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Tilden Carousel Reopens

By Riya Bhattacharjee
Thursday October 16, 2008 - 09:47:00 AM
East Bay Regional Park District Regional Parks Foundation Board member William Acevedo takes his daughter for a ride at the recently renovated Tilden Park Carousel.
By George Draper
East Bay Regional Park District Regional Parks Foundation Board member William Acevedo takes his daughter for a ride at the recently renovated Tilden Park Carousel.

After undergoing a $700,000 renovation, which lasted nearly nine months, the rare 1911 Herschell-Spillman Menagerie edition merry-go-round has reopened in Tilden Park. 

The East Bay Regional Parks District unveiled the restored carousel Oct. 4 and announced that it would turn into a “Scary-Go-Round” on special nights this month to put visitors in the mood for Halloween. 

The hundreds who hiked or drove up to Grizzly Peak Boulevard last weekend to get spooked in the moonlight caught a glimpse of the antique carousel’s remodeled hardwood floors and renovated band organ sheltered inside a brand new state-of-the-art weatherproof glass enclosure, a feature park officials said was inspired by the carousels at Golden Gate Park and the Yerba Buena Gardens in San Francisco. 

Restoring the carousel’s nearly century-old wooden platform was no easy task, said Dan Horenberger, who was hired by the parks district to carry out the renovation.  

“To replace the floor we had to use the same type of wood that was originally there,” he said. “That stuff is not made anymore and costs thousands and thousands of dollars. We also had to make sure that the platform was the same size as the old one.” 

A quick trip to Oregon in search of the perfect vertical grain fir turned into four long months, the time required to cut the wood in a special way to keep it from being angular and riddled with knots. 

If that wasn’t tedious enough, Horenberger had to take the 1909 band organ completely apart and rebuild it from scratch. 

“It has thousands and thousands of parts inside it,” he said. “It’s an automatic music machine—an organ which plays by itself.” 

According to Jeff Wilson, unit manager for Tilden Park, the enclosure was built to protect the carousel from the elements. 

“I am so happy with it,” said Anne Scherr, the district’s chief of maintenance and skilled trades, who oversaw the building of the enclosure. 

“It does the job of protecting the carousel and also reflects the original architecture. I had really high hopes for the project but the architects and craftsmen really did an outstanding job. The merry-go-round is really important to so many people, we all wanted it to be perfect.” 

Horenberger, who has maintained the Tilden Park Carousel for the last three decades, said the carousel’s gears and bearings had been replaced three years ago to make the machine mechanically safe. 

“There were new ride laws and we had to bring the carousel up to code,” he said. “That was the first phase of the renovation. This year we replaced the platform and rebuilt the band organ.” 

The carousel closed down for a short while in February 2007 when state officials mandated that a fence be installed around it to comply with the state Division of Occupational Safety and Health. 

That suggestion, Horenberger said, sparked the need for a temporary fence which he hopes will become a more permanent structure when park officials raise funds for the next series of renovations over the next couple of years. 

“That will be the final phase,” he said. “We will also be painting all the horses and other animals then.” 

The carousel’s handcarved frogs, zebras, sea serpents, roosters and horses were inspired by whimsical characters from turn of the century nursery themes, and restoring each figure will take up to 60 to 80 hours—about the same amount of time it took to carve each of them. 

Each animal was handcarved from poplar in as many as 100 separate pieces, park officials said. 

The Tilden carousel—which has a total of 54 animals, 14 made of fiberglass and 40 of wood—is valued at $2.5 million today and is said to draw an estimated 150,000 people a year. 

Built by the Herschell-Spillman Company of North Tonawanda, New York for Ross Davis in 1911, the Tilden Park carousel debuted in San Bernardino County, where it operated from 1912 to 1916 in a trolley park in Urbita Springs. 

Its next stop was San Diego but unfavorable weather forced its owners to dismantle and store it until 1935, at which point it traveled to Griffith Park in Los Angeles. 

When a much bigger carousel replaced it two years later, the Carousel was brought to Tilden Park and has been there ever since, mesmerizing young and old alike with its fairytale-like lights and music. 

“There’s no other form of entertainment like a carousel,” Horenberger said. “It transcends generations. I can go to Tilden Park today and see four generations of the same family riding the carousel. There’s no other place you will see that.” 

The carousel was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1978. 

“The carousel is the Park District's most beloved asset,” said District General Manager Pat O'Brien.  

“As with any antique, it requires continuous repair and renovation. We've restored various components of the carousel over the years, including replacing mechanical workings. But, this new enclosure is by far the largest undertaking of its kind, and definitely the most important. Thankfully, we received the funding from Measure CC and also a large grant to enable us to move forward.” 

Funding from the project came from Measure CC, a parcel tax measure passed by voters in 2004, an American Express Partners in Preservation grant, the Regional Parks Foundation and the park district.  

Terri Holleman—who has leased the ride from the parks district for the last 15 years—said visitors had been treated to cocoa and hot apple cider during the Scary-Go-Round ride last weekend. 

“The lights were dimmed—we scaled down the scare factor of course, keeping in mind our target audience,” she said. “But all over the new carousel looked beautiful, simply beautiful.” 


Carousel “Scary-Go-Round”: 5:30-8:30 p.m. every Friday, Saturday and Sunday through Oct. 31. 

Carousel “Christmas Fantasy”: 5:30-8:30 p.m., Nov. 28-Dec. 23. 

After the New Year, the carousel will be open on the weekends, weather permitting. It will be open daily after Memorial Day. $2 ride (all riders must pay) or $10 for a seven-ride ticket book.