All The Pretty Horses

Eight Steeds In New Haven's Lighthouse Point Carousel Show Off A Winter Makeover

May 13, 2008|By ADRIAN BRUNE; Special To The Courant

The old carousel horse Thunderbolt had a broken leg and some serious scrapes and scratches, but the city of New Haven saw no reason to put him down.

Rather, Thunderbolt was removed from his pole last November by Plainville artisan William Finkenstein. Over the course of the winter, he and seven of his counterparts in the 70-strong herd endured sanding and stripping, retouching and rehabilitation before coming home for another seaside season at Lighthouse Point Park.

Beginning Memorial Day and running to Labor Day, Lighthouse Point patrons, including those who have booked more than 90 events under the carousel tent, will be able to saddle Thunderbolt and his fellow ponies for a jaunt into early childhood or a ride down memory lane.

"Thunderbolt was one of the worst [in terms of condition], probably because he is one of the most popular horses. He has a lot of life," said Finkenstein, one of the country's few carousel restorers. "More youngsters like to ride jumpers than the standing ones."

The return of the chestnut pony, whose dark mane runs along an electric blue halter and bejeweled saddle, marked the end of a $30,000 campaign to rejuvenate the carousel, which celebrates its 97th running this year.

"I have a 3-year-old nephew who can't go down the highway without stopping at the park for a ride at the carousel," said Sabrina Bruno, a project coordinator for New Haven's parks department, who oversees carousel operations. "And then I talk to people who leave a wedding here saying it's the greatest wedding they've ever attended because they rode a carousel pony again.

"It's as close to a fairy tale as you can get."

One of only about 100 carousels remaining in the country, the Lighthouse Point Carousel was cobbled together by several different carvers in 1911 and placed along Long Island Sound five years later. It remained there until the mid-1970s, when, amid a financial crisis, New Haven closed the ride and put the ponies in storage.

A few years later, a group of long-time residents founded Friends of the Carousel and aimed at returning the horses, worth between $25,000 and $50,000 each, to their rightful hitching posts. While the organization successfully completely its mission by around 1980, "now that the carousel is approaching its 100th anniversary, we've begun an even more aggressive campaign to redo the horses," Bruno said.

That push has required the skills of several artisans, including Finkenstein. A Norman Rockwell-inspired painter, he has restored carousels for 30 years, from those weathered by New England gales to the ones ripped apart by Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans.

The exactitude of the profession sometimes requires great patience. When, after removing layer upon layer of paint on a carousel chariot, Finkenstein couldn't replicate one of New Haven's historical scenes, he consulted his grandmother's library for historic prints after exhausting local records.

"Every one is special. When I work on them, it's exciting to me to think about people, and time, and all the things these horses have done through the years," he said. "How many antiques can do the same thing they were designed to do at the turn of the century?"

For more information on the carousel, visit Rides cost only 50 cents, but nonresidents are subject to a $10 parking fee.