Revealing True Colors: A Conversation With Historic Carousel Restorer Rosa Patton
For the past 40 years, Rosa Patton has dedicated her professional career to the restoration of historic carousels. Armed with a passion for both paint and wood, Patton has traveled around the country reviving these spinning treasures and offering consultations, building a resume that includes around 12 restored carousels and countless individual pieces in private collections.
One of those carousels was the Dentzel Carousel at Glen Echo Park in Maryland, which the community rallied to save in 1970 after a private collector threatened to whisk it away. Patton began work in 1983, not knowing that the project would take another 20 years to complete. It appeared in the most recent issue of Preservation magazine. We spoke with Patton to learn more about her beginnings in the field, the unique (and sometimes dangerous) challenges of carousel restoration, and much more.(This interview has been edited for length and clarity.)
How did you get into carousel restoration?
I had been teaching art in public schools for about six years, but the school system I was in went from five art teachers to three, and I did not have the seniority to stay. So I was cast out on my own to find something else new to do. I thought about it long and hard, and I thought, if I was starting over, what I’d really like to do is some sort of conservation or restoration work. As fate would have it, two weeks later someone called me and asked if I wanted to volunteer to work on a carousel [in Raleigh, North Carolina]. It grew into a job, and when that carousel was finished I just kept doing it.If someone had told me that I was going to restore carousels for 40 years—and I’m still working at 71—I would tell them they were crazy. But I’ve managed to do that, and I’m still busy.
Tell me about your experience restoring that first carousel.
My first job was to find original paint on the animals on the carousel by scraping and painting and cleaning, any way I could get to it. Those animals had something like 10 layers of paint on them. So it was a matter of figuring out how to clean down through all those layers and find the original paint and design.
I was the only person working on them for about a year. Then the restoration project got bigger, so I hired people to help me. One person that we hired was a professional conservator who at the time worked at the North Carolina Museum of Art, and she came up with a coating sequence to [replicate] the original paint underneath a recoating, because the original paint would never hold up. This carousel gets around 120,000 riders a year, or at least it did then. It had to have five or six coats before you got to the original.
Once we found the original paint, we matched the colors to the Munsell system of color. We also found this amazing pin-striping design. So we did tracings of those, and we just had this packet of information by the time we were finished which, after we put all the coatings on, we could refer back to for repainting the animals, and hopefully make them look like they did when they came out of the factory.
What has been the most rewarding part of working with carousels?
At this point in my life, just to look back at all of the things I’ve worked on is very rewarding. And I think I’m the kind of person that needs to have something in front of her after she’s done a lot of work. I would not be good at paperwork. I want something sitting in front of me that I can look at and say, “I did that.” And I’m not always 100 percent happy. I think if I was completely happy with everything I did, I would never learn anything. So I’m very critical; I’m probably my worst critic. But I like having a concrete object in front of me that I can say I painted, or fixed its leg, or carved that ear. That’s the most rewarding thing to me.
When it comes to the carousel at Glen Echo Park (pictured at top), what were your first impressions of the project? What was the process like? Anything unusual that stood out?
I worked on the Glen Echo project for a total of 25 years. I still visit it every other year [for maintenance work]. It was the first project that I worked on after I finished my initial project in Raleigh. The curator of the park and I saw eye to eye on how [the restoration] should be done. It meant finding the original paint but not cleaning the whole animal—just going down and cleaning small windows to the original layer that would be an inch by two inches. Some of them would be bigger, some would be smaller. And to look in areas that you would expect to find color blending, and areas that you might find these amazing designs like saddles and saddle blankets. That worked really well.
All the animals with the exception of one have been done that way, along with the chariots. The first animal I did was cleaned all the way to the original paint, but no one is allowed to ride it. It was the same thing I did at Pullen Park, and had the same goal: use the original colors and design to paint the animals and carousel so it looked as it did when it came out of the factory.
Every surface that was not floor I pretty much had something to do with. The carousels have these vaulted ceiling panels that were covered with roses and flowers originally. I brought them to my studio, stripped them down to their original paint, and touched them up. Each part was done in a slightly different way, I guess.
The original designs and color blending on the bodies of the animals were very sophisticated. You could tell there was probably one person who did all the pinstriping, and it was perfect. The National Park Service had me clean a window to every layer of paint on the first animals and document it. You could see that the first layer was beautiful, the next was okay with a little pinstriping. And then it got simpler and cruder. At the end, it looked like they’d just slapped paint on it. After being painted 10 times there was nothing of the original detail and colors left.Although all that painting and varnishing they did over the years probably protected not only the original paint, but also the wood too. So I guess we can thank them for that; they put paint on it, they just didn’t do a very professional job.
You mention that you still travel to Glen Echo every two years to maintain the carousel. Why is it important that you make these trips, and what work usually needs to be done?
Carousel paint gets worn, there’s no way around it. You have to maintain it as if you would maintain a car or a house. It gets chipped, and people kick and bump it. So the paint does need maintenance, and sometimes things get broken or a joint comes loose. With a wooden object that people are riding, stuff’s going to happen.
I travel with my husband, who’s also an artist. We have two volunteers there that worked with us on the plaster rounding boards and parts that were too big and heavy to take down and bring to my studio. We spent probably two years in the winter working on those rounding boards, and the same two women help us do the touch-up when we go back.
Were there any issues you ran into over the course of the project?
One problem we ran into working on-site was the lead paint. The state of Maryland has especially tough rules about working in a public place with lead paint. So I went to “lead school” in Maryland and learned everything I could, learned how to contain it. They test [the site for lead] before and after you do the work, and Glen Echo was actually cleaner after because we used all the protective gear, and we had containment with plastic hanging down around the scaffolding. It was not pleasant work on those rounding boards for sure, but it was necessary. We did everything we needed to do to protect ourselves. I’ve done that throughout my career, and I’m not crazy yet, so I guess it worked!
“ I’m not always 100 percent happy. I think if I was completely happy with everything I did, I would never learn anything. So I’m very critical; I’m probably my worst critic. But I like having a concrete object in front of me that I can say I painted, or fixed its leg, or carved that ear.”Rosa Patton
Why do you use lead paint since it’s so dangerous? Does it give you a quality that you can’t replicate with other kinds of paint?
I don’t use lead paint, but the original paint of the carousel at Pullen Park was analyzed, and it has had mercury, arsenic, and lead in it. I don’t use lead paint, and never have.
I learned that they started taking lead out of commercial paints in 1978. The lead lobby was really effective, and the only reason they took it out in this country was because the manufacturers just agreed to take it out. Lead was recognized as a problem and taken out of paint in Europe in the early 1900s. Everyone knew. It’s just one of those things—people’s jobs depended on lead, and they didn’t want to take it out.
The effect of lead paint is, when you get to the original paint, it’s like a rock. It’s a whole different medium than what we have today. It is tough. I’m always amazed at how thin it is, but it retains its color, and it’s very opaque so it didn’t take a lot of it to cover. It was good stuff, but it had lead in it.
Do you restore other things that are unrelated to carousels?