looking back

‘Looking Back’: GG Park Carousel

By Kinen Carvala

What attraction in Golden Gate Park moves and has a picture of itself?

In a pavilion in Golden Gate Park is a charming carousel that has been entertaining children of all ages since the late 1800s.

Four rings of carousel animals rotate counterclockwise around the center for about four minutes each ride. (In Canada and the U.S., carousels tend to go counterclockwise while European ones tend to go clockwise, according to the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation.) The three inner rings of animals bob up and down during the ride, but the outermost ring does not move vertically. Sixty-two animals are on the carousel, including horses, ostriches, frogs and a dragon. Bench seating or “chariots” are another option for riders, to use the carousel terminology by restorer Ruby Newman.

Painted panels on top of the carousel show various San Francisco attractions, like Coit Tower and the Palace of Fine Arts. Golden Gate Park attractions are also featured, including Stow Lake, the Spreckels Temple of Music and a panel featuring the Carousel Pavilion itself.

The text “Gebr. Bruder Orgelfabr. Waldkirch” on a stationary central panel of the carousel facing the entrance refers to the manufacturers of the (now-inoperative) organ, the Gebrüder Bruder company from Waldkirch, Germany.

An inner panel has “Ross R. Davis” above the word “agent.” Ross R. Davis was part of the Davis family that moved to the west coast in the early 1900s and started a family business installing and maintaining various carousels in the Western U.S., according to Roland Hopkins, editor of Carousel News and Trader magazine.

The GG Park carousel was originally installed in Lincoln Park in Los Angeles, according to the National Park Service. The carousel was moved to the 1939 Golden Gate International Exposition on Treasure Island before being installed in Golden Gate Park in 1941. The carousel was “either purchased or arranged to be purchased” by Herbert Fleishhacker, who was president of the San Francisco Park Commission from 1922 until 1940, according to his relative, David Fleishhacker, writing in The Argonaut in the winter of 2016. David Fleishhacker claimed that an earlier carousel at the Children’s Playground was a gift from Herbert Fleishhacker in 1922 to the City as a memorial for his father-in-law, Sigmund Greenebaum.

The carousel in Golden Gate Park has been a beloved park feature since the late 1800s. Near Robin Williams Meadow, the Sharon Art Studio and Children’s Playground, the renovated ride has glistening, brightly painted figures designed to look like animals, both real and imagined. Photo by Michael Durand.

Further down on the carousel’s panel are the words “Spillman” and “N. Tonyawanda, N.Y.”; the carousel was built by the Herschell-Spillman Company in North Tonyawanda, New York, (according to the National Park Service). Tonyawanda, known as “Lumber City,” attracted many woodworkers and carvers, according to the book A Pictorial History of the Carousel. The Herschell-Spillman Company became one of the most popular and successful American carousel manufacturers of the early 20th century, according to The Henry Ford museums.

The pavilion was described as a “handsome spoof of a circular Greek temple” in 1984 by Allan Temko, architecture critic for the San Francisco Chronicle. The pavilion’s Doric columns were reminiscent of ancient Greece, but combined with a dome seemed like a “pseudo-Roman concoction” or “pure Victorian fantasy.”

Arthur Page Brown, the architect behind San Francisco’s Ferry Building, designed the carousel pavilion, according to the National Park Service. (This architect is not to be confused with Arthur Brown Jr., an architect for San Francisco’s City Hall.) The Sharon Quarters playground (now known as Koret Children’s Quarters) opened on December 22, 1888, and the carousel pavilion was built in 1892, according to Historian in Residence of the San Francisco Recreation and Park Department, Christopher Pollock.

A restoration from 1977 to 1984 of the Children’s Playground carousel cost at least $888,000, according to Temko. Rot and mildew had to be cut away from the wooden animal figures; the head of the restoration crew, Ruby Newman, writes on her website that some badly damaged parts were often re-carved. Any refilled surfaces were tightly covered with silk and the figures were repeatedly coated in glossy lacquer and sanded. The current San Francisco scenes on the upper panels were painted by Newman as the original images (panels) were beyond repair.

Proposition 40 (2002) was a major source of funding for a $1.66 million renovation of the plaza next to the carousel, according to Rachel Gordon, SF Chronicle staff writer. A ribbon cutting for the renovated Carousel Plaza was held on July 8, 2011, according to a Richmond District Blog at the time.

The National Carousel Association, promoters of conserving and appreciating “the art of the classic wooden carousel,” had its Sept. 14-18, 2022, convention in San Francisco, which included a visit to the carousel in Golden Gate Park.

The carousel is west of Children’s Playground and south of the Sharon Art Studio in Golden Gate Park. The carousel is open on Fridays from 10:30 a.m. to 4 p.m. and on Saturdays, Sundays and holidays from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Call 415-231-0077 for updates about the carousel’s schedule.

Tickets are sold at the food kiosk with the banner labelled “Carousel tickets” next to the carousel pavilion. Adult tickets cost $2; children ages 6-12 years, $1 per ride; children 5 and under ride free if accompanied by a paying adult. Children under 40 inches in height must be accompanied by a paying adult.

1 reply »

  1. See Merry-Go-Roundup, January 1977,volume 4 number 1, page 18: A History of the Golden Gate Park Merry-Go-Round written by me!

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