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Designing Chattanooga: the Coolidge Park carousel

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You can ride the carousel for only $1. | Photo by NOOGAtoday

Welcome back to Designing Chattanooga, a series in which we dive into the history + architecture of Chattanooga’s iconic, historic, and just plain beautiful buildings.

Today, we’re switching it up a bit and looking into a local piece of architectural history that’s not quite a building, but has just as much beauty and history — the Coolidge Park carousel.

The carousel was originally built in 1894 — making it almost 130 years old — by the G.A. Dentzel Company, an American builder of carousels based in Pennsylvania (though the idea technically originated in Germany).

The Dentzel carousel is one of the earliest + most famous types of merry-go-round constructed in the US. In fact, “the name of Dentzel became a synonym for excellence in the pioneering and development of the hand carved carousel.” The Dentzel style is known for its realistic and elaborate hand-carved animals.

In the 1980s, however, the then-Atlanta-based carousel started to show its age, and you may know this part of the story; a local wood carver named Bud Ellis, along with a team of volunteers (many of whom didn’t have much experience with carving) restored the historic ride.

Before that restoration, the carousel was located ~two hours away in Grant Park, not Chattanooga. It was Bud Ellis’ dream to build a carousel for the City of Chattanooga, and he eventually received a budget from the city council to purchase the decrepit carousel from Atlanta + work on it.

Because of the small team of volunteers and amount of work needed, the project took 12 years to complete — after all, each of the 52 animals are hand-carved — but the stories that came from those years of work are pretty cool.

Take, for instance, mother + son volunteer team Teresa and Jon. The duo worked on a sea-themed horse for the carousel until Jon was deployed with the Navy. Several years later, Teresa finished it with her husband to celebrate their new grandchildren. Now, this horse — named “Nemo” — can be viewed inside of the pavilion next to the ride.

Within eight months of the carousel’s opening in 1999, the city had regained its entire $250,000 investment into the project.

Now, the carousel is an iconic Chattanooga landmark. It contains the stories of the makers from far away and long ago, of locals who will forever have a small piece of their life embedded into the attraction, and of those who ride it each day — a metaphorical merry-go-round of history.

It’s also a testament to Chattanooga’s character — to take an old, battered attraction and turn it into something beautiful and fun, to live on in the city for generations to come? That’s Chattanooga. And the best part? You can go out today to experience this piece of history for only $1. So go on, we know you want to — have a ride on the merry-go-round.

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