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a carouselOut to Pasture

Antique wooden merry-go-rounds are treasured-but not in San Diego

Two of San Diego’s historic carousels may soon be dust - literally.

The Seaport Village Carousel built in 1890 and one of the three oldest carved wooden carousels in the country, is being auctioned off April 17 at the Manchester Grand Hyatt downtown. Auctioneers hope the buyer will find a new home for the carousel, which could fetch as much as $800,000, but there’s no guarantee. Typically a carousel is worth more if the carved animals are sold individually; the Seaport Village Carousel’s three dog carvings are valued at upwards of $50,000 each.

frontpages_07 (6K)Meanwhile, the Balboa Park Carousel, built in 1910 and a fixture in the park since 1922, stands in the way of the San Diego Zoo’s expansion plans, now awaiting city council approval. The carousel site would be paved over as part of a “promenade” that includes a four-story underground parking structure. William Steen, who has owned and operated the carousel for 26 years, wants to pass the baton.

“It really would be a shame to see either one lost,” says carousel historian William Mann, author of the book Painted Ponies: American Carousel Art. “The Seaport Village Carousel, in particular, is in amazing condition and could easily run for another 50 years.”

Both local landmarks are relics from the golden age of the American carousel, a period that began with the taming of the Old West and ended with the onset of the Great Depression. Mann says amusement park tycoon Charles Looff, who built the Seaport Village Carousel to entertain visitors to New York’s Coney Island, created his first carousel in June 1876, just a few days after Custer’s Last Stand.

Between then and 1930, more than 3,000 hard-carved wooden carousels went up in amusement parks throughout the country, weighing as much as 14 tons. Today, only about 75 of the majestic “park style” carousels survive. California is home to six.

The Seaport Village Carousel originally ran on steam and has 46 hand-carved animals-40 standing and jumping horses, three dogs and tree goats. After being converted to electricity in 1933, it began operating under the name Broadway Flying Horses at Salisbury Beach, Massachusetts. It came to San Diego in 1976, underwent extensive renovation and reopened at Seaport Village in 1980.

Two years ago, the century-old carousel mechanism was restored at a cost of more than $250,000. But Seaport Village was sold, and the carousel wound up in the hands of a trust. And the trustee, U.S. Bank, “doesn’t consider it an appropriate asset for the trust,” according to carousel manager John Davidson.

The Balboa Park Carousel was built by the Herschell-Spillman Company and features a menagerie of colorful animals, including giraffes, zebras and ostriches. The carousel spent its early years on the beach in Coronado as part of the Tent City resort before moving to Balboa Park.

“In some communities, mall developers or even municipalities stepped in and saved carousels,” Mann says. “Maybe if enough interest gets stirred up, something like that will happen here.”
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