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The destruction and return of the Forest Park Carousel: Our Neighborhood, The Way it Was

car-horse
One of the surviving horses from the original Forest Park Carousel, which was destroyed by fire on Dec. 10, 1966. This horse, the work of Master Carousel Carver Daniel C. Muller, can be seen in the lobby of Oak Ridge, the offices of the Forest Park Administration. (Photo courtesy of the Woodhaven Cultural and Historical Society)

In last month’s Old Timer, we looked at the life of Master Carousel Carver Daniel C. Muller and the establishment of a carousel in Forest Park in 1923.

For four decades, residents of Woodhaven and other communities surrounding Forest Park enjoyed old-fashioned fun at our carousel. But on Dec. 10, 1966, tragedy struck when the Forest Park Carousel was destroyed by fire. It was reported at 8:40 p.m. and, despite a quick and massive response from the fire department, it was not brought under control until 9:28 p.m. In those 48 minutes, a great deal of rare and exquisite carousel artistry was lost forever.

No cause of the fire was ever determined though vandalism was suspected. The carousel was insured for $50,000 but it was estimated that it would cost a quarter of a million dollars to replace.

Over the next few years, residents and elected officials called for the city to replace the carousel but the news was all bad and it looked like something unique and special was lost forever.

However, in January 1972, they received the miracle they were hoping for. When it was announced that the Lakeview Amusement Park in Dracut, Massachusetts, was closing permanently, the city of New York moved quickly, purchasing the carousel for just $30,000.

And it wasn’t just any old carousel. Amazingly, the carousel was a Muller. A few figures were missing, so a few other figures (two by Dentzel and one by Charles Carmel, another notable carousel artist of the same era) were purchased and added to the menagerie.

And so, the Forest Park Carousel was back, but the next few years were a bumpy ride. In 1984, the Forest Park Carousel closed indefinitely for repairs.

Four years later, the Queens-based Fabricon Design Group, led by carousel designer Marvin Sylvor, restored the Forest Park Carousel, repairing and repainting figures and replacing missing pieces. Once again, the Forest Park Carousel was running and in 2004 it was entered onto the National Register of Historic Places.

But within a few years the city and the vendor chosen to maintain the carousel parted ways. When residents visited the park in spring 2009, they found the Forest Park Carousel fenced in, padlocked and surrounded with barbed wire.

Concerned that the city would sell off this priceless gem, the community (led by the Woodhaven Residents’ Block Association) brought their concerns to the attention of local elected officials and the press. And then another miracle happened. After a three-year wait, New York Carousel was chosen to reopen and operate the Forest Park Carousel, which it did, to great fanfare, in 2012.

On June 19, 2013, the Forest Park Carousel was officially designated as a New York City landmark. The community came out to celebrate and support the carousel. Parents and grandparents (who were lifted onto the ride as children) lifted their children and grandchildren onto the ride. The community was comforted by the fact that, as a landmark, the Forest Park Carousel would be protected for many generations to come.

Late Woodhaven community activist Maria Thomson, who fought for nearly three decades to get the carousel landmarked, on June 19, 2013, the day that the Forest Park Carousel was officially designated as a New York City Landmark. (Photo courtesy of the Woodhaven Cultural and Historical Society)

And so, the Forest Park Carousel was open and landmarked, but it was still a bumpy ride. Literally. Whenever the carousel reached full speed, it tended to sway and you could hear the gears grinding.

The caretakers of the carousel knew that an overhaul was long overdue. At the end of the 2014 season, the Forest Park Carousel was taken apart by employees of the carousel and a group from Carousels & Carvings, carousel specialists from Marion, Ohio. Many pieces that needed to be replaced were driven 555 miles to Carousels & Carvings’ headquarters where they were rebuilt over the winter.

A total of 49 horses (36 jumpers and 13 standers on the outer row), three menagerie figures (a tiger, a lion and a deer) and two chariots were carefully removed and stored away over the winter. Every single thing was stripped off of the carousel and the center stack was lifted and suspended all winter by an indoor crane to enable the team to remove the center bearings. The entire process took nearly three weeks.

In the spring, the team reunited and began the complicated process of putting a more than century-old carousel back together. This is not an everyday occurrence and the members of that team appreciated that this was a unique opportunity.

And when it was all back together, the city’s safety chief came out to inspect the ride and after hearing the quiet whoosh as it ran at full speed, he smiled and said, “That sounds like a smooth ride.”

Although the past century has been anything but a smooth ride for the Forest Park Carousel, it certainly seems that way now that it has been restored, repaired and landmarked. With summer drawing to a close, make sure you stop by the Forest Park Carousel for one more ride!

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