oil-based paint or sign painter's enamel, and five coats of clear varnish.

"The animals are going to be ridden and kicked and loved, which is why we try to get all these coatings on in a real quality way," said Rosa Patton, a National Carousel Association-recognized carousel painter from Chapel Hill, S.C.

Patton was in town last week to teach and supervise volunteer painters, most of whom are members of Buffalo Snowbirds Decorative Painters and the Genesee County Decorative Painters from Batavia.

The original colors of the stylized figures were uncovered in the hand-stripping of the park paint used by Spillman Engineering in 1924. When the five animals are completed, they'll join six others in storage at the Herschell Carrousel Factory Museum, across the street from the workshop.

Buffalo Heritage Carousel is hoping to find a larger downtown workshop to paint the rounding board and scenery panels now under reconstruction in Ohio. They're hoping a display window will be able to show the ongoing progress of the animals, as well as a Wurlitzer Organ model 153 arriving in the spring.

A rocking chariot and an Erie Canal barge chariot, featuring Sal the Mule, are also being worked on by Carousels and Carvings, the Ohio company.

"This horse is really amazing," said Patton of one of the outside horses, the largest animals in park-style carousels. "Look at the blanket flowing in the wind, and the mane with what is called a 'peek-a-boo,' " she said, referring to carved spaces between the horse's hair that also help show movement.

The horse's saddle bag was painted in shades of plum, yellow, pink and white, with a touch of teal, and the saddle's belt buckle across it.

"We're going to do that really big buckle in silver leaf so it'll really stand out," Patton said.

Patton said the public should be delighted by the finished animals. Before the restoration began, the carousel animals were a pale reflection of what they are returning back to, she said.

"In photographs and from what I've seen, they were pretty bad," Patton said. "Some of the worse I've ever seen. Everybody has done an amazing job."

Most of the half-dozen painters on a recent day were members of the Buffalo Snowbirds, who painted the Buffalo Zoo carousel in 2000. Those were metal horses.  The carousel being readied for Canalside are wooden animals, which has a far more involved restoration process, including sanding and priming.

Linda Chaffee of Newstead was busy on one side of the room delicately painting an eyeball on one of the horses.

"The eyes give them life," Chaffee said.

She has also filed and sanded some of the horses' mouths. "They designated me the dental hygienist because I was filing their teeth," Chaffee laughed. "We have actually some dental tools so it made it a lot easier to do it."

Chaffee said her work really has been a labor of love.

"I can't not be here," she said. "I have loved carousels all my life since I was a kid, as have most of us. When Helen suggested this, I went, 'Oh, yeah, I want to bring these back to life.' "

Helen Ronan, a member of the Buffalo Heritage Carousel board of directors and also the Buffalo Snowbirds, was applying decorative edging on another horse.

"I was with Laurie in 2013, sitting around her dining room table discussing the article in the paper about some people wanting to put a carousel in Canalside," Ronan recalled. "The excitement has just been building and building."

In another room, Jim Ronan sat at a table with body parts of a giraffe about him. He held an ear in one hand while applying an epoxy with the other to stabilize the wood and get it ready for sanding.

The giraffe was one of the animals, Ronan said, that showed signs of being damaged from being stored outside during some of the early years of storage. The menagerie was later stored in 1988 at Carousel Works in Mansfield, Ohio.

Patrick Stanczyk, a master carver and carousel restoration specialist, and Ronan have made replacement parts for the giraffe, a rare carousel animal, and other animals.

"I do the least amount I can do to change anything," Ronan said. "When I'm getting the paint off, I want to leave all the marks that are in there where they carved. That's real stuff. There was a craftsman working on those."

Finishing touches on the five animals – including glazing and pinstriping – are expected to be completed in the coming weeks. Then, the carousel workers will turn their attention to the next batch of animals in need of loving attention.

As restoration continues, so does fundraising.

The group has raised $4 million of the $5.3 million needed, according to Corky Burger, campaign fundraising director, who is looking for funders to "adopt" individual animals.

Gov. Andrew Cuomo gave a challenge grant of $1.2 million, which KeyBank matched. Other donors include the Margaret L. Wendt Foundation, which provided $250,000. Assemblyman Sean Ryan and State Sen. Chris Jacobs secured state funding of $600,000 and $500,000, respectively.

Plans call for the carousel to be located on city land near Clinton's Dish and the children's sandbox. It will occupy 7,056 square feet, and be enclosed year-round in a heated building.

When it opens, the rare park-style carousel will be just the 10th in use in the country, Hauer-LaDuca said.

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