It’s rare that one can actually climb on a 100-year-old work of art, but that’s exactly what you get to do when riding this Brooklyn treasure.
“The Carousel in Prospect Park” was built in 1912 by Russian-Jewish immigrant Charles Carmel, one of the master carvers of wooden carousels during the Golden Age of the ride. The carousel in Brooklyn’s 585-acre public park is one of only twelve remaining Carmel designs in existence.
In amusement innovator William F. Mangel’s shop, Carmel worked side by side with a venerable who’s who of carousel artists, including M.C. Illions and Solomon & Goldstein, who designed the famous Central Park Carousel. Together, these carvers helped develop what became known as the “Coney Island style,” noted for wildly flamboyant horses, often bedecked with jewels, gold and silver leaf.
Carmel was particularly fond of outfitting his carved horses with fish scale armor, wooden horseshoes, realistically imperfect teeth, lolling tongues and sweet expressions. He drew inspiration from his many visits to the Prospect Park stables, which were located just a few blocks from his Brooklyn home.
The Prospect Park Carousel — a menagerie of 53 horses, two dragon chariots, a deer, a giraffe and a lion — is made with real deer antlers, which were used because they ended up being stronger than any fabricated material. The horses have real horsehair tails, a rarity, since it was common for children to yank the hair off the horse while climbing aboard, which led to an industry trend of carved or cast horse tails. Many carousels of that time included fancy chariots; the Coney Island style favored dragon motifs.
Though over a century old, this is actually not Prospect Park’s first carousel. The original was erected in 1874, and was horse-powered. It was moved to the West Woods in 1885 where it burned to the ground and was replaced by a second carousel which in 1935 also burned down. Upon the creation of Prospect Park’s Children’s Corner in 1952, the current carousel was brought to the park from Coney Island.
The amusement ride has seen its share of ups and downs. During the 1970s and 1980s, the carousel — like the park itself and indeed much of New York City — slowly deteriorated. It was shut down completely in 1971 and 1983 because the vendor was unable to maintain the facility.
When the Prospect Park Alliance was founded in 1987 with the goal of restoring and preserving Brooklyn’s expansive park and all its features, restoring the carousel was one of the group’s first projects. Sixty new renderings of Brooklyn and Prospect Park were painted on the rounding boards, based on old photographs. Ornamented with brass and 1,000 lights, the carousel returned to its former glory.