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Glen Echo Park, Maryland, Unique for Carousel, Arts Focus

Glen Echo Park, Maryland, Unique for Carousel, Arts FocusGlen Echo Park, Maryland, Unique for Carousel, Arts Focus

Glen Echo Park in Glen Echo, Maryland, is a national park unusual among its peers for its artsy focus. Home to a puppet company, an adventure theater, pottery and glass studios, and its incomparable Art Deco Spanish ballroom, Glen Echo is devoted to family arts, culture, and entertainment.

For carousel enthusiasts, Glen Echo's prize attraction is the 1921 Dentzel carousel, painstakingly refurbished over two decades from 1983 to 2003. Though called a carousel, this model is technically a menagerie, with horses accompanied by diverse fauna including tigers, giraffes, rabbits, and ostriches. This carousel is one of only 29 surviving antique Dentzels. Dentzel carousels are readily identifiable by their trademark Jester Head medallion shields (see images) between the rounding boards on the upper sweeps.

Michael Dentzel started the Dentzel carousel tradition in Germany in the 1830s. Thirty years later, his grandson Gustav emigrated to Philadelphia with a carousel accompanying him aboard ship to test the American market. When the market proved favorable, Gustav established his own carousel-building business in 1867. He was lauded for carving exquisitely sculpted full-size animals and supplying precisely crafted operating mechanisms. Dentzel ceased operating as the Great Depression crushed the amusements market. After a 50-year hiatus, a new generation of Dentzels returned to their ancestral artistry in the late 1970s.

For a mere $1.25, visitors to Glen Echo can mount a colorful wooden horse and glide up and down to the melodies of the endearing Wurlitzer 165 band organ, one of only three remaining in public use.

In 1960, Glen Echo's carousel played a brief role in the civil rights movement when Howard University students staged a sit-in on it to protest the park's white-only admission policy and were arrested, according to the National Park Service. For 11 weeks after, white neighbors joined with black university students picketing outside the park gates. The following season, the park was open to all.

Though remembered as a full-scale amusement park with bumper cars, a roller coaster, and an arcade, Glen Echo in some sense returned to its roots upon its transformation to an arts park. The park opened as a Chautauqua in 1891, part of a literary and scientific circle movement designed to bring cultural and educational offerings to people of moderate means. The Chautauqua experiment failed at Glen Echo in its maiden year, paving the way for new enterprise.

The National Park Service acquired Glen Echo in 1970 after the private owners shut down the amusement park. As an arts park today, Glen Echo hosts dance classes, arts workshops, music festivals, and exhibitions. Social dancing is a prime attraction for local residents visiting Glen Echo, with over 300 dances of various genres from ballroom to salsa, swing, and tango held each year.

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