by Liza Roberts
photographs by Kelsey Hanrahan
When Pullen Park bought a hand-crafted wooden carousel from nearby Bloomsbury Park for $1,425 in 1921, it got a bargain and a beauty. On one of the most beautiful spring days of April this year, more than 5,000 Pullen Park-goers got the same thing. Raleigh Fine Arts Society, which helped restore the carousel and is celebrating its 50th anniversary, underwrote free rides for all park-goers all day long. “Nobody’s ever done that before,” said Jenna Kostka, the park’s program manager. Crowds gathered to ride on the circa-1900 carousel’s 52 hand-carved and beautifully painted animals, which include fanciful tigers, reindeers, pigs, lions, ostriches, cats, rabbits, horses, and goats. The work of famed Pennsylvania carousel maker Gustav Dentzel, the carousel is “our treasured landmark,” Kostka said, “for our park, and for the city.” Considered one of the best surviving examples of Dentzel’s work – there are 23 still operating in North America – Pullen Park’s carousel is listed on the National Register of Historic Places and is a Raleigh Historic Landmark. It wasn’t always in such sparkling shape. It took several years in the 1970s and early 1980s to raise the money and do the work to fix its mechanisms and bring its animals back to life. Among other efforts, Raleigh Fine Arts members scraped off a thick coat of white paint that covered each of the animals, unveiling original colors beneath.
Now, as many as 7,000 park-goers ride the restored carousel every day. At $1 a ride, the merry-go-round provides a reliable revenue stream for the 66-acre park, which also has a miniature train and other rides, and bills itseslf the 5th oldest operating amusement park in the U.S. Five years ago, a $6 million renovation turned the park into a showplace.
This summer, the carousel is just one reason to check it out. In addition to playgrounds and picnic sites, Pullen also features kiddie boats, a C. P. Huntington miniature train, and pedal boats. The Pullen Place Cafe offers healthy, tasty food including salads, sandwiches, and pita pizzas. The Summer in the Park Concert Series – outdoor, family-friendly events perfect for picnicking – includes concerts at 6 p.m. on June 5 and July 10; the park’s free Playdate at Pullen series for kids ages 3-5 takes place June 13 and July 11; and the Theatre in the Park puts on the musical Hair July 8-24.
Pullen Park: raleighnc.gov/parks