It has been a decade since Casino Pier announced plans to either sell or take apart the historic, 113-year-old carousel that has spent a great deal of its life on the Seaside Heights boardwalk. Since then, it’s been the subject of a major land swap between the borough and Casino Pier in order to preserve the ride and keep it in town, the impetus for the construction of the borough’s beautiful Carousel Pavilion, the driving force behind the establishment of the new Seaside Heights Historical Society – and over the past week, it’s slowly been brought back to life in its new home.
Shorebeat was privy to one such “test spin” on Friday, with Borough Administrator Christopher Vaz – one of a handful of borough employees who has been trained in its operation – to flip the switch that brought the fast-moving, smooth-jumping, brightly-colored animals to life. The original Wurlitzer band organ roared to life as well, sounding clear as ever, enveloping the round-shaped pavilion building with its signature sound.
Much of the carousel, which features hand-carved and painted animals by renowned artists William Dentzel and Charles Looff, has spent the last several years in Ohio, being restored by what is thought to be the only historic carousel restoration studio in the nation. Other parts were stored locally. It has returned to the boardwalk in the new pavilion at Carteret Avenue, but cannot yet be opened to the public since New Jersey requires a permitting and inspection process before it can be ridden. In the mean time, employees have been periodically turning on the power to the amusement ride and documenting the time it has been active.
Carousel aficionados will likely notice a few differences in the post-restoration ride, however the changes reflect the authenticity behind the work that was completed, and several “secrets” that were uncovered during the process.
“What everyone has seen over the last 30 or 40 years was not the original,” said Vaz, pointing out some new colors and red brush designs near the top of the ride. ” We couldn’t see them, but they were there. They were just buried.”
Also buried – literally – in the carousel was one of the final pieces of the puzzle that is its history – a manufacturing plate confirming a major fact about the ride that had never been truly understood.
“When the carousel got out to Ohio they found it, and it’s what we think is a second manufacturer of the carousel,” Vaz said, explaining that the ride had previously been located on an island in the Delaware River, and suffered damage in a fire. It was in 1932 that the carousel arrived in Seaside Heights, but it had never been completely understood where post-fire repairs took place and who performed the work.
The manufacturing plate – which has now been placed on the exterior of the carousel for all to see – came from the William F. Mangels Carousel Company, based in Coney Island, N.Y. It is now believed that Mangels was behind some of the animal fixtures in the ride that were replaced after the fire, essentially making it one of, if not the only, Dentzel-Looff-Mangels carousels in the world.
“That was something nobody was aware of,” said Vaz, who also serves as the borough historian and has conducted tireless research on the carousel’s background.
A new addition to the carousel can also be seen in the background imagery set behind the animal figures. This area of the ride was restored by hand-painted versions of classic Seaside Heights post cards from the early part of the 20th century.
“We provided them with 12 post cards, and the artist hand-sketched and hand-painted each of them,” said Vaz. “They had a little clothes-pinned pencil sketch, and the artists hand-painted them for weeks and weeks.”
The original scenery in the same location “didn’t relate to the Shore, but that was not uncommon when these [carousels] were first made,” Vaz said.
Before the carousel starts spinning, the traditional pre-ride bell is rung by hand. The bell glistens with a new shine, but the attached control panel is brand new and modern. In addition to the usual control features found on amusement rides, at the press of a button, the carousel and perfectly position itself where a ramp connects the ride and the pavilion’s floor. The ramp can fully accommodate riders in wheelchairs, and the figurines in that area were specially sized and placed so companions can ride along.
The wheelchair ramp was custom-designed for the carousel and, like the operator’s station, is metallic and almost indistinguishable from an early 1900s piece of equipment despite bring brand new.
During its test spin, the carousel began to spin in an ultra-smooth manner, eventually reaching a fast clip as many of the horses, tigers, lions and other animal figures began dancing.
“This was restored to be ridden, not to be a museum piece,” said Vaz. “That is one of the reasons so much work had to go into the project.”
While the carousel has been pieced back together, painted and polished, and spins in a perfect silky-smooth motion, the restoration work is not yet complete. Seaside Heights, through its historical society, is sending all of the animal figures for repainting and refinishing using the original colors of each piece.
“The plan is to send about three or four of them out to Ohio at a time,” said Vaz. “They will strip them down to the wood, repaint them, and they will look like nothing you’ve ever seen before, I can promise that.”
“I was blessed to be able to see about 50 of those horses repainted that were going to the National Carousel Museum, and they were fabulous,” he added.
Eight animal figures had already been repainted and refinished by a local artist.
Ready to Ride
Officials have submitted the paperwork to Trenton that is necessary to obtain a permit to operate the ride once again. As an inspection is required (New Jersey is one of the few states that conduct amusement ride inspections) the timeline for the permitting process to be completed is unknown, especially at the height of the summer season. But while there is not yet a date set for the official reopening, Seaside Heights officials are considering linking the reopening to the annual lighting of the borough’s Christmas tree, which may be placed near the pavilion this year.
There are also still a few finishing touches that have to be completed on the pavilion building itself, where the carousel will operate as a working amusement ride. The pavilion is located on space once owned by Casino Pier, and was conveyed to the borough in a “trade” that saw the borough provide room for the expansion of the modern pier in exchange for the carousel itself and the parcel of beachfront land where it will be permanently housed. The pavilion may also be used for civic events, and could one day even be expanded.
In many ways, the restored carousel is more authentic than what visitors have enjoyed for years, with perfectly-matched paint colors mated to a platform that recognizes the ride’s entire history. Few people are more excited about the ride’s future than Vaz, who said tourists often stop and ask about the carousel’s progress.
“The design you’re seeing, and those colors, are the original pieces – plus the original paint color,” he said, emphasizing that the restoration process uncovered quite a bit of borough history that had previously existed only in rumors or theories.
“If I had to boil this process down to one thing: there was a lot of discovery,” he said.