‘Jewel in a jewel box’: Rescued Joyland carousel about to spin again at its new home

It’s a “jewel in a jewel box,” says Marty Miller, the executive director of Botanica. And this jewel has the characteristics of the most precious out there.

It’s an antique. It shines and sparkles with light. It’s attached to decades’ worth of memories and meaning.

And it’s very, very expensive.

In a tucked away back corner of Botanica — beyond the children’s garden and past a temporary orange-netted barrier — is a sight that only a few have seen. There, under a giant glass dome — the “jewel box” — is the 40-foot-wide, 36-horse carousel that used to spin at Wichita’s Joyland Amusement Park when it operated from 1949 to 2006 at 2801 S. Hillside.

The carousel, made in 1949 by the Allen Herschell Co. in New York and purchased by Joyland’s founders for $14,500, was left to rot when the amusement park closed and fell into disrepair. But in 2014, Joyland co-owner Margaret Nelson Spear donated the ride to Botanica, asking that it be restored for a new generation to enjoy. It’s what her husband, Stan, who died in 2010, would have wanted, she told Botanica’s managers.

Now, five years and $2.4 million later, the restoration is almost complete, and Miller expects that the carousel will be ready to ride again sometime in November. Buzz has been building as images have appeared on social media of the carousel’s painstakingly repaired and hand-painted horses being moved into their new home. The last one was installed less than a week ago, and the carousel’s tarp canopy was installed on Monday.

Patrons who visited a wine-and-food event at Botanica last weekend were given a special preview of what everyone will be seeing in a few months: the carousel, with all of its new paint, new parts and updated details, spinning with many of its 588 newly installed LED lights — which can be programmed into 16 million different colorful combinations of light patterns — glowing through the glass.

It was a breathtaking sight, said Miller — one of many Wichitans who rode the carousel as a child and the man who oversaw the restoration and installation project. People who saw it were wowed.

“When people come up here and see it, it’s a whole new amazement,” Miller said. “The legacy of not only Joyland but the legacy of all the memories people had riding this merry-go-round lives on here at Botanica.”

A child enjoys her ride on the Joyland carousel in a photo from before the park closed in 2006. Mike Hutmacher The Wichita Eagle

Details, original and new

When people finally get a chance to see the restored carousel, they might not be able to fully appreciate everything that went into it, Miller said. And they might not recognize all the little touches that helped preserve its original feel while modernizing it for a new generation — and for state amusement park inspectors who have much more stringent requirements than the inspectors in 1949.

When Nelson Spear decided to donate the carousel, she was pretty desperate to get it gone. It was stored in Joyland’s old skating rink, and people were breaking in and vandalizing its contents. One of her conditions was that Botanica come and get the carousel, and quickly.

Miller got the parks department to help him, and the structure was moved to a city-owned building where it could hide from would-be vandals and thieves. The original horses, however, were kept in a warehouse at Botanica, and they took turns from 2015 until last week visiting Marlene Irvin’s backyard workshop.

Irvin, who in 1978 started her career at Wichita’s Chance Rides — a manufacturer of amusement park rides — went on to become one of the country’s only carousel restorers. She was tasked with giving each of the horses new life, a job that took between 75 and 100 hours for each one. She had to scrape off as many as 15 layers of paint then chip, file and sand the horses before she repainted them.

Each of the original 36 horse on the Joyland carousel have been restored, repainted and replaced. Jaime Green

She gave each horse its own personality, and the horses told her what they wanted to look like, she told the Eagle in 2015. Some wanted to be decorated with butterflies and dragonflies and flowers and toads. Some wanted Jayhawks and Powercats. One wanted to look like a United States flag. Another asked for the Keeper of the Plains.

Some of the horses Irvin finished in the early days have been displayed for years in Botanica’s lobby. She put the last stroke on the last horse a week ago.

Meanwhile, Miller and his crew had to decide how to revive the structure. They removed half of the decorative panels that lined the inside wall of the carousel and preserved them with their original paint and design, saving them to rehang as decorative pieces inside the pavilion. Those are all in place now.

Meanwhile, they commissioned local artist Connie Ernatt to design some new panels that would have a Botanica feel and could be set aglow with modern lighting. The panels now feature blue flowerpots and colorful fireflies, all of which will glow dramatically while the carousel spins.

They put a new wooden floor on the carousel, installed a new motor and replaced all of the copper wiring since all of the original had been stolen over time. They also set about figuring out what mechanical parts would have to be replaced to meet today’s strict safety codes, and that was nearly all of it. The mechanical center of the carousel now looks brand new with fresh, shiny powder coating.

Every time they installed something new, those working on the project would gather to marvel at it, Miller said.

“Putting up the poles was exciting, and the centerpiece,” he said. “When we had the floor on, we actually stood on it and rode it for a little bit. Every stage has been exciting.”

The Joyland carousel, pictured here before the park closed in 2006, will soon spin again at its new home. Mike Hutmacher The Wichita Eagle

The staff poured the concrete for the new pavilion last November and started putting up the steel structure in January. They just finished the building last week, modeling it after a glass enclosure that surrounds another merry-go-round in Mexico. The new building, which has a party room and retractable garage doors, also was finished last week.

Not quite finished yet are new chariots, which will fill in the blank spaces between the horses. The original chariots were in horrible shape and couldn’t be saved, Miller said. The crew designed all new ones, which are wheelchair accessible.

Also still being installed is a new pneumatic organ built by Gordon Ramsey (“not the police chief, and not the chef,” Miller said.) This Gordon Ramsey serviced the original organ that provided music for the carousel at Joyland, and he built a smaller replica that he offered to sell to Botanica for $1 as long as they agreed to let him continue to service it.

He’s still installing it, and it will be able to play the original music rolls from Joyland, which Nelson Spear also donated.

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Almost done, far from complete

Even though opening day is likely only a couple of months away — and even though the carousel and pavilion will be an exciting new stop during this year’s Illuminations holiday light event — the project is far from complete.

Botanica also has plans for the areas surrounding the carousel, including a big concession area, a “grand lawn” and a massive stage big enough to fit the Wichita Symphony. There will be a new south entrance and a new parking lot provided by the city that will give Botanica around 300 additional parking spaces. The completed project will give the venue the ability to host huge concerts and events for up to 3,000 people.

Joyland owner Margaret Nelson Spear donated the park’s carousel to Botanica in 2014. Eagle file photo

Those things will all surround the just-finished carousel, whose renovation cost about $300,000 and the pavilion, which carried a $1.8 million price tag.

But for now, the spaces that will hold those features are covered in big piles of dirt. Botanica has raised $2 million for the project so far, Miller said, but it will need another $1.5 to $2 million to finish the rest.

Maybe getting a look at Botanica’s new jewel in its new jewel box will inspire someone to step up.

“At this stage, we’re waiting on funding,” Miller said. “We could have it built by next summer if the right donor steps up and says, ‘This is what we want to do.’”

The carousel will reopen in a few months with fanfare, parties and special events, Miller said. A ride will cost $3.

Denise Neil has covered restaurants and entertainment since 1997. Her Dining with Denise Facebook page is the go-to place for diners to get information about local restaurants. She’s a regular judge at local food competitions and speaks to groups all over Wichita about dining.