Remembering Jane Walentas, first lady of DUMBO, creator of carousel, jewel between two bridges

July 8, 2020 Elizabeth Kuster
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“Bells should toll for Jane, our first lady of DUMBO.”

With those words, Susan Feldman, founding director of St. Ann’s Warehouse, captures the great sense of loss felt by so many people upon hearing the news that Jane Walentas died Sunday, July 5, in her home, following a recent fight with cancer.

Known in recent years for her restoration of the iconic carousel that breathed new life into the DUMBO waterfront, Jane Walentas had been a partner with her husband David in creating from industrial backwash the legendary and celebrated neighborhood that DUMBO eventually became.

A visionary artist, Jane had a quiet, thoughtful demeanor that belied her practical and persistent dedication for building things that made urban life more interesting, more liveable — and more joyous.

“Jane’s life proves that dedication, love and effort make the world a better place,” her friends Andrew and Carolyn Albstein recently wrote on Legacy.com.

Indeed, Jane’s discovery of a 1922 merry-go-round in Youngstown, Ohio, led to a decades-long journey that ultimately transformed not only the carousel, DUMBO, and the Brooklyn skyline, but New York City itself.

Jane Walentas.

The sheer enormity of the project was indicative of Jane’s gifts and grit. In 1984, she and David bought the machine at auction and moved it to Brooklyn, after which Jane personally — and painstakingly — used an X-ACTO knife to remove layers of old paint from the horses and chariots. “It’s not a labor of love,” she explained to WNYC’s Julie Furnan in 2011. “It’s an obsession.”

In the end, it took Jane 27 years to bring her dream to life. When she began, the site that is now Brooklyn Bridge Park was desolate. “It was rough over here in DUMBO,” she told an interviewer in 2016. “I would come over every day and, all by myself, just scrape the paint … I documented every single thing I found … it was exciting, but it took a long time. And I worked alone, just alone, with one carpenter, for many, many years.”

At first, she said, “everybody thought I was crazy.” In fact, she hadn’t initially planned on restoring the carousel at all. But then she learned that other carousel keepers were “dipping and stripping” their horses with harmful chemicals, and repainting them with automobile paint. “[Their horses] looked terrible,” she said. “They had no soul, no style.” Style and soul — Jane in a nutshell. She had to get involved.

Jane’s restoration ride, like her namesake carousel, went around in circles, ultimately becoming a real-life testament to the vagaries of fate. The carousel carried its first riders in September 2011. One year later, Hurricane Sandy hit the city, and Jane watched in horror as her beloved longtime “obsession” was slowly and gradually engulfed by the fetid waters of the East River. Two weeks later, however, it was all dried out and spinning merrily once again, an inspiring and heartening symbol of New York City’s resiliency.

The carousel’s minimalist square shelter was designed by famed French architect Jean Nouvel, who likens the carousel to a magic lantern — an apt simile, for Jane herself was a genie in more ways than one. To start, she had a genie’s gift for inspiring surprise and delight. She also had a genie’s beneficence, gifting (along with her husband) millions in scholarship funding not just to David’s alma mater, the University of Virginia, but also to her own — the Moore College of Art & Design, where she graduated with a BFA in advertising design in 1966 and created the Visionary Women Scholarship Program in 2005, helping other women pursue careers in art and design.

Jane’s Carousel, located on the Brooklyn waterfront between the Brooklyn and Manhattan bridges. Photo: Mark Lennihan/AP File

Jane’s work as a philanthropist invigorated countless lives, of children and adults, artists and observers, tourists and New Yorkers alike. As executive director of the Sharpe-Walentas Studio Program, she awarded rent-free studio space to dozens of visual artists in DUMBO — an enormous boost for many creative careers. Her Walentas Family Foundation established a program that gifts schools across Brooklyn with funds to expand their programming. Jane’s positive influence on Brooklyn’s youngest generation, therefore, is incalculable.

At night, Jane’s Carousel gleams below the necklace of the Brooklyn Bridge like a golden articulated brooch on the East River’s décolletage. No surprise, really, that its creator was a luminous jewel herself — a priceless treasure whose loss is heartbreaking.

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