| Entertainment/Life | nola.com

Audubon Zoo’s Hurricane Ida-damaged carousel recently was removed for repairs, but there’s another option in New Orleans for those determined to get dizzy. The go-to merry-go-round for most locals has been spinning its wheels in the city’s other major park for decades. 

That would be City Park’s flying horses, a vintage work of kinetic art housed in a 10-sided, Victorian-flavored pavilion that is every bit as distinctive as the 56-mount carousel itself. 

But its history isn’t as clear-cut as some might think. In fact, neither the carousel nor the pavilion are original to the site on which they now sit at the center of City Park’s Carousel Gardens. What’s more, the carousel there today isn’t the original City Park carousel. 

This whole, slightly head-spinning horse’s tale began Oct. 17, 1905, when a classified ad in The Daily Picayune solicited sealed proposals to operate a carousel in City Park. 

The bright idea that gave us Celebration in the Oaks (copy)

The distinctive building housing the historic carousel in New Orleans City Park is lit up for the annual Celebration in the Oaks in 2007. The carousel was renovated after Hurricane Katrina in 2005.

Earlier options

It wouldn’t be the first carousel the city had seen. As early as 1848, the Picayune described a similar ride operating “for years” on the French Quarter riverfront. 

Another operated for a time at the city’s Spanish Fort amusement area. A steam-powered version is said to have delighted visitors to the 1884 World’s Industrial and Cotton Centennial Exposition in present-day Audubon Park. 

There were others, too. That included an earlier carousel at City Park, operated by Jacob Stock, whose Stock Scenic Park amusement area was located just outside the park, at City Park Avenue and Alexander Street. 

For the rights to operate the carousel in the park, Stock paid the City Park Board of Commissioners $350 annually. Then, in April 1903, he requested a five-year extension of his contract at the same rate. To sweeten the deal, he agreed “to erect a fine building, which will prove an ornament to the park,” according to The Daily Picayune. 

1905: City Park Carousel and its 'flying horses' are cleared for takeoff (copy)

A look at the antique hand-carved horses and animals on City Park’s Carousel, shown in 2014. 

At the end of the contract, ownership of the building would revert to the park. 

Skeptical, the commissioners toyed with the idea of running the carousel concession themselves. Instead, they ended up awarding it to Bartholomew Murphy, who, with brother Timothy Murphy — then-operator of Audubon Park’s carousel — were noted students of the Coney Island school of horse-carving. 

It is Bartholomew Murphy who is credited with building City Park’s 10-sided carousel pavilion, with its distinctive two-tiered roof, topped with a cupola and featuring stained-glass windows on its upper levels. 

He didn’t build it on its present site, however. Rather, he built it at the site of Stock’s carousel, near the McDonagh Oak along City Park Avenue. 

Back and forth

And here’s where the dizzying merry-go-round of musical carousels begins. 

NO.citypark.adv.016.jpg (copy)

The historic carousel collects dust at the City Park Amusement Park in September 2020, closed due to the coronavirus pandemic.

Around the time he lost the City Park contract, Stock — who continued to operate his eponymous amusement park just outside City Park’s gates — took out a classified ad seeking to unload his flying horses, “in perfect condition, at a sacrifice.” Presumably, those were the horses that had previously flown at City Park. 

To fill the spot vacated by Stock, Murphy relocated the carousel his brother previously operated at Audubon Park to City Park, according to a 1985 account published in The Times-Picayune. He would continue operating it there until 1928. 

That’s when, according to New Orleans writer Matt Haines — writing for the Hearst Television website VeryLocal.com — a company called Crescent Amusement took over the City Park contract and relocated the building and the carousel to its present site. When Crescent went under in the Depression, it sold the carousel to the family of Jacob Stock. 

Various explanations exist as to what happened to the original Murphy carousel from there, but Pontchartrain Beach owner Harry Batt set the record straight(ish) in a 1973 interview with longtime Times-Picayune entertainment reporter David Cuthbert, in which he said his Pontchartrain Beach horses — crafted by noted carousel carver M.C. Illions — were in fact purchased from the Stock family. 

1905: City Park Carousel and its 'flying horses' are cleared for takeoff (copy)

Bill Finkenstein, owner of R & F Designs of Bristol, Conn., carefully applies paint to one of the horses on the City Park Carousel in New Orleans in 1989.  

So the horses New Orleanians rode for decades at the beach were very possibly the same horses they had ridden for the first three decades of the 20th century in City Park. 

The circle widens

The story doesn’t end there, though. 

In 1948, Batt assumed the amusements contract at City Park. In need of a carousel, he unpacked an unused Nunnally-Murphy number he had previously purchased from another amusement park at Old Spanish Fort and installed them at City Park. 

They’re the horses that fly there today. 

“And you probably can’t find out much about them because (Nunnally-Murphy) were amusements operators themselves,” Batt said. “They had these machines carved for their own use, running a number of them on the East Coast. I don’t think they ever had machines carved to sell. As these parks and machines were closed, the rides were disposed of, sold off.” 

We do know this about the City Park horses: They are beautiful, all 53 of them, as are the giraffe, lion and camel that gallop alongside them. 

Boasting tails made of real horse hair, experts say they bear the trademarks of master Coney Island carousel carvers Charles Looff and Charles Carmel. 

In 1986, Batt sold them to City Park for a bargain $300,000. They’ve been restored a number of times since, including a half-million-dollar overhaul after Hurricane Katrina, and they regularly receive fresh coats of paint to keep them tip-top. 

Today, the City Park carousel is said to be one of just 100 antique carousels in operation in the United States and the only one in Louisiana. 

In 1986, it and the 117-year-old pavilion housing it were placed on the National Register of Historic Places. 

Sources: The Times-Picayune archives; National Register of Historic Places; “Historic City Park,” by Friends of City Park; NewOrleansCityPark.org; VeryLocal.com.

Know of a New Orleans building worth profiling in this column, or just curious about one? Contact Mike Scott at [email protected]

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