Historically Speaking:Carl Looff and Coney’s Ghosts

April 1, 2009 at 11:37 pm 1 comment

As Coney Island slowly sinks in the south along with the sunset, images of past remain as phantasmagory. The lights of Luna Park, the whiteness of Dreamland, the buffoonery of Steeplechase combine with screams from Hell Gate and roller coasters, the multitude of bathhouses and restaurants, the Parachute Jump and AstroTower.

Sure, the Cyclone and Wonder Wheel still operate, courtesy of the Landmark law, but at best they are a shadow of another world.

While most people associate Coney Island with thrill rides, modest artistry also began there. Numerous elegant and dignified carousels graced almost every block and these creations set the tone of later amusements, for they were the first. Talented artisans created magnificent horses and rides that lured the child in us all. The earliest in Coney came from the imagination of Charles Looff in 1876.

Certainly the most successful, Looff blazed a trail for those who studied with him and followed him: Illions, Carmel, Mangels, Stein and Goldstein. Most of these wood carvers apprenticed in Europe. Born in Denmark in 1852, Looff immigrated to New York in 1870, changed his name from Carl to Charles and found work as a carver in a Greenpoint furniture factory. In his spare time, he carved wooden horses, then assembled a platform and sold it to Coney Island.

In 1876, it appeared at Lucy Vanderveer’s Bathing Pavilion where it offered amusement to customers. Later called Balmer’s Pavilion, it was located at Surf Avenue and West 6th Street, in the heart of Coney. This carousel survived until the 1911 Dreamland fire. So successful was this ride that Charles Feltman ordered one for his Surf Avenue beer garden in 1877. The Feltman carousel, partially destroyed in a fire, was replaced by a Mangels-Illions carousel.

Now branching out, Looff built a Greenpoint factory on Bedford Avenue in 1880 and searched for new markets. The same year, Atlantic City responded by ordering one for Young’s Million Dollar Pier and by 1884, Roger Williams Park in Rhode Island joined the customers.

Orders came in from Staten Island, Dartmouth, Mass., Dallas, Texas, upstate New York, Salem, New Hampshire, Port Dalhousie, Ontario, Canada, and San Francisco. Built in 1904, the Zeum Carousel survived the 1906 earthquake traveling to Seattle, Washington, then for restoration in Roswell, New Mexico, and finally returned to its home at Yerba Buena Park in San Francisco in 1998.

With the increasing business, Looff bought property in Gravesend close to Coney Island and built a factory hoping to expand a portable carousel line. However, the city decided it wanted to build a park on that site and condemned the property in 1905. This action infuriated Looff causing him to move his business to Riverside, Rhode Island. While successful there, he grew restless again and moved to Ocean Park, Calif., leaving a son to manage the Rhode Island factory. Once in California, Looff moved his operation to Long Beach and the fabulous center called The Pike that extended onto a pier. The Looff carousel there was destroyed by a fire in 1943, but was replaced with another Looff carousel.

Looff’s equine creations reflect a gentle nature as opposed to the fiery Coney Island steeds of Illions and Carmel. After 1903, Looff incorporated organs from the Knapp Barrel Organ Works. Expanding, he continued to create and build other amusements: roller coasters, Ferris wheels, a Whip, as well as endearing carousels. In 1909, he built a carousel of 54 horses as a wedding present for his daughter, Emma Looff Vogel.

Looff died in Long Beach on July 1, 1918, never forgiving Brooklyn politicians. But his reputation and his creations live on around the world, the most recent being one in Redondo Beach (1925) and another in Griffith Park (1926). Many surviving carousels are National Historic Landmarks.

But it all started in Brooklyn.

The best source for stories and art work on carousels is Fred Fried’s 1964 work, A Pictorial History of the Carousel.

By John B. Manbeck
a Brooklyn historian
Special to The Brooklyn Eagle

Entry filed under: Brooklyn, Get Wet, Public Waterfront. Tags: , , , , , , .

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1 Comment Add your own

  • 1. Ray Simmons  |  August 6, 2009 at 12:45 am

    Charles I. D. Looff built the Santa Monica Pier, in Santa Monica, and Playland-at-the-Beach in San Francisco, California, and Luna Park in Seattle, Washington. In his career he built over 50 carousels and a dozen or so amusement parks as well as other rides including roller coasters, giant circle swings, and shoot-the-chutes.


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