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Take a Ride to the Past on this Restored New York Carousel

In Buffalo, New York, an antique carousel, housed in a tent-shaped timber frame, gets a modern spin.

Written by Katherine Owen


There are few things you can do for $1 these days — especially not activities that involve meticulously restored, one-of-a-kind artwork that you can touch and ... ride? But at the Buffalo Heritage Carousel in New York, a single dollar gains you admission to see where history meets innovation. 

Housed in a circus-tent shaped Douglas fir timber frame powered by Tesla solar panels, the 1924 Spillman Engineering Corporation carousel showcases the region’s long legacy with renewable energy. (Buffalo earned the moniker “City of Light” in the early 1900s thanks to hydroelectric power from nearby Niagara Falls.) It’s also a nod to the area’s manufacturing history; from around 1880 to 1925, thousands of carousels were manufactured in North Tonawanda, a mere 15 miles from Buffalo. But the return of this particular carousel to the area was a long time coming. 

In 2001, a small group of locals realized that, despite the area’s rich history, Buffalo did not have a carousel, so they started a fundraising campaign that lasted nearly 10 years. Then, in 2014, the campaign became part of the “Buffalo Billion,” a state project designed to invest $1 billion into the Buffalo economy. With a $1.2 million pledge from the state, contingent upon a fundraising match, all that was left to do was to find the right carousel — no small feat. 

“It had to be made in western New York, which meant it was either a Spillman, a Herschell or Herschell-Spillman. And it had to be carved during the heyday of carousels — that was between 1910 and 1925,” explains Carima El-Behairy, director of Buffalo Heritage Carousel, Inc. “Then it had to be a park-style carousel, which meant it had moving parts and was meant to stay in one location, so it would have less wear-and-tear. The final criterion was that it had to be a ‘menagerie’ carousel, which is a mixture of horses and [other] animals. But only 10 percent of all carousels ever made are menagerie carousels.” 

As luck would have it, the organization found one stored in bits and pieces in Ohio. Only three out of the 34 animals had to be replaced due to rot. The rest were meticulously revitalized by experts in a restoration and construction process that took four years. 

When it came time to shelter the whimsical animal collection, a timber frame ultimately proved to be the most efficient choice. New Energy Works, with an office in nearby Farmington, worked with eco_logic STUDIO, a Buffalo-based architecture studio, to craft a timber frame structure that relies on a unique steel ring system to create an eight-sided structure reminiscent of a circus tent.  

“We proofed it out in concept and eventually it got to the point where the timber components proved to be a more valuable option over a steel structural frame,” explains Eric Fraser, New Energy Works’ president. “It really was sustainability-driven before anything else. And of course, with that, you get the beauty of the heavy timber in the space as opposed to it being a steel structure.”  

The carousel opened in 2021, and now welcomes 70,000 riders per year, with 200,000 visitors in general. Carima attests the carousel has seen riders of all ages, from three weeks old to 102 years young. 

“I have to say, there’s never an unhappy person on the carousel. They’re so excited to be there,” Carima beams. “We get to be a part of that hands-on learning. People come in and they ask, ‘Can I touch?’ And we say, ‘Absolutely!’ In some ways, it may be the only piece of one-of-a-kind artwork you actually can touch. And we want to make sure that it stays accessible to everybody.”


See Also: This Cider House is an Energy-Efficient Jewel

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