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An End of Summer Tribute: Coney Island and the Wonder Wheel

By Nalleli Guillen

Posted on September 18, 2019

Imagine this: It’s a cool summer day and you are the first in line with your friends for the Ferris wheel on Coney Island. The operator opens the gate and you hop on a blue passenger car and sit facing the beach. Your pod slowly rises and starts to shake; the higher and higher you get, the more clearly you can see the boats floating on the horizon, and as you sit behind your friends you see a wonderful view of the Verrazano Bridge, then the pod…drops! The wind blows heavy as you swing in the air. You scream, but also laugh it off because you go on the Ferris wheel every time you’re here but you’re never expecting that drop. Wonder Wheel.

My name is Faith and I am a summer intern at Brooklyn Historical Society. I am originally from Essex County, New Jersey. When I started I knew little about Brooklyn besides what I saw on my commute to work. Joseph Konopka’s painting Wonder Wheel in the BHS collection makes me feel like I am looking at a piece of Brooklyn’s culture, and after seeing it I decided I wanted to learn more about the painting, Coney Island, and this ride.

Joseph Konopka, "Wonder Wheel," 2008; 2009.001.1; Brooklyn Historical Society

The Wonder Wheel is an icon in Brooklyn’s history and Joseph Konopka’s photo-realist painting in the BHS collection captures its beauty and the comfort it brings to the community. According to the artist’s online biography, Konopka first photographs a moment and then creates a detailed painted version of that image. Paying close attention to the details of the wheel and the surrounding playful landscape, Konopka portrays scenes from everyday life and draws out emotional elements in his work.

Coney Island was engineered to be a place of happiness, fun, family, and friends. First popularized in the mid-nineteenth century as a resort for Brooklyn’s elite citizens, Coney Island quickly became a hot spot for family vacations and summer day trips. As new public transit options reached the area and roads were paved, access to Coney Island via trains and cars became more common for Brooklyn’s middle and lower class residents. Coney Island soon became a top notch summer hang out spot in New York City.

In 1895, Sea Lion Park opened at Coney Island as North America’s first enclosed amusement park. It soon became one of the best-known amusement parks in the world. Soon after, Coney Island became home to more popular and loved attractions, including Steeplechase (1897), Luna Park (1903), and Dreamland (1904).

In 1915, Charles Herman invented the most famous attraction at Coney Island –Wonder Wheel. Standing 150 feet tall, Wonder Wheel has 16 swinging cars, and 8 stationary cars with a capacity of 6 people per car, for a total of 144 riders. From the day it was built to today — in almost 100 years of operation — Wonder Wheel has never failed a single safety test. It has been replicated by Disney in California and Dreamland in Japan, which shows its popularity in the United States and other countries and around the world. On June 7, 1983; Denos D. Vourderis bought Wonder Wheel and renamed it “Deno’s Wonder Wheel” and six years later the City Landmark Preservation Commission made it an official New York City landmark.

With the summer coming to a close, this painting makes me want to take one final day trip to Coney Island soon. Maybe it will for you as well. Wonder Wheel!

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