Plenty of things have changed in 100 years, but one thing remains exactly the same: Throngs of Spokane children are still bouncing up and down every day, waiting to get on the Looff Carrousel.
The Looff Carrousel in Riverfront Park will turn 100 on Saturday. It remains an astonishingly potent attraction, even for children and parents accustomed to theme-park thrills and “Terminator” movies.
Why? The same reasons as ever: You can ride a wooden horse round and round, up and down, and grab for life’s brass (or plastic) ring.
On the day before it opened in 1909, the old Natatorium Park (“Spokane’s Beauty Spot”) made a point of playing up its new acquisition in an ad: “Extra Next Week: The new Carousel or Merry-Go-Round will be in operation.”
Even then, the Looff Carrousel (it later acquired an extra “r” for no particular reason) had already endured a traumatic birth.
The Ingersoll Amusement Company, which operated Natatorium Park for owners Washington Water Power, had commissioned the Carrousel in 1907 from Charles I.D. Looff, a master woodcarver and entrepreneur who had designed and built the famous Coney Island carousel.
“They ordered it no money down,” said Bette Largent, the Looff Carrousel preservationist and expert on its history. “What a deal!”
Looff was from Schleswig-Holstein, now part of Germany, and he was steeped in the European woodcarving and carousel traditions. Looff and his mostly-immigrant craftsmen built the Carrousel in his workshop in Rhode Island, then had it shipped to Spokane in pieces in 1909.
And there it sat, crated up in the railway yards, for months.
Nobody could pay the $20,000 bill. The Ingersolls had just gone bust, victims of the Panic of 1907. Washington Water Power, which owned Natatorium Park, was already saddled with debt from the Ingersoll bankruptcy.
Finally, a solution arose from the sheerest coincidence.
Looff’s daughter, Emma Looff, had just moved to Spokane with her husband Louis Vogel, a banker. The elder Looff told the power company that he would forgive the debt and release the Carrousel on the condition that the Vogels would become the park’s concessionaires.
WWP jumped at this solution and on July 18, 1909, the Looff Carrousel became the park’s newest attraction, run by a banker-turned- amusement- park-operator and his wife.
“He took to it like a duck to water,” said Largent. In fact, the Vogels eventually purchased Natatorium Park in 1929.
The Looff Carrousel was an immediate hit – and for good reason. It featured 54 gorgeously carved and painted horses, two “chariot-benches,” a giraffe, a tiger and a state-of-the-art German “band organ” by Ruth and Sons, with 300 pipes.
The organ played automatically, somewhat like a player piano, using folded “book music.” Every year, new book music would arrive with the latest tunes.
“People would come just to listen to the music,” said Largent.
For decades, the Carrousel was one of the signature attractions of Natatorium Park. Kids cavorted on it. Couples courted on it. Those fortunate enough to snatch a gold ring earned a free ride.
Yet by the 1950s and 1960s, the golden era had passed for these kinds of amusement parks. Natatorium Park finally shut its gates for good in 1968. Most of the rides were sold off and many of its artifacts disappeared forever – but not the Looff Carrousel, which was dismantled and put into storage.
Bill Oliver had inherited the Carrousel from the Vogels and recognized its historic, artistic and sentimental value. He could have sold off pieces to collectors; there was, and still is, a thriving market for carousel artifacts. Oliver even received an offer from Walt Disney, whose wife had happy memories of the Looff Carrousel from her days growing up in Lapwai, Idaho.
However, a groundswell began to develop in Spokane to keep it intact. Oliver offered to sell it to the city for $40,000 – far below the estimated market price of $100,000.
“This is where it belongs,” Oliver later said.
The Spokane City Council, fueled by what a reporter called “boyish nostalgia,” jumped at the offer. Yet the purchase required that a portion of the money be raised through donations. The fund drive stalled when the price of building a permanent shelter kept going up.
Finally, hopes were revived by Expo ’74, which aimed to remake the downtown riverfront. Spokane Parks Director William S. Fearn spearheaded a plan to include the Carrousel in the plans for the World’s Fair – not as an actual fair attraction, but as part of the new park, Riverfront Park, which would emerge after the fair was over.
So, with help from an $80,000 anonymous donation, a 10-sided building was built with the Looff Carrousel in mind. During the fair, it housed a Bavarian beer garden.
When the fair was over, the beer steins were carted away and the old Carrousel was taken out of storage and bolted back together in its new home. The mirrors were re-silvered, the horses repainted and the mechanisms renovated, under the direction of Oliver.
On May 8, 1975, the Looff Carrousel had its grand re-opening. Thousands descended on it over the next few days. The operators noticed an interesting phenomenon.
“We knew the merry-go-round would be popular with the children,” said a parks official. “But it’s the adults who have made a difference in the profit picture.”
Souvenir seekers pocketed 2,000 brass rings and the operators had to order 200,000 more within four days of opening.
In a poignant development, Oliver died a week after the re-opening at age 61. During his funeral, the Carrousel was run at half-speed in his memory, with a wreath around the neck of his favorite horse.
The Looff Carrousel has remained a popular attraction – and its influence has been national. People around the country heard about how Spokane had saved its carousel and this kicked off a nationwide restoration boom.
“Carousels all over the country were being auctioned off and broken up for collectors,” said Largent. “This showed people how they could save their local carousel.”
Largent is one of those people inspired by the Looff Carrousel. She began as a part-timer doing touch-up paint work on the horses. Before long, she was captivated by the beauty and lore of carousels. She is now the president of the National Carousel Association.
Today, the Carrousel clearly holds a place in the region’s heart. Rosemary Hart Slemp of Spokane recently wrote a poem about it, containing the line, “This century old fantasy with electrified features / catches imagining eyes of youthful adventurers who / willingly ride the wildest critters and creatures.”
What is it about the Looff that has inspired such love? First, there’s the sheer craftsmanship: Every horse is a unique sculpture. Then there’s the nostalgia – it hearkens back to our grandparents’ day.
Ultimately, though, the reason is simple: A ride on the Looff Carrousel is exactly as much fun as it was 100 years ago.