Yerba Buena Garden carousel
Looff Carousel at Yerba Buena Garden

San Francisco has 4 carousels, each one distinct. Three of them are antique works of art—amusements that have been lovingly preserved and maintained. The fourth, a relatively new carousel, has bells, whistles, and lights, making it a glittery representative of San Francisco’s playful side.

The Looff Carousel, in Yerba Buena Gardens, was the first to be built for San Francisco in 1906. Charles Looff and his employees, all expert carvers, created standing, prancing and flying horses with swirling manes and elaborate livery. They embellished their carvings with jewels and horsehair tails, and added other animals (camel, giraffe, goat) for variety. Each animal is a unique creation.

Unfortunately, the carousel detoured to Seattle’s Luna Park after the 1906 earthquake left San Francisco in ruins. It eventually returned to San Francisco’s  Playland at the Beach, where it entertained visitors for almost 50 years (1913 to 1972).

The Looff Company created over 50 carousels, but only 10 remain intact today. Like other carousels, a Looff machine was worth more divided than whole. Suffering wear and tear from outdoor use and daily activity, carousels required expensive maintenance. An operator could break up a carousel and sell it for parts, often profitably. During the golden age of carousels, 1880-1920, about 7,000 carousels were built; only 300 remain today.

Fortunately, the Yerba Buena carousel, now called Le Roy King Carousel, was preserved by a collector and returned to San Francisco in 1998. It recently (May 2014) reopened after extensive renovation. Notice the dynamic positions of the horses and elaborate saddles on the animals.

The second oldest San Francisco carousel is the Herschel-Spillman Carousel at the East end of Golden Gate Park. It was built in 1914 and was brought to San Francisco from Portland, Oregon for the Golden Gate International Exposition on Treasure Island (1939 and 1940). It eventually replaced another carousel in the children’s area of Golden Gate Park, sometimes identified as the first children’s playground in the US (1887).   Arthur Page Brown, who also designed the Ferry Building, created a beautiful, classically-inspired open-air shelter for the carousels.  It is now fully enclosed.

This carousel includes a menagerie of 62 animals, with great variety of shapes, colors, and decorations. Notable among the animals is a colorful sea dragon, an armored horse, and a goat carved by master carver William Dentzel. The interior of the carousel contains pastel painted scenes of California.

Notice the variety of animals, the painted scenery and the jester-like faces on the rounding board.

The third San Francisco carousel, located at the San Francisco Zoo, was carved by the Dentzel Company of Philadelphia in 1921 and arrived in 1925 after a short stint in Redwood City. The Dentzel Company was founded in Germany in 1837 and created some of the earliest carousels in Europe and the US. This carousel was one of William Dentzel’s last creations.  He was the grandson of the founder of the Dentzel Company, still family owned and still operating today.

William Dentzel’s carving style was more natural and realistic than Looff’s style, but consistent through many decades. Most Dentzel Carousels were large. This carousel contains 36 horses, 16 menagerie animals and 2 chariots. It is one of only 7 Dentzel carousels in the US today. Interestingly, the previously mentioned Golden Gate Park carousel (Herschell-Spillman) includes one animal also carved by William Dentzel: a goat.

Notice playful jumper cats holding fish in their mouths, and the mirrored well-lit interior.

The fourth carousel in San Francisco is much newer than the others. Created for Pier 39 by the Italian company Bertazzon in the early 1970’s, it contains fiberglass figures. Yet it is striking, with its two stories and 1800 LED lights. In keeping with the nature of Pier 39, this carousel includes sea creatures as well as land creatures. Notice the scenes of California on the exterior rounding board.

What’s missing in San Francisco? None of these carousels has an operating brass ring machine. But good news for those willing to drive a short distance, Santa Cruz has a Looff Carousel with a ring machine, also listed as a National Historic Landmark.