Hartford Connecticut’s historic Bushnell Park Carousel celebrates 100 beautiful years. With both the Wadsworth Atheneum, the first public art museum in the country, and the Mark Twain House among its most popular attractions, Hartford, Connecticut, has long been a welcome home for both history and the arts. And in the heart of downtown, a hand-carved […]
By Aimee Tucker
Nov 10 2014
Bushnell Park CarouselPhoto Credit : Aimee Seavey
Hartford Connecticut’s historic Bushnell Park Carousel celebrates 100 beautiful years.
With both the Wadsworth Atheneum, the first public art museum in the country, and the Mark Twain House among its most popular attractions, Hartford, Connecticut, has long been a welcome home for both history and the arts. And in the heart of downtown, a hand-carved carousel offers not just another visual reminder of the past, but the rare opportunity to feel the same sensation that children here did long ago. Celebrating its 100th birthday this year, the Bushnell Park Carousel is beautiful, touchable art.
The carousel is just one of three known existing models made by Solomon Stein and Harry Goldstein during the early 20th century, when more than 3,000 of these spinning platforms were a key attraction at amusement parks and county fairs nationwide. But progress claimed its victims. When newer, faster rides came along, the popularity of carousels dwindled. Most were destroyed or dismantled and sold for parts; some went to private collectors. Fortunately, the Bushnell Park Carousel and its 1921 Wurlitzer band organ survived.
Bushnell’s horses (36 jumpers and 12 standers, plus a pair of lovers’ chariots) are big and flamboyant, with flared nostrils and bulging eyes that border on frightening–but a closer look reveals the skill of their creators. Festooned with trappings, from fish scales and feathers to oversized buckles and colorful cabbage roses, the horses have delighted riders since the carousel’s arrival in Hartford from Canton, Ohio, in 1974. But time’s wear and tear had taken its toll. The horses looked their age.
With long-range plans for a renovation, in 1999 the city handed over the reins of the carousel and its pavilion to the New England Carousel Museum, based in nearby Bristol. For Louise DeMars, the museum’s longtime executive director, managing the new addition was both thrilling and daunting. “We saw this beautiful wooden carousel in a wooden pavilion with no sprinkler system and thought, ‘Well, it doesn’t do any good to paint them pretty if a fire could take them out,'” she recalls. The museum embarked on a 15-year, $250,000 campaign of grants, corporate funding initiatives, and donation programs such as “Pennies for Ponies” and “Adopt-a-Horse,” with the ultimate goal of getting the carousel ready for its milestone birthday in July 2014.
Success, like the elusive brass ring, is now tantalizingly within reach. In addition to adding a sprinkler system, the platform was updated, and, to date, nearly all of the horses have been stripped and meticulously repainted. The city is adding heat to the pavilion, plus new restrooms and a multifunction room; the carousel will be a year-round attraction when it reopens in the spring of 2015.
Today fewer than 200 antique wooden carousels remain in the country. And although the Bushnell Park beauty is insured for a cool $2 million, “the number doesn’t matter, because there just isn’t another one,” DeMars says. “Our job, and we love doing it, is to educate and cultivate future generations. We hope that if they learn to enjoy the simple pleasure of a carousel ride, they’ll continue to preserve and protect the ones that are left. Even taking a ride helps!” And at only a dollar a pop for each old-fashioned joyride, the only thing left to do is to pick your pony. “I mean, come on!” DeMars says with a grin. “Where else can you get a two-million-dollar ride for a dollar?”
Bushnell Park Carousel,1 Jewell St., Hartford, CT. 860-585-5411; thecarouselmuseum.org