Charles I. D. Looff

Inducted: 2005
Born: 1852
Died: 1918

Charles I.D. Looff was an American master carver and builder of hand-carved carousels and amusement rides. During his lifetime, he built over 40 carousels, amusement parks, roller coasters, and Ferris wheels. He built the first carousel at Coney Island in 1876. One of his carousels inspired Walt Disney to build Disneyland and Disneyworld. Disneyland has on display the actual park bench Disney sat on as he watched his daughters ride on the merry-go-round created by Looff. Rhode Island is fortunate to be home to two of those carousels, one at Slater Park in Pawtucket and the other in East Providence. During his Rhode Island sojourn (1895-1910), Looff also built a carousel for Roger Williams Park in Providence.

In 1886, Colonel George Boyden established an amusement park named Crescent Park in Riverside, Rhode Island. He commissioned Looff to build a large carousel at the head of a 400-foot pier that received crowds of people from the steamboats that cruised up and down Narragansett Bay. Crescent Park became known as the “Coney Island of the East.” It had a dance hall, a gigantic midway, and bathing and shore dinner facilities. Looff built a larger, more elaborate carousel in 1895, overlooking the midway at Crescent Park. This ride contained 61 horses, one camel, two single and two double chariots. He used this ride as a showplace for prospective buyers to choose the types of carved animals for their carousels.

Looff was born as Carl Jurgen Detlev Looff on May 24, 1852, in Bad Bramstedt, Denmark. His father, Jurgen Looff, was a blacksmith and wagon builder. Watching his father, Carl learned how to work with metal and wood. The I.D. in his name came to him when he emigrated to the United States on Aug. 14, 1870. He was told he had to create a middle name for his official identification, so he said, “I.D.” He found work as a carver at a furniture factory in Greenpoint, Brooklyn. He married Anna Dolle, a German national, in 1874. The couple had five children, four of whom later became involved in the family business.

After working in the furniture factory all day, he took scraps of wood home and began carving them into carousel animals. He assembled his wooden horses and animals onto a circular platform and created his first merry-go-round in 1876. Looff installed his ride at Vanderveer’s Bathing Pavilion at West Sixth Street and Surf Avenue, Coney Island’s first carousel and amusement ride. The machine carried 27 figures and was powered by a horse, then turned by hand, and finally by steam. His first carousel was an instant success.

He opened a factory at 30 Bedford Avenue in Brooklyn and continued building more carousels. He installed a merry-go-round at a restaurant on Surf Avenue owned by Charles Feltman, the inventor of the American hot dog. Looff installed another carousel at Coney Island and created a large ride for Asbury Park in New Jersey. He hired expert carvers such as John Zalar, Marcus Illions, John Mueller, and Charlie Carmel to help expand his business. In 1905, the city of New York condemned his factory to make room for a park, so he moved his operation to Riverside, Rhode Island. From there, Looff produced merry-go-rounds for amusement parks across the United States.

Looff became interested in the possibilities for amusement parks on the West Coast and moved to California in 1910. His daughter Helen, wife Emma, and son Charles were left to manage his properties at Crescent Park. He built a magnificent merry-go-round at Long Beach in 1916 and constructed a large Byzantine-style “Hippodrome” building to house it. He also erected the Blue Streak roller coaster, The Whip, and the Aeroscope thrill ride. Looff built and operated amusement parks at Ocean Park, Redondo Beach, Venice Beach, and Santa Cruz. In 1910, he made a carousel with 54 horses and gave it to his daughter as a wedding gift. It has been restored and operates today at Riverfront Park in Spokane, Washington.

Charles Looff died on July 1, 1918, in Long Beach, California, at the age of 66. His son Arthur continued to manage the family’s West Coast operation, including building the Giant Dipper roller coaster at the Santa Beach Boardwalk. The Santa Monica Looff Hippodrome and the Santa Cruz Looff Carousel and Roller Coaster were designated National Historic Landmarks in 1987.

In 1920, Charles Looff Jr. purchased Crescent Park and built an excursion boat that cruised Narragansett Bay waters, bringing customers from Providence, Cranston, and Newport to Crescent Park. He operated Crescent Park until he died in 1925. His family continued operating Crescent Park until it was closed and sold to developers in 1966. A strong community effort, spearheaded by the East Providence Carousel Commission, saved and restored its sixty-six-figure carousel, regarded as the finest surviving example of its type in America. It was placed on the National Register of Historic Places and is now the centerpiece of Carousel Park, a small public area set aside to preserve and display this famous ride. Today, Looff’s horses fetch up to $50,000 each and are considered valuable folk-art pieces.

For additional reading:

  • Art of the Carousel by Charlotte Dinger, Merry-Go-Round Museum, Sandusky, Ohio, 1984.
  • Rhode Island Amusement Parks, by Rob Lewis and Ryan Young, Arcadia Books, 1998.
  • Coney Island: The People’s Playground, by Michael Immerso, Rutgers University Press, 2002.
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