Wednesday, November 7, 2018

Spokane's Treasure: The Looff Carrousel

By Kris Krell

Spokane’s Treasure:  The Looff Carrousel

When I was in college—first two years at SFCC in Spokane and last two years at Eastern Washington State College in Cheney—I worked at Fabricland fabric store in the Spokane Valley.  After Expo ’74, one of my Fabricland coworkers was a high school student who had the privilege of being chosen as a volunteer helping to restore the Looff Carousel for the new Riverfront Park.  It was quite an exciting time for her!  

The Looff Carousel is one of the few original intact carousels built by carver and carousel inventor Charles Looff; he emigrated from Denmark to Brooklyn (Other reports say that he was from Schleswig-Holstein now part of Germany.) at the age of 18 years  old.  From the 1800s to the 1960s, the United States had between 4,000 and 5,000 carousels.  In 2016, only 152 wood carousels including the Looff Carousel remained.

When my coworker helped restore the Looff Carousel, it had been in storage since 1968—when Natatorium Park permanently closed its doors due to the decline in amusement park visitors.  With the hopes of Spokane hosting Expo ’74, Spokane decided to reinvent the downtown riverfront.  It was the dream of Spokane Parks Director William S. Fearn to include the Carousel in the plans—not for Expo but for the new Riverfront Park that would be developed after Expo ’74.  

Bill Oliver, a Natatorium Park handyman and electrician, inherited the Carrousel from Lloyd Vogel, son of Emma and Louis Vogel.  Bill offered the Carrousel to Spokane County for $40,000, well below its estimated value of $100,000, but they said they could buy a new one for that amount.  (As of April 1996, it was reported that the Carousel was worth well over $1 million.)  Spokane City Council, though, grabbed at the offer and required that a certain portion of the cost be raised through donations.

The city received an $80,000 anonymous donation, and the 10-sided building was built to house the future Carousel.  During the fair, the building was used as a Bavarian beer garden.

On May 8, 1975, the restored Looff Carrousel was reopened to crowds of thousands.  Since 1975, an average of 275,000 to 300,000 riders each year have visited Riverfront Park for a ride on the Looff Carrousel.

Many carousels were lost to fires, floods, and collectors wanting to have the carved figures which are now considered American folk art.  Before the economic downturn of 2008, the outside ring horses were each horse valued at $35,000.

Riverfront Park, as of 2009, reported that they use about 50,000 plastic rings each year even though visitors are not to take them home as souvenirs.

In 2009, The Looff Carrousel turned 100.  On September 19, 1977, the Carrousel was added to the National Register of Historic Places.

                     To Be Continued Next Week…

The Spokesman Review, The Man Who Saved the Carrousel, April 18, 1996, 
The Spokeman Review, Collector Donates an early Looff horse to Spokane’s Carrousel, March 14, 2016, 
The Spokesman Review, Artist’s touch keeps 100-year old Carrousel looking young, March 20, 2009, 
The Spokesman Review, Horsing around, July 12, 2009

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