It was not the cheeriest day for the opening of a carousel, last Thursday. The wind was gusting in off the East River, inverting umbrellas and disturbing sundresses under somber skies. The weather had turned against the free King Cones being doled out on the shores of Dumbo, but the first strains of fall were nothing a steaming street-cart hot dog couldn’t fix. And luckily, the pavilion—designed by Pritzker Prize-winning French architect Jean Nouvel—that surrounded the carousel featured some of the largest windowpanes in the entire city, the perfect windbreakers. Dignitaries from both sides of the East River had piled inside the grand shed.
Mr. Nouvel had suddenly become one of the most active designers in the city. In addition to condos for Andre Balazs and MoMA, he was now building follies on the waterfront. Surveying his work, his lupine features and all-black outfit were rather out of place among the screaming children and gleaming horses, which had been painstakingly restored by Jane Walentas, wife of David, father of Dumbo.
It was 32 years ago that Mr. Walentas bought up all those millions of square feet of derelict warehouses. Who could ever have imagined it would someday become the most expensive neighborhood in all of Brooklyn, home not only to a $25 million penthouse inside of a clock tower but also perhaps the finest carousel in the entire city? Not David Walentas. He told The Observer as much. That was about all he would say, in fact. “It’s Jane’s day, why don’t you talk to her.”
Their son, Jed Walentas, the heir apparent who has struck out successfully in Manhattan and Williamsburg, was more forthcoming. “I always had a lot of confidence the carousel would find a place on the water,” he said. This after his mother spent most of his life—since 1980—on the painstaking restoration project. Ms. Walentas, who used to work as an art director on fashion shoots, sanded, hand-painted and gilded nearly every one of the 48 horses and two chariots from the 1922 Youngstown carousel. Even so, a handful of neighborhood groups protested the donation of the carousel, something they saw as the Walentases exercising yet more control over this little corner of the borough.
Jed and his wife, Kate Engelbrecht, had brought along their 4-month old son, who seemed to enjoy the first spin of Jane’s project, which will run every day but Tuesday, with an admission fee $2. The city’s fleetest children almost outnumbered their Champagne- and lemonade-sipping parents, the bubbly fighting off the chill. Ms. Walentas warned that her grandson’s sweater was hiked up around his belly, and he might catch a cold. The Observer asked Jed if he had been given the Simba speech yet: everything the light touches is our kingdom, someday it will all be yours, and so forth. “Not yet,” he said.
The family was standing just inside the western entrance, one of two sides with industrial accordion doors that open the carousel to Dumbo and the river. On the north and south sides stand those massive panes, acrylic, actually, and not glass, for it is cheaper and safer that way—the seven-to-a-side slabs weigh four tons, half as much as glass, and stands up better to that awful wind. And those funky, plastic-y distortions, Mr. Nouvel loves the distorted images of the bridges that clear glass would not afford. “It is like being outside and not, a fantasy,” he said.
We sidled up to Ms. Walentas, who had been flitting between cameras, microphones and friends all afternoon, a smile on her face. She had donned a yellow, heavy-duty rain jacket, which matched her husband’s, the kind one wears aboard a sailboat—perhaps theirs was moored around the corner—and was just finishing a hot dog. “It’s a wonderful feeling,” is all she would say. “Now I really do have to go be with my friends.” Clouds or no, it was still her day.