Few communities are fortunate enough to feature a landmark as unique as the Paragon Carousel.
Few landmarks are linked as uniquely as the Paragon Carousel and this community.
The 92-year-old merry-go-round, dramatically saved from auction in 1985 after the closure of Paragon Park, is now owned by the nonprofit Friends of the Paragon Carousel. All of the money to pay employees, restore the horses, and carry the operation through the lean winter months comes from donations, fundraisers, and opening its doors to the paying public.
The forced shutdown of nonessential businesses and the ban on gatherings of crowds in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic could deal a crippling blow to the Friends’ fragile finances.
Canceling the organization’s Kentucky Derby Day fundraiser, Easter Sunday celebration, and Patriots Day open house means a loss of $25,000 in revenue. Every penny counts for a shoestring operation like the carousel; the Friends already have turned out their exterior lights to save money.
It’s clearly serious when the typically upbeat and optimistic president of the Friends of the Paragon Carousel, Marie Schleiff, somberly speculates that the ride may not be able to open at all this summer.
As the story elsewhere in this week’s Times notes, the carousel is not alone in being impacted by the closure order and self-isolation advisory, but the nature of the carousel’s business model makes it more vulnerable than most organizations to restrictions on travel and public gatherings. Merry-go-rounds are tactile experiences meant to be shared. And visitors to the Paragon Carousel can be counted on to purchase an ice cream at the Carousel Creamery, browse the gift shop, share memories in the museum, and be inspired enough by the experience to volunteer or donate to the cause.
A virtual visit just isn’t the same.
Now, perhaps more than any other point in its history – aside from those dark December days 35 years ago when it appeared likely the horses would be split up and moved out of town – the carousel needs our help.
There always were “flying horses” at Paragon Park, beginning when the 10-acre amusement center opened in 1905. The park’s earliest carousel burned in a fire in 1911 and was replaced the next season by a machine owned by concessionaire John Hurley. Hurley leased space within the park grounds from Paragon founder George A. Dodge, and from subsequent owners David Stone and Albert A. Golden, through the 1920s. It’s unclear why Hurley didn’t keep his carousel at Paragon when his lease expired, but this circumstance prompted Stone and Golden to order their own carousel from the world-renowned Philadelphia Toboggan Company (PTC) in 1928.
Other carousels also existed along Nantasket Beach – from another Hurley-owned operation called Hurley’s Hurdlers near the former Funland building (now the Paragon Boardwalk beer garden) to a smaller one at Sammy’s Amusement Center (in the area of present-day Ocean Place Condominiums), to a stand-alone merry-go-round that operated from the late 1800s until the current Mary Jeanette Murray Bathhouse was built in 1930. There even was a custom-built carousel at the former Nantasket Point amusement park, at the tip of the current Sunset Point.
The only remaining carousel in this area is PTC #85, built by the craftsmen whose work was featured in scores of amusement parks across the country. The 66 wooden horses and two Roman-style chariots are being painstakingly restored by restoration artist James Hardison, who carefully removes layer upon layer of “park paint” to discover the original color scheme. The Friends had scheduled an unveiling of a restored Roman chariot this April, a celebration that also will have to wait.
While inside Paragon, the carousel and its signature 12-sided, domed building were literally and figuratively the centerpiece of the park. Thousands of people, many of whom stayed away from the Giant roller coaster (also built by PTC), rode the horses or listened to the pipe-organ music during their visits.
In early 1985, when the Stone family announced its intention to sell the park to a condominium developer, the first “Save the Carousel” campaign got underway. Public pressure convinced the park’s new owners to agree to preserve the ride, possibly as part of the new complex at the Paragon site. Later that year, however, after withdrawing plans for 12-story buildings, the developer broke that promise and quickly scheduled an auction.
Activist Judeth Van Hamm convinced three local businessmen – Paul Townsend, Daniel Prigmore, and Daniel Levin – to bid at the auction, and the three men bought the carousel for nearly $600,000. In early 1986, they moved it off the Paragon property and down the block to its current site next to the historic clock tower building. About 10 years later, Van Hamm formed the Friends of the Paragon Carousel, the nonprofit that purchased the carousel and has operated it since.
The carousel has been on its own long enough – 30-plus years – that an entire generation looks upon the merry-go-round not as a remnant of Paragon Park, but as a landmark in its own right. It’s rare for historic monuments, especially those listed on the National Register of Historic Places, to have such a transformative existence.
The Friends of the Paragon Carousel is group of hard-working people who dedicate their time and energy to keeping the merry-go-round turning. The carousel plays a vital role in the community by providing jobs, attracting tourists to other seasonal businesses, and providing a visible link to an important chapter in the town’s history.
The challenges are great, and were daunting even before the current health emergency. The Paragon Carousel always has a need for donations of volunteer time, and this year has an even greater need for monetary donations. The Friends are negotiating lease terms with the state for the land under the carousel and for the state-owned clock tower in order to secure grants and other funding. Operating bills need to be paid. Maintenance projects await. Loans loom overhead.
In its nine decades, the carousel has weathered many storms. It’s no exaggeration that this year’s challenges are unlike any other, and the outcome is far from certain. The Friends need, and deserve, the support of our community. Please visit www.paragonccarousel.com to find out more and to make a donation in any amount to support this important community resource.