Historic Gems in Brooklyn

August 2, 2018

The Prospect Park carousel.

The Prospect Park carousel. Photo: Jordan Rathkopf

The “outer borough” of Brooklyn is now so “in,” that guidebook publishers dedicate entire books to Brooklyn and international tourists recognize the neighborhood names Williamsburg and Park Slope as well as they do Greenwich Village. Brooklyn’s greatest attractions long predate the rise of the borough’s fame, drawing visitors with their historic significance and ongoing offerings for all ages. Treasures of New York , a documentary series exploring New York’s premier cultural establishments, visited three iconic sights in Brooklyn this year. Whatever the season, it’s possible to visit all of these treasures in a single day, whether by car or subway connections.

Prospect Park Carousel

The Prospect Park carousel is one of the few remaining wooden carousels from the turn-of-the-century in the United States.

This century old whimsical piece of art features a menagerie of hand carved animals and a Wurlitzer organ that plays cheerful music with every ride.

The carousel has two dragon chariots, a giraffe, a lion and a deer with real antlers. But it is the 53 unique horses that are the main attraction. Some wear armor or carry swords, others sport ornate golden tassels. With lifelike features and expressive faces these horses capture the imagination of carousel riders. The park was designed by famed landscape architects Frederick Law Olmsted and Calvert Vaux in the 1860’s and included a carousel in the original design.

The park’s first and second carousels burned down by 1935. The third and current carousel was actually built for Coney Island in 1912 by renowned carousel carver Charles Carmel, a Russian-born immigrant.

Describing Carmel’s work on the horses, Christian Zimmerman, a Vice President at Prospect Park Alliance, explains, “What’s interesting about the Coney Island style is that you have the nostrils flaring, the tongue hanging out of its mouth, and they’re galloping – they’re really just kind of running amok. That’s that style that was so popular in that era.”

The carousel found a second life when it moved to Prospect Park in 1952. For the next 30 years the carousel remained a popular attraction. But by the early 1980s the carousel had fallen into disrepair and was shut down. That is, until a group of dedicated local residents came together to revive a run down Prospect Park. Their first item of business was restoring the treasured carousel.

The process to repair this decades old carousel was a significant challenge.

Overall, conservators removed 20 layers of paint, carved new pieces to replace broken legs and ears, re-painted each horse to their original colors and finished off the decoration with gold and silver leaf. Once completed, the carousel helped to transform the park.

“When we reopened the carousel in 1990 it brought a lot of attention to this portion of the park and it was really activating the area,” says Zimmerman of the side of the park bordering the residential neighborhood Prospect – Lefferts Gardens.

The carousel is a short walk from other park treasures that provide fun for families – The Lefferts Historic House and the Prospect Park Zoo.

Visit Details

Summer Hours: Thursday – Sunday and holidays, 12 – 6 p.m. Visit Thursdays in August this year for free carousel rides! See website for more information, including on how to celebrate a birthday there.

Green-Wood Cemetery

In the heart of Brooklyn, almost 20 miles of pedestrian paths wind through 478 acres of rolling hills, dells, towering trees and glacial ponds. This tranquil retreat is not only a national historic landmark, it’s the permanent residence to 570,000 individuals.

Green-Wood Cemetery is a living memorial to the dead. From soldiers, sailors and slaves to renowned individuals such as designer, Louis Comfort Tiffany, New York Governor Dewitt Clinton and conductor, Leonard Bernstein.

The cemetery was founded in 1838, before there were any city parks (nearby Prospect Park officially opened in 1867). So it served as a bucolic retreat, and through its monuments and grave makers, became the Victorian model of death.

Almost two centuries after its founding, this swath of property, comprising 8,000 trees and shrubs, as well as historic battle hill, the highest natural point in Brooklyn, has expanded to more than twice its original size.

“This spot was chosen for Green-Wood as a rural cemetery because it was very hilly. It provided a lot of great vistas of the harbor and of Lower Manhattan,” says Art Presson, Vice President of Design and Landscape at Green-Wood Cemetery.

One way to visit the park is on a tour. Jeffrey Richman, the cemetery’s historian, has led walking and trolley tours there since 1990. A curious bit of a nature he points out are the green birds nesting in the main entrance’s stately gateway.

“The monk parakeets have been here since about 1980. They came in on a shipment from Argentina, broke out of their crate, made a run for it… They love these high areas where they feel protected,” explains Richman.

Green-Wood Cemetery is not just for the birds. This institution continues to honor the dead while educating the living. Open to car and foot traffic in all seasons, there’s never a bad time to visit this beloved sanctuary.

The landscape design of the cemetery in itself is a reason for coming here,” says Richard Moylan, President of Green-Wood Cemetery. “That, combined with the programming we’ve been doing. People want to be here for so many different reasons.”

This Brooklyn oasis will continue to serve as an active resource for reflection, scholarship and the arts for many generations to come. And perhaps it’s best to visit Green-Wood Cemetery while you still have the option to leave.

Visit Details

Summer Hours: Main entrance at 25th Street and 5th Avenue is open daily 7 a.m. – 7 p.m. April 1 to September 30. Two other entrances have different hours. See website for guided tours, special events for all ages, how to research burial sites and more.

Coney Island Museum

The legacy of Coney Island, a beloved Brooklyn neighborhood home to nearly three miles of sandy beaches, arcade games and action packed rides, is preserved in a unassuming building on Coney Island’s Surf Avenue: The Coney Island Museum. It was founded in 1981 by Dick Zigun whose hope was to inspire a deeper appreciation for the neighborhood.

From vintage photographs and old ticket stubs to fun house mirrors and bumper cars, the Coney Island Museum gives visitors a comprehensive look at the neighborhood’s past, when there wasn’t just one amusement park, but Luna Park, Steeplechase Park, Dreamland Park and many blocks of independent rides in between.

“When somebody comes up to the Coney Island Museum, I want them just to understand that Coney Island is different than Great Adventure. It’s even different than DisneyLand. Coney Island invented the hot dog, Coney Island invented the roller coaster, Coney Island invented the awful American habit of fast food. Blame Coney Island. But understand the importance of Coney Island,” says Zigun.

Three of Coney Island’s best known amusement parks are memorialized in the museum, but the majority of the collection come from Steeplechase Park, which outlasted the other original parks, Dreamland and Luna Park.

“Luna Park and Dreamland burned to the ground and a lot of the park was destroyed. Dreamland burned in 1911. Luna Park burned in the 1940s. Steeplechase went much longer to the mid 1960s so there was more available and there are still workers and families who have personal stories personal experiences. So in our Steeplechase display case, there’s a homemade costume of one of the performers Freddy the tramp, who was a tramp clown. And it was donated by his son, who like his father was also a clown,” says Zigun about the collection.

While the costume is among the many artifacts donated to the museum, many were collected by Zigun himself using unconventional methods.

“I started trespassing in burned out or bombed out buildings and taking things that were exposed to the elements,” admits Zigun. “Thus was the beginning, without any budget of building a collection.”

In need of a home for his growing collection, Zigun first rented a building on the boardwalk. The collection gradually outgrew the space and in 1996 he moved the artifacts to a historic building on Surf Avenue. In keeping with Coney Island’s age-old tradition of handpainted signs and banners, Zigun hired Brooklyn artist Marie Roberts as artist-in-residence. Her brightly colored whimsical designs adorn the inside and outside of the building.

“I shudder to tell you, I’ve been artist in residence since 1997. Not too many fools like painting as much as I do,” jokes Roberts.

The museum has a special place in her heart.

“What I love about the Coney Island Museum is that it is in the center of an amusement park. And what I love about having the museum is here is that the museum is for everybody.”

The museum has become an attraction of its own, transporting visitors back into the history of America’s favorite playground.

Of the crowds who come to Coney Island for the roller coasters, a swim or a sideshow, museum founder Zigun says, “If they also come to the museum, I think it puts Coney Island in a more sophisticated context of New York City … and that’s why we do it.”

Visit Details

Summer Hours: June 14 through Labor Day, Wednesday through Saturday, 12 – 6p.m., Sunday, 2 – 6p.m. See website for special events, exhibits and more.

Map of Brooklyn Attractions

Watch more Treasures of New York from all five boroughs of New York City, plus Long Island.