- The Washington Times - Thursday, July 19, 2001

It's a sparkling summer afternoon, and Glen Echo Park teems with sound. Hundreds of children scream with delight amid their laughing parents, while in the background, deep throated and unmistakable, a Wurlitzer pipe organ blasts out a Sousa march from long ago.
When borne by the red, white and blue/When borne by the red, white and blue/Thy banners make tyranny tremble/When borne by the red, white and blue.
On this eve of Independence Day, the organ plays the soundtrack for one of Washington's happiest parades the whirl of children around Glen Echo's magnificent antique carousel.
This carousel, the elegant heart of Glen Echo, is one of only about 130 left in the United States. During their heyday in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, carousels formed the centerpieces of amusement parks throughout the country. Changing public tastes and bad economic times eventually brought an end to that era of the amusement park. One after another the great parks shut their doors, and many carousels were dismantled or destroyed. That is why so few remain today.
Washington is lucky enough to sport not just Glen Echo's grand lady, but four antique merry-go-rounds, located in some of the most lovely places in the area. The National Cathedral houses a very special carousel that only makes public appearances twice a year. Wheaton regional park still operates an elegant carousel dating from the early days of the century. And the National Mall has a whirling carousel situated in its very heart, in front of the headquarters of the Smithsonian Institution.
The carousels of Washington have been preserved and maintained by a combination of public and private money, but the real secret of their continued existence lies with some very dedicated people, who have volunteered hours of their own time and talent to keep the painted ponies going round.

Here at Glen Echo, most of the youngsters sit astride brightly painted ponies, each animal frozen by the carver's art into an eternal prance or leap. Children lucky enough to have been first to scamper onto the carousel's great wheel have mounted the more exotic animals: a pair of high stepping ostriches; four long-faced, rather serious rabbits, and the true pride of the menagerie, a fierce lion, caught in midroar. Around and around they fly, the children keeping time with the music, even the parents swinging their arms into the whirling air.
Suddenly a sharp bell sounds and the organ finishes its tune with a wheezy flourish. The fantastic parade slowly grinds to a halt. The rides are over for the day. The children climb down from their wooden saddles. After a few moments, the whole crowd, quiet now, vanishes down the path toward Glen Echo's parking lot, off for an afternoon nap or a dip at the pool.
When calm descends again on old, ghostly Glen Echo, Max Hurley finally has a little time to tinker with his merry-go-round.
It's not really Mr. Hurley's, of course. The Glen Echo carousel is unique in that it belongs to the American people, after it and the rest of the park were bought jointly by private citizens and the United States Park Service in 1970. But since Mr. Hurley has been caring for the carousel for the past 20 years, he deserves to feel a bit of proprietary pride. The carousel is a genuine American artifact and a source of pride and delight for Mr. Hurley.
A bespectacled, soft-spoken man with kind eyes and an obvious love for Glen Echo, Mr. Hurley moves deliberately through the ornate hut housing the carousel. As he inspects the animals, he shares a bit of their history. The carousel was built specifically for the old amusement park at Glen Echo in 1921, and it bears the stamp of its time.
"That's solid ash wood," he says, pointing up at the massive central pole around which the carousel turns. "Carved out of a single tree by shipwrights. When they weren't carving masts, they did this kind of work on the side."
The animals were carved by the premier carousel maker in the United States at the time, the Dentzel company of Philadelphia. Founded by a German immigrant, Gustav Dentzel, in 1860, the company created some of the most famous merry-go-rounds in America until it closed in 1929.
"Dentzels are easy to spot," says Mr. Hurley. "They're a bit more elaborate than some of the other companies' work, a little more graceful too." He points to a stunningly painted horse by way of example.
"Here's the lead horse. Most carousels have them. They're usually the most elaborately painted of the figures. They sort of lead the pack."
Mr. Hurley also points out that the carousel is unique in being a "menagerie" a mixture of different animals instead of just horses. Along with its 40 horses, Glen Echo's carved zoo sports four rabbits, four ostriches, two deer, a giraffe and two jungle cats, a tiger and the roaring lion.

If Mr. Hurley seems to know just about everything there is to know about the carousel, he should. He handles almost everything about its operation. He tinkers with the engine, operates the carousel by himself, straps the children onto the animals, rings the bells, even cranks the old Wurlitzer organ into life for every ride. The only thing Mr. Hurley doesn't do is take tickets that job is still in the hands of his mother Irene, who, at 75, still operates the small blue ticket booth out front.
Mr. Hurley doesn't just operate the organ he writes new music for it. The process of fitting modern music into 19th-century technology is as laborious as it sounds. Mr. Hurley hand punches the notes and bars of selected songs onto rolls of organ paper that he then feeds into the Wurlitzer.
That's why the Glen Echo carousel is as apt to be whirling to the strains of "Baby Elephant Walk" or "Strangers in the Night" as it is to "Stars and Stripes Forever."
This quiet afternoon stands in stark contrast to the summer days of 70 years ago, when the carousel was the crown jewel of the then-booming Glen Echo amusement park. Although founded as a private housing development and Chautauqua center in the 1890s, the little settlement of Glen Echo was abandoned after a malaria scare. It was brought back to life as an amusement park in 1899 and soon became a hit among Washingtonians eager to escape the city's summertime heat. A trolley line running along the Potomac River from downtown D.C. brought throngs to the park.
In 1921 the elaborate Dentzel carousel arrived. Generations of locals rode the whirling jewel box until the park closed down in 1968, victim of social unrest and changing times. The carousel, like much of the rest of the old park, would either have been dismantled and shipped away or left to rot, except for the intervention of local citizens. Now, protected by local contributions and the Park Service, the Glen Echo carousel is delighting new generations of fans.
It was saved just in time. Of the thousands of carousels produced in the United States during the 19th and 20th centuries, only about 130 remain today.
Even though carousels remind most people of America's "good old days," their origins lie in medieval Europe. Knights would practice for combat by bashing their lances against wooden horses attached to swinging poles. Eventually, these martial training mechanisms became popular with children, who instead of attacking them, mounted them for an airy spin.
Luxury-loving kings like Louis XIV of France had their craftsmen design beautiful, elaborate carousels for their courts. Carvers throughout Europe became renowned for their skill at creating lifelike animals for these royal amusements. Their descendants, mainly German and Italian carvers, brought their skills to America during the great waves of immigration in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

It's fitting, then, that the National Cathedral, Washington's greatest medieval-style building, should have a carousel of its own.
Although it's shown to the public only twice a year, during the cathedral's Flower Mart in May and again at an open house in September, the cathedral's carousel is worth waiting for. Built in Cincinnati circa 1890, it is one of the oldest in the country.
John Drew, master carpenter for the cathedral, has spent 15 years caring for the carousel. He has personally restored all 22 of its animals, which were deteriorating badly when he first encountered them. Tall and rangy, with a cowboy's sideways smile and deliberate way of speaking, Mr. Drew displays quiet pride in his work.
"When we set it up and the kids all get on, you should see the way they react to it. They get very quiet. It's just … they act different," he says.
Part of the reason might be that Mr. Drew's carousel is smaller than Glen Echo's more intimate, more child-sized. That's because it was made for the road.
"It's what they called a traveler, made for traveling fairs," Mr. Drew says. "It was made to be broken down at the end of the carnival's run, packed away, and trucked off to another town probably went all over the West."
The look in his eyes gets a bit faraway, as if he's imagining all the towns, the prairies and valleys, his little merry-go-round saw on its way through the great American landscapes beyond the Mississippi.
The carousel was bought in 1963 by the All Hallows Guild, a society dedicated to the preservation and maintenance of the cathedral and its grounds. Like Glen Echo's, it is a menagerie, sporting bearded goats, African camels and other exotic animals. But the cathedral's carousel has a unique quality all its own. Many of the animals have been dedicated in honor of people, both living and dead, and are hand painted with images and motifs relevant to the people's lives.
The custom began in 1988, when the guild offered individuals the chance to "adopt" an animal. One of the most famous is a little elephant named "Spirit," which was adopted by friends of Republican strategist Lee Atwater following his death in 1990.
Although most of the animals are packed snugly away until September, Mr. Drew has pulled out a lovely horse named Gigi and rests her on the loading dock of his shop on the cathedral grounds. Gigi is dedicated to philanthropist Elizabeth Foster Mann, who has given enormous support to both the Cathedral and the carousel through the years.
Close examination reveals the beauty of the painting along Gigi's chest and flanks: bright ribbons, bouquets of flowers and twining garlands of ivy.
"This work is all done by the American Tole Society," says Mr. Drew, bending to inspect the delicate images. "They're a society of painters who specialize in the beautification and decoration of American antiques."
Only the horse's tail seems less than perfectly elegant. It's black and thick and droops a bit.
"That's a Halloween wig," Mr. Drew says, laughing. "The kids keep pulling on the wooden tails and breaking them, so we substitute those for when they ride."
Mr. Drew then wanders back into the recess of his shop and points to a large workbench. There, sandwiched between rows of clamps, a carousel horse is waiting to be born.
Rough-cut, simple, bearing the merest outline of the delicate, elegant horse it will someday be, it is Mr. Drew's latest project.
"I blocked him together with 13 pieces of poplar wood," he says, running a thumb along the underside of the animal, which at this stage looks like a cubist sculpture of a horse.
"I teach a little class every year to schoolkids about carousels, and I like to bring them in here at the end and show them where these things come from, how they get started in life," he says.
Mr. Drew plans to carve the horse out fully over the next few years. Someday, alive with paint and carrying the memory of a loved one, his horse will join the others on their twice-yearly jaunt at the cathedral.

Along with nature trails, a child-sized railroad and serene botanical gardens, busy Wheaton Regional Park boasts a glittering carousel that dates back to 1915.
Vying with Glen Echo as the premier carousel in the area, it was made by the Herschell-Spillman company, a German-founded carousel manufacturer that at one time produced most of the merry-go-rounds in the United States. The carousel was moved to Wheaton Park in 1975 by Jim Wells, a noted collecter and dealer in carousels.
Herschell-Spillman specialized in carousels with a great variety of animals; in fact, their trademark creation featured so many different beasts that it became known as the "Noah's Ark." Although Wheaton Park's carousel is not a "Noah," it does boasts a magnificent zebra leaping gracefully into the air as if he's running with the herd on the African plains.
And Wheaton also features elegantly wrought "chariot" cars. These are two-seated carousel cars carved in the shape of fantastic chariots and adorned with nymphs in flowing robes.
At Wheaton, the chariot cars are absolute favorites for couples and mothers with infants safe and beautiful seats from which to enjoy the ride. On a bustling summer day at the park, the line of excited children and their parents snakes out of the carousel hut all morning long.

Washington's best known certainly its most seen carousel sits in front of the Smithsonian Institution's headquarters on the National Mall. Leased to the Smithsonian by Stanley Hunter, a Virginia collector, the Mall's carousel dates to 1947 a newcomer among the area's merry-go-rounds. Sadly, it has no Max Hurley to help the children, no John Drew to restore the ponies.
Maybe it is the sudden rain squall that makes the sky look low and gray and renders the Mall a damp expanse of dull green, but a recent visit to the carousel finds it looking beaten and worn. The operators rather glumly swing open the gates and let the youngsters swarm all over the horses, many of whose colors have faded with the years.
"It looks a bit the worse for wear," one tourist says, watching his wife and child swing around and around. "This is the Mall, after all. They should spruce it up a little."
But slowly the afternoon clouds part and twilight steals over the Mall. In the growing darkness, the carousel's twinkling lights erase, for at least a moment or so, the ravages of time. A last shaft of the sun's light strikes the tall Washington Monument and, on eastward, the Capitol dome.
In a green and happy place between them, a calliope plays, painted horses begin their stately dance, and the laughter of summer's children fills the American night.


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