The Dentzel Carousel remains one of the most beloved attractions in all of San Francisco. For generations, the beautifully hand-carved, wooden menagerie carousel has thrilled young and old alike, and continues to this day.
San Francisco Zoo and Garden’s Dentzel Carousel is a valuable piece of local — and world for that matter — history. It is one of the last existing machines lovingly hand-crafted by renowned carousel builder William H. Dentzel in 1921.
A Bit of Carousel History
- 1100 – Carousel concept begins 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 carousel.
- 1700s – the French 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.
- 1800s – carousels became geared toward amusement rather 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.
SF 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.
- 1921 – Carousel is built, showcasing 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).
- 1925 – Dentzel Carousel is moved to SF Zoo from the defunct Pacific City Amusement Park in Burlingame. It 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 features two chariots and 50 animals. Among them are horses, giraffes, ostriches, tigers, lions, pigs, rabbits, cats and a reindeer. Each are custom and individualized, embellished with whimsical details and jewels. 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.
Three million revolutions and counting since its placement at the San Francisco Zoo in 1925, the historic Dentzel Carousel has undergone a complete renovation.
- 1978 – the San Francisco Zoological Society funded a $100,000 project to repair and repaint the entire Carousel.
- 1994 – Carousel undergoes a $30,000 mechanical overhaul
- 2000 – Expert carousel restorers Brass Ring Entertainment dismantled and hand-restored each of the carousel animals in a $1 million restoration project. In conjunction with the Arts Commission of San Francisco, work was conducted to document the original colors and color scheme to restore the carousel to its original appearance. The work rejuvenated color, markings and spots, even matching the stripes of the tiger with those of one of the Zoo’s own Sumatran tigers. The restorers spent nearly 1,000 hours on each animal, painstakingly and lovingly recreating each as originally intended. Hardened steel gears cut to the original Dentzel specifications were installed, plus a new drive system with electronically controlled motors and new steel bearings. Lastly, the interior and exterior building and roof were repaired and repainted.
- 2006 – the Carousel received more upgrades, including beautification of the surrounding plaza, to serve the Zoo’s increasing number of visitors.