Did you know that the Zoo’s Dentzel Carousel is more than just a familiar ride? It’s a valuable piece of world — and local — history. It is one of the last existing machines lovingly hand-crafted by William H. Dentzel in 1921.
The carousel concept began as early as the 1100s, when Arabian and Turkish horsemen played a game that Italian and Spanish crusader spectators described as a “little war,” or garosello and carosella, respectively. Part of the event was a ring-spearing tournament in which the men would ride at full speed and try to spear a small ring hanging from a tree or pole. The crusaders brought the game back to Europe where it evolved into an extravagant display of horsemanship that the French called carrousel. By the 1700s, some Frenchmen had the idea to build a device to help train young noblemen in horsemanship and that was the beginning of the carousel as we know it. During the 1800s, carousels became more geared toward amusement than training. In the 19th century, wagon-maker Michael Dentzel began to construct and operate carousels in Germany. His son, Gustav, carried the idea to America in 1860, and the Dentzel family became renowned for its intricate woodcarving, craftsmanship and “menagerie” style, depicting many animals, not just horses.
The Zoo’s Carousel, named to honor Bay Area philanthropist, Eugene Friend, is one of the last machines constructed by Gustav's son, William H. Dentzel. Built in 1921, it showcases the lavish, expensive, intricately detailed, hand-carved wooden artwork that disappeared during the Great Depression of the 1930s (modern carousels are made of cast metal and fiberglass). The Dentzel Carousel came to the Zoo in 1925 from the defunct Pacific City Amusement Park in Burlingame and was one of the Zoo’s first attractions, as well as the first “animal attraction” that visitors saw and heard as they passed through the former Sloat gate entrance. The Carousel’s two chariots and 50 animals, which include horses, giraffes, ostriches, tigers, lions, pigs, rabbits, cats and a reindeer, are embellished with whimsical details and jewels that individualize each of them. This rare menagerie Carousel is one of only 14 in the world, and is one of only seven Dentzel Carousels remaining in the United States.
Take a closer look at the Carousel on your next Zoo visit and you’ll be looking back in time. A treasured symbol of what links the past with the present, it’s something to cherish for the future.
Three million revolutions and counting since its placement at the San Francisco Zoo in 1925, the historic Dentzel Carousel has undergone a complete renovation.
In 1978, the San Francisco Zoological Society funded a $100,000 project to repair and repaint the entire Carousel.
The Carousel was improved again in 1994 with a $30,000 mechanical overhaul. In September 2000, expert carousel restorers Brass Ring Entertainment of Sun Valley, California, were enlisted to dismantle and hand-restore each of the carousel animals. In conjunction with the Arts Commission of San Francisco, a team of experts was brought in to coordinate and document the original colors and color scheme in an effort to restore the carousel to its original appearance. Brass Ring made every effort to rejuvenate each animal with details of color, markings and spots, even matching the stripes of the tiger with those of a Sumatran tiger in the Zoo's collection. Spending almost 1,000 hours on each animal, the restorers have painstakingly and lovingly recreated each animal as originally intended. In addition, the carousel received a new set of hardened steel gears cut to the original Dentzel specifications, a new drive system with electronically controlled motors, new steel bearings, and the interior and exterior carousel building and roof were repaired and repainted. The project totaled $1 million.
In 2006, the Carousel received more upgrades, including beautification of the surrounding area, to enable it to serve the Zoo’s increasing number of visitors.