Jane Walentas, the artist behind Dumbo’s historic carousel, dies

Jane Walentas, an artist and Dumbo pioneer behind Brooklyn Bridge Park’s historic carousel, died on July 5.
Courtesy of the Walentas family

Jane Walentas, an artist, philanthropist, and Dumbo pioneer who restored Brooklyn Bridge Park’s historic carousel, died on July 5. She was 76 years old.

An accomplished artist and creative director, Walentas played a critical role in nurturing Dumbo’s artistic renaissance for more than 30 years. She sponsored local artists, brought arts programs to the Brooklyn neighborhood, and dedicated her life’s work to restoring the 1922 carousel in Brooklyn Bridge Park that’s named in her honor. 

Walentas was born Jane Leslie Zimmerman in Teaneck, New Jersey in 1944. She graduated from Moore College of Art & Design in Philadelphia in 1966, and began working at Estée Lauder four years later, where she served as a creative director until 1983. She received a master’s degree in printmaking from New York University one year later.

In 1973, Jane married David Walentas — the founder of the real estate development firm Two Trees Management who purchased most of Dumbo for $12 million in the 1980s. The deal was made possible by Jane’s close connection to Ronald and Leonard Lauder, the heirs to the Estée Lauder brand, who loaned the Walentas $6 million for the purchase. 

Jane spent the following decades fostering the neighborhood’s artistic community. In 2008, she worked with artist Chuck Close to bring a program that provides artists with free studio space to Dumbo, and she frequently offered discounted or free studio space to artists in Two Trees’ properties.

Her most famous achievement, however, was her purchase and restoration of Jane’s Carousel — a 98-year-old carnival ride she spent nearly three decades revitalizing. 

A woman and child ride Jane’s Carousel in 2016.REUTERS/Shannon Stapleton

The project began in 1983, when her husband — who was selected to develop what is now Brooklyn Bridge Park — hired waterfront architect Ben Thompson to design the greenspace. The masterplan called for the installation of a historic carousel, a mission Jane made her own. 

After a year-long search, Jane found a 19th century carousel in Youngstown, Ohio that was going to be sold piecemeal, and purchased it for $385,000. She spent the next 27 years scraping away layers of paint with an X-Acto knife to uncover the carousel’s original color palette, and restored its 48 exquisitely-painted horses to their former glory. After the carousel’s completion in 2011, Jane founded the Friends of Jane’s Carousel to manage its operation, and served as the group’s executive director until her death.

Jane is survived by her husband; her son, Jed Walentas; her stepson, Christopher Walentas; and two grandchildren.