As floodwaters Monday night reached what seemed to be impossible heights in DUMBO—the span of Brooklyn between the Brooklyn and Manhattan bridges, just off the East River—Jane Walentas looked down from her fifteenth floor apartment at a beautiful and terrifying sight.
There, in Brooklyn Bridge Park, on a three-foot high pavilion that usually stood 30 feet from the river’s edge, the waters whipped up by Hurricane Sandy were engulfing the carousel she had cared for over decades.
Waves crashed against the $9 million, 26-foot-high acrylic pavilion that encases the 90-year-old carousel. Architects had told her that not in a hundred years would a storm come along that could get at her irreplaceable wooden horses. But at the height of Sandy, it looked like they might be proven horribly wrong.
Jane’s husband, prominent Brooklyn developer David Walentas—who effectively created what has become hip, mixed-use DUMBO out of what had been a manufacturing district—was charged with a key role in the 1980s with creating what became Brooklyn Bridge Park. The couple had long sought to place the carousel in the park, the signature green space in the neighborhood he largely owns, and in 2011 it arrived there, along with a $3.45 million gift to the park.
The 48 horses and four chariots that make up what’s now called Jane’s Carousel—after Walentas—brought delight to children at Idora Park in Youngstown, Ohio—then a prospering steel town—in 1922. After the city declined along with the steel industry in the 1970s, a fire consumed the park, but spared the historic carousel—in 1974, it became the first one ever listed on the National Register of Historic Places—which went up for auction in 1984.
The Walentases scooped up the bruised and battered carousel for $385,000, and it was shipped in parts to New York City in 1984, and the horses were stored for much of the next few years in individual stalls in the basement of David’s building at 45 Main Street.
Then Jane, a former art director for Estee Lauder, decided that no one was going to be able to restore the carousel with the kind of exactitude she wanted. If the prancing animals made by the Philadelphia Toboggan Company were to be brought back to their original splendor, decades of hackwork paint jobs had to be undone by hand—which is exactly what the Walentas did, with an X-Acto knife.
A graduate of Moore College of Art and Design near Philadelphia, Walentas, who loved carousels from her childhood spent at Palisades Amusement Park and on the Jersey shore, taught herself the craft.
“I went to a carousel convention—there are such things,” Walentas said.
Through the Eighties and Nineties, Walentas pursued the painstaking work mostly by herself. She would drive to Brooklyn from her apartment in Manhattan four or five days a week and remove eight, nine, ten layers of paint from the carved animals. “I spent years doing that, at first all alone,” she said. “I felt like I had to keep doing it.”
When Walentas and her husband moved to Brooklyn in 2000, “I felt like I had to finish it,” she said. “I didn’t even care where it went.”
As the work went on, a pin-striper from Mercedes Benz was brought in to restore the original detailing. Walentas sought out and obtained an original Gebrueder Bruder carousel organ. For several years before arriving at the park, the working ride was displayed in a storefront on Water Street, but the space was too small for children to come in and ride the ponies. With the ride at last installed in the park and open to the public last year, the question became: would it survive Sandy?
“High tide was supposed to be at 8:30,” Walentas said of the hours Tuesday spent watching the carousel from her apartment at the height of the storm, the attraction’s lights still shining as Brooklyn and lower Manhattan went dark, before they too finally dimmed. “Before high tide there were waves crashing against the building.”
But 8:30 came and went, and the water continued to rise.
“Soon, with the constant waves crashing against the building, I could see the floor getting wet and the water rising,” Walentas said. “The only lights were in the carousel building. Then at 10:30 they started to flicker. And I said, ‘oh no.’ That’s when it was over.”
From a block away and seven stories up, Ana Andjelic and her boyfriend Brian Morrissey captured the still-lit pavilion, now an island in the water, in a photo that spread across the Internet, quickly becoming a symbol of the city’s vulnerability, and it’s resilience.
“It really looked like it was going to break and wash away,” Andjelic said.
But it didn’t.
It may take a couple days to pump the water out of the basement, but apart from some warping of the carousel’s floor, the carnival ride looks to have mostly made it through unscathed, Walentas said. If all goes well, she said she might have it up and running again for birthdays in a couple of months.