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The historic carousel in downtown Hampton has had many lives.

Originally located at Buckroe Beach, it first opened for riders in 1920.

The hand-carved wooden carousel was moved to its current spot across from the Virginia Air & Space Center in 1991, where it operated until closing for repairs last summer — though no repairs have begun.

Hampton officials now want to move it again, to make way for a new riverfront park they hope would revitalize the area.

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Photo by Katherine Hafner 

A sign outside the Hampton carousel as seen Thursday, Feb. 23, 2023.

Molly Ward, assistant director of government and community relations with the Downtown Hampton Development Partnership, told City Council during a work session this week that the group wants the park to be open, environmentally friendly and attract visitors. 

“Over many years, we have all seen a series of consultants, reports and visions presented to the council and Hampton citizens to make downtown Hampton more inviting and attractive,” Ward said. “We are now at a point in our history where we can actually have the chance to show our community what downtown can actually be.”

After holding public hearings on the matter, council members will have to decide what to do with the carousel one way or another. The current structure is vulnerable to rising sea levels in the decades to come.

They have four options: keep it where it is with no changes, replace the existing building, move it to nearby Mill Point Park or bring it back to Buckroe Beach. All options except leaving the carousel cost at least $2.5 million.

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Screenshot of presentation to Hampton City Council 

A rendering of what a new riverfront park could look like in downtown Hampton, with the historic carousel removed.

More than 800 people have signed an online petition opposing a move.

Longtime resident Brenda Marks launched the petition after seeing a video from the Hampton development partnership envisioning a future park. She noticed the carousel wasn’t shown.

She said she worries the fragile structure could be damaged in the process of moving it.

Made by the Philadelphia Toboggan Company, it’s one of about 170 antique carousels remaining in the country. It is now operated by the Hampton History Museum.

The structure’s decorated with 18 beveled mirrors, 38 oil paintings, 48 hand-carved horses, two upholstered wood chariots and a Bruder band organ, according to the Virginia Department of Historic Resources.

“The Hampton Carousel is a rare and beautiful example of American folk art,” Hampton tourism officials write. “Its prancing steeds and stately chariots were painstakingly carved from fine-grained hardwood and painted by German, Italian and Russian immigrant artisans.”

A potential move has also upset residents whose donations allowed it to come downtown in the first place. 

When the Buckroe Beach Amusement Park closed in 1985 — after 90 years in business — officials stepped in to save the carousel. They needed about $750,000.

The city agreed to put up $150,000, but the rest was raised through private contributions, according to newspaper reports at the time.

A few dozen donors paid to adopt and pay for individual horses on the carousel. Others contributed by purchasing brick pavers that cover the square surrounding the carousel building, Marks said. That included her in-laws.

“My position is that because people contributed to build this building and restore this carousel, this City Council has a moral obligation to honor the commitment that they made,” Marks said.

Other petition signers expressed the same.

“We supported the restoration of the Hampton Carousel because we understood the city maintain it as a waterfront attraction next to the Air and Space Center,” wrote Cheryl Lockwood. “There is no reason to compromise the integrity of the construction or spend taxpayer dollars to build a new structure and move it.”

At this week’s work session, City Manager Mary Bunting told council members they should make a decision soon so that officials can use American Rescue Plan funding for a move.

Mayor Donnie Tuck said he supports the development partnership’s vision for revamping the waterfront space.

“Norfolk has its Town Point Park. Portsmouth and Virginia Beach have amphitheaters. We don't really have that in Hampton,” he said. “And I think what's being proposed here is transformative.”

Marks worries that if moved to Buckroe, the carousel would be closed outside of beach season, and if at Mill Point Park, it won’t attract the hordes of children who visit the Air and Space Center on field trips and weekends.

The carousel holds a special place in her heart. Her 14-year-old daughter would say goodbye to each horse after riding over the years.

“We have been religious participants in riding the carousel on a regular basis,” Marks said. “These are her ponies. … I think it’ll be a sad day for Hampton if they move it.”