When Todd W. Goings travels from his home in Ohio to tend to his patients in New York City, he knows he faces a heavy lift. Many are centenarians, with creaky limbs, an unsteady gait and a wan complexion. Some are missing their tails.
Mr. Goings is a carousel doctor. His latest house call was to the merry-go-round in Prospect Park in Brooklyn, which turns 100 this year. He was there the other day bent over a wooden horse, carefully repairing damage to its belly with dowels and glue. It was among nine horses that needed a tune-up before the carousel reopens for the season on March 31.
The Prospect Park carousel is one of about 150 antique wooden carousels left in the United States, down from a peak of several thousand. It is a classic example of the Coney Island style (yes, there are schools of carousel design), whose horses tend to be more flamboyant than the tamer Philadelphia and Fairground styles.
As he worked, Mr. Goings marveled that the Prospect carousel, along with its wooden cousins elsewhere, was not in worse shape, given the demands of an adoring, sometimes rambunctious, public.
“With any other piece of antique equipment – like a 1912 car — you’re usually not using it to its full capacity,” he said. “But with a carousel, every day you load it up with 60 people and ride them around for 10 minutes and then put 60 more on. That’s the amazing part.”
The Prospect Park carousel underwent an extensive restoration in the late 1980s. It was the first capital project of the Prospect Park Alliance, the nonprofit group formed in 1987 to help restore the park. Since then, the carousel has been maintained and touched up with red, turquoise and gold paint by the doting carousel operator, Lucio Schiavone.
But for the carousel’s 100th anniversary, the Alliance decided it was time to summon Mr. Goings, who had done repairs in the past. “Todd is an acknowledged master at keeping these antiques running smoothly,” Paul Nelson, the Alliance’s spokesman, said. “We call him the carousel doctor for good reason.”
Mr. Goings, 45, has a 26,000-square-foot studio at a former military base in Marion, Ohio. But he is often on the road, tending to 15 carousels, on average, a year. Some, like the one in Prospect Park, need only minor repairs on site, while others are trucked to Ohio for extensive restorations.
New York City, with more than a dozen wooden carousels, is one of his more frequent stops. “That is a huge collection,” he said. “If you look at other big cities, they’re lucky to have one or two.”
He helped refurbish Jane’s Carousel, which opened last summer in Brooklyn Bridge Park inside a transparent acrylic pavilion. And he is now restoring Coney Island’s historic B&B Carousel, which was purchased by the city in 2005, after the death of its owner, and transported whole to Ohio.
Trained in industrial pattern-making and cabinetry, Mr. Goings became smitten 22 years ago after his first carousel job. “It was something interesting and used everything I knew,” he said. He went to work for a carousel-restoration firm before venturing out on his own. Today, he employs eight restorers who specialize in cracked hooves, missing eyes and stiff jumper poles.
The Prospect Park carousel, housed in an octagonal brick building, originally opened in 1912 in Coney Island and was relocated in 1952. The horses and other animals were carved by Charles Carmel, an artisan with a studio on Ocean Parkway near the Prospect Park stables. Perhaps that accounts for the figures’ lifelike expressions – straining necks, lolling tongues, flared nostrils.
By the 1980s, however, the carousel had fallen into such disrepair that the city closed it for seven years. That was also when wooden horses were becoming hot collectibles, with old carousels dismantled and sold off horse by horse. “Everybody looked up after that feverish period and realized that we only have 150 antique carousels left,” Mr. Goings said.
The Prospect Park carousel dodged that fate, reopening in 1990 after a careful restoration by the restorer Will Morton VIII. He fixed the horses and chariots and removed 20 layers of paint to reveal their original colors. Today, the tails still swish with real horse hair, and the original Wurlitzer band organ belts out waltzes.
Margaret Ring, the carousel manager, must explain to riders that the carousel is an antique and that, no, they cannot stand on the horses. “It’s not just kids,” she said. “Adults try it too.”
The transition to the modern carousel began in the 1930s, as wood gave way to aluminum, and then fiberglass, as a material of choice. In the process, something was lost. “When they switched to fiberglass, they slid down the production values,” Mr. Goings said. “They come out of molds, and one horse looks like the next one.”
With his pots of glue, strips of wood and socket wrenches, Mr. Goings is on a mission to save the antique carousels that remain, with their powerful evocations of Americana and childhood.
“They were the original amusement park ride,” Mr. Goings said. “When you’re a kid, you get on a carousel and warm up for the roller coaster. It’s something that’s rooted very early in our psyche.”