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A Carousel Pavilion Turns Heads

Project: Empire State Carousel pavilion, Cooperstown, NY

Architect: Altonview Architects PC, Cooperstown, NY; Kurt Ofer, AIA, principal in charge

By Eve M. Kahn

Carousel animals sometimes get loosed from their moorings and end up nomads. That is, when amusement parks shut down, the carvings get sold off and separated for antiques collections or wind up piled together in storage. In the New York City area alone, three famous, beloved sets of horses and chariots have been packed away and inaccessible for years. A ca. 1920 example from Coney Island is lingering in city warehouses, and a Brooklyn developer's 1922 model imported from Ohio is displayed at a gallery where it can't spin. On Long Island, a 1912 carousel is slated to reopen next year after a decade stashed at an aviation museum's hangar, amid much protest from amusement-park aficionados. Those cognoscenti have been flocking to upstate New York for the past year, because a long-homeless, Long Island-carved carousel is twirling again on the grounds of the Farmers' Mu-seum in Cooperstown. The assortment of 25 animals is sheltered under an elegant, versatile, 12-sided new pavilion that looks a century old.

"We based the form on historical carousel buildings," explains the architect, Kurt Ofer, principal of Cooperstown-based Altonview Architects. "And for the details, we set out to selectively cull local design traditions, without ever being hokey."

The Farmers' Museum commissioned the pavilion in 2005 for a small lawn alongside a century-old fieldstone farm complex that is original to the site. Nearby stand some two dozen village buildings from the 1800s – including a tavern, pharmacy, church and blacksmith shop – that museum staff have been transporting to the property since the 1940s. Altonview managed to complement the varied surrounding architecture as well as one of the most colorful, intricate, meaning-laden carousels in the world.

Although the carvings look much older, they only date back to 1984. That year, a Long Island woodworker and carousel restorer named Gerry Holzman started organizing a non-profit group of volunteers to sculpt and paint an attraction called the Empire State Carousel. On a 1947 rotating platform donated by a carnival supply company called All County Amusements, Holzman's ever-changing teams (eventually totaling 1,000 artisans) spent 20 years producing the New York-themed opus. "We wanted to keep alive folk-art traditions, pay tribute to the state's achievements and bring some joy into the world," Holzman explains. "We call it 'a museum you can ride on.'"

The animals – including Freddie de Frogge, Sofia Skunque and Bucky Beaver – represent New York native species. A mule named Sal pulls an accurately detailed miniature of an Erie Canal barge, which is ADA compliant. Models of New York landmarks (Niagara Falls, the Statue of Liberty) and reliefs of major historical moments (the sale of New Amsterdam, the founding of the United Nations) surround the creatures. Dozens of portraits of celebrated New Yorkers also make appearances; the varied crew includes Grandma Moses, Jackie Robinson, Alexander Hamilton and Theodore Roosevelt. The shell of the organ, which pumps out tunes by New Yorkers, is carved with musicians and composers – the figure of John Philip Sousa has mechanized arms for conducting marches.

Holzman's group debuted the piece in 2003 at a town park in Brookhaven, NY. Some 6,000 riders visited during its three-week run inside a rundown prefab building. Then the town shut it down, due to local politicians' squabbles (the official explanation was that the town could not figure out how to issue a certificate of occupancy for its own property). During the frustrating closure, by coincidence, some Farmers' Museum administrators – including Joseph Siracusa, operations director, and Garet Livermore, vice president for education – happened to contact Holzman, looking to buy an antique carousel. Holzman recalls that he wrote back a note that said, in effect, "Have I got a girl for you!"

Upon accepting the gift of the Empire State Carousel, the Farmers' Museum gave Altonview just six months to design the $950,000 pavilion and supervise construction. "It was an incredibly tight deadline," Ofer recalls. "I said, 'You want what, where, by when? Okay, here we go!'" For precedents, Holzman provided numerous vintage images, and Ofer also studied surviving old carousels in New York City's Bryant Park and Central Park (the architect's children very happily provided research assistance by riding around and around).

To suit the Cooperstown lot, Ofer says, "We knew we wanted a traditional polygonal shape, but the exact proportions were very tricky to get right. It had to be big enough to accommodate a buffer circulation zone around the carousel, but it couldn't be so big that it overwhelmed the site. And it couldn't look too light-hearted, either, in the midst of those authentic, weathered old farm buildings." The architects also had to engineer the structure for year-round use and provide climate control to protect the carvings.

In close collaboration with Siracusa, Altonview wrapped a subdued palette of traditional materials around a pre-engineered steel frame. Painted wooden pilasters separate arched, 15-lite cedar doors (from Hahn's Woodworking in Branchburg, NJ). Window sash with 12 lites ring the clerestory. Cedar shingles wrap a gabled rear wing for bathrooms and mechanicals. In the winter, radiant-heating pipes warm the brick floors. In the summer, the doors roll up at the touch of a button into slots amid sprinkler pipes overhead. When the doors are open, Ofer says, "they tuck one above the other like petals, with a tight one-inch clearance in between."

In spring 2006, the museum purchased a used tractor-trailer bed for hauling the carousel northward. The museum construction crew finished the pavilion in time – "everyone was so excited about the project, they really pulled together to get it done," Siracusa says. Since it opened, head counts of visitors and members have risen, and the demographics are skewing younger. "It's having a long-term positive effect on the museum," he says.

One frequent guest is Holzman, who's delighted with the Altonview building. "It evokes the past and perfectly fits the essence of the carousel," he says. "After 23 years, there's been a happy ending to this amazing saga. Sometimes I just sit and watch the children all over the carousel, and the adults on it smiling and feeling a little younger. In one of the murals we painted a folk saying: 'Every time you ride a carousel, one more day on earth you will dwell.'" TB

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