Artists remember restoring Dumbo carousel ahead of first ever ‘Jane’s Carousel Day’

jane walentas restoring jane's carousel
Folk artist Jane Walentas and a team of artists carefully restored Jane’s Carousel, now a fixture of the Brooklyn waterfront. May 7 marks the first annual “Jane’s Carousel Day,” a celebration of the carousel’s 100th birthday.
Corinne Nelson

Jane’s Carousel, a fixture of the Brooklyn waterfront and a destination for New Yorkers and tourists alike, had a long life before it found a home in Dumbo with the help of a team of artists — but not many of the people taking a spin on the merry-go-round know its history.

That’s likely to change on May 7, when Mayor Eric Adams proclaims the first-ever “Jane’s Carousel Day,” celebrating the carousel’s 100th birthday and honoring the life of Jane Walentas, the folk artist who purchased and carefully restored the ride. Walentas died from lung cancer in 2020.

Walentas, a fixture in the Brooklyn art scene whose family has taken a starring role in developing the waterfront, bought the carousel at auction in 1984. 

Built in 1922 for a Youngstown, Ohio theme park, the carousel was in rough shape when Walentas got her hands on it — and she dedicated 20 years to carefully bringing it back to its former glory, first on her own, then with a small team of artists.

jane's carousel beside east river
After more than 20 years of careful restoration, Jane’s Carousel carries about a million visitors per year, and will be celebrated at the first annual Jane’s Carousel Day. Julienne Schaer

“She was an art director herself, studied art, art direction, all that, so I think she thought she could do this on her own,” said Fiona Westphal, one of the artists who helped with the delicate repair. “I was probably one of the first people she hired back after a long pause where she picked up the project again and started working seriously into wanting to complete it.”

Westphal, an artist who works mostly in art fabrication and restoration, was living in a building managed by Walentas’ husband, David, when she got a flier in the monthly rent collection envelope, seeking artists to help Jane with the carousel.

The timing was perfect — Westphal had recently lost her job at a foundry and was looking for work, and the project fit her skill set. She called Walentas, who invited her to visit the studio.

“I went there, and I saw the horses, and instantly fell in love with it,” she said. “The carvings were gorgeous, the colors, expressions. And Jane was just lovely as she always was, really warm and welcoming, talking about the carousel. I was like, whatever you want me to do, I’ll do it.”

The primo job was painting the horses, said Kate Clark, another member of the restoration team, but, of course, not everyone could do that. And before they could be painted, years of caked-on layers of old paint had to be removed.

Westphal recalled helping Walentas gently scraping layers of paint so she could catalog each one. The carousel hadn’t been well-maintained at the amusement park, and it was exciting to slowly reveal the vibrant original colors.

jane's carousel horses
Walentas and her team spent hours meticulously scraping layers of old paint off the carousel horses before color matching swatches and repainting the beasts. Julienne Schaer

“I actually lucked out, I did the stenciling, I did the gold-leafing with Jane, and I also helped her create new stencils,” Clark said. “Mainly, the day was carefully stenciling. We would come in, she used the finest paints, the finest brushes, we quietly sat there in this zen atmosphere where we were all just doing it.”

Walentas’ passion for the project influenced the whole team.

“She really wanted it to be perfect,” Clark continued. “Even though it was going to be way high up. Every single one of us took it so seriously, and sat there quietly, just really trying to get it done so that we were proud of every single little piece of this carousel.”

Clark’s work on the project seemed almost destined — her father-in-law had been in seminary in Ohio during the carousel’s first life in the midwestern theme park and had ridden on it. He came to visit the studio during the restoration, she said, bringing everything “full circle.”

Walentas was serious about the carousel, but never let that get in the way of caring for the team. Westphal, Clark, and the rest of the artists were involved in every decision, big or small.

“I think it was a very special time in my life as well, working on this project,” Westphal said. “She was just a wonderful person, really embraced everyone who worked for her. We almost became like the carousel family.”

After restoration was finished, the carousel sat uninstalled for some time as the plans for developing what would become Brooklyn Bridge Park changed — finally, in 2009, the Brooklyn Bridge Park Development Corporation accepted the carousel as a gift from Walentas and her husband, along with a $3.5 million donation for the park.

Jane’s Carousel was installed inside a glass structure in 2011, becoming a beacon in the park and a destination for visitors. The following year, Hurricane Sandy sent scores of floodwaters across the city, damaging the carousel as waves battered its glass house.

“I texted her [that night] and she texted me right back, like, ‘It survived,” Clark said. “Everybody was so worried and it was so wonderful that she was there watching and letting us know, all our hearts were so involved.”

Even now, some of the artists are still involved — Christan Fagerlund, who had the coveted job of painting the carousel horses, recently spent days in the city on a special visit to make some touch-ups to their colorful exteriors.

janes carousel
Jane’s Carousel is housed in a weatherproof glass structure after high floodwaters damaged the century-old merry-go-round durring Hurricane Sandy. Julienne Schaer

Safely inside a weather-resistant new home, the carousel carries about a million riders per year — some of whom will get to ride for free on Jane’s Carousel Day, which falls just a day after Walentas’ own birthday. 

“She was great at celebrating birthdays too, inviting people, thinking of people … a wonderful, wonderful person, a wonderful spirit,” Westphal said. “And a hard worker, she worked hard on that carousel, harder than anyone else, I think, which I always admired.”

Adams will be joined by Walentas’ son, Jed, the owner of the development company that’s transformed much of the waterfront, and musical guests as they celebrate Jane and the carousel.

“It was just an incredible experience all around, getting to work on the carousel, being in that community, working with Jane,” Clark said. “And then having it now last all these years. In September, I took eight neighborhood kids, and my daughter and her friend to the carousel.”

“We had a great day of these kids who had never been to Dumbo at all, even though we live one bus ride away … we rode the carousel, we threw rocks in the water, we played, we got pizza, we got ice cream,” she said. “We had a great day.”

Jane’s Carousel Day is Saturday, May 7, from 11am-7pm, at Jane’s Carousel on New Dock Street in Dumbo.