May 10, 2016

Photo Essay: Taking a Spin Into the Last Century in Balboa Park

I've always been overwhelmed by too many choices.

I don't want the world to be my oyster. If someone asks me, "What would you like?" I'll answer their question with another question: "What are my options?"

I do better working within some kind of constraint.

That's probably why I feel so overwhelmed every time I visit Balboa Park in San Diego. It's just too big. There's just too much to do there.

The first time I visited, I treated it like a hike. I just walked the pathways, took in the views, and made it back to my car when I was too tired.

This time, a specific event -- a tour of the world's largest outdoor musical instrument (photos forthcoming) -- brought me back to Balboa Park. But, instead of leaving afterwards and gallivanting around the rest of San Diego, I decided to stay and try to conquer at least a portion of the behemoth.

My first stop was an obvious choice: the carousel. I've stopped being shy about riding carousels by myself and being seen as the weird old lady. Who cares? As long as I don't surpass the weight limit and break a horse (or a seahorse), I'm good.

The carousel in Balboa Park is a major throwback to the early 20th century, but it didn't start its life here in San Diego. It was built in 1910 near Niagara Falls in New York State, and first shipped to LA's Luna Park. By 1915, it had already landed on Coronado Island in the San Diego Bay and moved to Balboa Park, which had become a popular public open space as a result of the 1915 Panama-California Exposition. (More on that later.)

It wasn't even Balboa Park's first carousel, having more or less replaced a Dentzel that had been installed in 1913 and then moved to San Francisco. This carousel also used to be located a little farther south, where the Bea Evenson Fountain is now. It didn't move north to its current location next to the zoo until 1968, in response to the city's request to make way for the Reuben H. Fleet Science Center.

If not original, the ticket booth is very old (and used to be white). Even the tickets ($2.75 per ride) seem vintage. I wonder where you could've ridden an airplane in Balboa Park in the last century?

And I wonder what kids today think of this amusement? Are they terrified of it?

Or do they just enjoy spinning in circles?

Whether or not you know something about carousels, this one is a gem. Its horses and menagerie of other animals were hand-carved from basswood and have been hand-painted as part of their upkeep.

You can ride a giraffe, a cat, dogs, or a chariot that rocks back and forth like a pirate ship ride.

You can even ride a bird -- ostriches, storks, and the like -- under the glow of incandescent bulbs as the original band organ plays on.

All of these creatures -- both mythic and mundane -- are part of the menagerie made by Herschell-Spillman Company. This carousel is one of the few built by the company that's still in operation. (There's another one, from 1914, in San Francisco's Golden Gate Park.)

And wood-carved carousels are a dying breed anyway, especially on the West Coast.

The animals come in pairs, and all but two of them are original.

There are three rows of animals, but interestingly, two of them are jumpers...

...with the outside row (normally reserved for the "best" animals) remaining fixed.

So, instead, on this one you get to ride on a flying pig...

...a leaping frog...

...and a silent and stoic rooster, surrounded by original painted murals.

While the ride lasts a good five minutes, you're not allowed to move around the platform while it's in motion... if you want to ride more than one animal...

...or mount one of the horses with real horsehair tails (reportedly retrieved from deceased horses at the zoo next door)...'ll have to buy more than one ticket.

There are three chariots (only one that moves) and 52 animals in total -- though, considering the pairs, there are actually only 17 different species, from camel to zebra.

The Balboa Park Carousel is one of two remaining antiques in San Diego proper, but it's far closer to its original condition than its counterpart in Seaport Village. (A third, which sat in storage for years, moved to Santa Barbara.)

And for those five minutes, it transports you to a different time, when Balboa Park was a different place. Upon your dismount, you not only have to get back your land legs, but you also have to reenter a world where music isn't mechanical, horses aren't adorned, and pigs don't fly.

Out there, you've got a lot more competition when it comes to grabbing the brass ring.

Related Posts:
Photo Essay: The 100 Year-Old Herschell 3-Abreast Carousel, Santa Barbara
Photo Essay: The Faces of The Santa Monica Pier Carousel
Photo Essay: Wayward Carousel Horses & Other Creatures

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