Jane Walentas, who planted a carousel in Dumbo, dies at 76

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Jane Walentas, who planted a carousel in Dumbo, dies at 76
Jane and David Walentas.

NEW YORK (NYT NEWS SERVICE).- Jane Walentas, an artist who spent more than 20 years restoring a century-old carousel as a gift to the Brooklyn waterfront neighborhood that she helped her husband, David Walentas, develop, died July 5 at her home in Southampton, New York. She was 76.

The cause was lung cancer, her son, Jed Walentas, said.

In the late 1970s, David Walentas bought 2 million square feet for $12 million in what used to be Fulton’s Landing, a rough industrial wasteland between the Brooklyn and Manhattan bridges that had been colonized by homesteading artists. It took decades to transform the area into the now-prosperous neighborhood of Dumbo, as Walentas battled the city, which had stalled on rezoning it, and community groups, which were concerned about gentrification.

(Local lore has it that the name Dumbo, for Down Under the Manhattan Bridge Overpass, was conceived in the late ’70s by artists who had hoped a dopey name would keep developers away.)

David Walentas got all the ink, good and bad. But Jane, a printmaker and former art director at Clinique, was by all accounts his full partner in the endeavor.

“There would be no Dumbo without Jane,” David Walentas said. “She was my partner in the whole thing. We never quit. Everybody quit. Banks quit. She was my foxhole buddy — everybody was shooting at us, but we got through the war together.”

Jane Walentas focused on the aesthetics of the architectural conversions through Two Trees Management, the family company that her son now runs, which turned neglected buildings like the Clock Tower, once the headquarters of a cardboard box factory, into pricey condos. She focused on the programming of the neighborhood as well — not just retail and parkland but also sizable subsidies for the arts.

“It was Jane who really understood the block-by-block experience,” said Regina Myer, president of the Downtown Brooklyn Partnership and former president of the Brooklyn Bridge Park. “She understood, too, how much change was happening and knew that the arts had to be supported — not arts in the abstract, but individual artists and art making.”

In 2008, Walentas worked with artist Chuck Close to bring to Dumbo the Marie Walsh Sharpe Art Foundation Space Program, of which Close was a founding member. The organization, originally based in Tribeca in Manhattan, grants free studio space to 17 artists each year. In 2014, Walentas renamed the program the Sharpe-Walentas Studio Program and became its executive director.

“They were enlightened developers,” said Susan Feldman, the longtime artistic director of St. Ann’s Warehouse, the performance space that since 2015 has occupied a restored tobacco warehouse on Water Street, after having spent 12 years, rent free, in a Walentas building down the block. “They were very careful about who they brought in. You had to give back.”

Feldman credited Walentas with nurturing St. Ann’s. “We felt like we were building a neighborhood together,” she said. “Culture was going to be a big part of it. I see Jane everywhere in Dumbo.”

An early master plan for the waterfront featured a marina and more shopping, which did not thrill neighborhood groups. It also featured a carousel.

In 1984, Walentas set herself the task of locating an antique one. In Youngstown, Ohio, she found a three-row carousel, built in 1922, that was still operating and was being sold at auction, horse by horse. She and her husband bought the whole thing for $385,000. There were no other bidders.

The horses had seen better days. They were encrusted with decades of paint that would take Walentas decades to scrape it off — by hand, using an X-Acto knife, often working by herself — as she restored each one.

And over those decades, plans for Dumbo waxed and waned. There were pitched battles with neighborhood groups, who lobbied successfully for the waterfront to be parkland. The city and the state tussled over ownership. Finally, in 2011, Jane’s Carousel was planted on a knob of waterfront between the two bridges, each horse gleaming with gold leaf, delicate pinstriping and tiny beveled mirrors on the bridles. The carousel was sheathed in a shimmery acrylic pavilion designed by Pritzker Prize-winning architect Jean Nouvel.

“It embodied Jane’s vision to bring great design to everything she did,” Myer, of the Downtown Brooklyn Partnership, said. “It was an incredible moment when it opened. It was so joyful.”

Jane Leslie Zimmerman was born May 6, 1944, in Teaneck, New Jersey. Her father, Sam, was a dentist; her mother, Shirley (Bloom) Zimmerman, was a homemaker.

She graduated from Moore College of Art & Design in Philadelphia in 1966. In 1984, she earned a master’s in printmaking from New York University.

Her husband and her son are her only immediate survivors. A brother, Richard, died in 1998.

In 1968, Jane Walentas was a 24-year-old freelance art director looking for an apartment. David Walentas was a 30-year-old fledgling landlord with a couple of buildings, working hard and lonely.

Jane Walentas came to see an $80-a-month studio in his building on West 57th Street in Manhattan. “Is your father home?” she asked him, not quite believing that the scruffy-haired guy with bare feet and Bermuda shorts would be her landlord.

They had dinner that evening, and she knew right away that she would marry him, she once told a reporter, even though he had been wounded by a brief early marriage and had said he would never marry again.

Still, he had to make all sorts of grand gestures to keep her, like painting her name on the side of his building in enormous cubist letters, 50 feet high, from a design by his friend Lowell Nesbitt. “I even bought her a refrigerator,” he said.

He finally relented, and they married in 1973.

“Best deal I ever made,” he said.

© 2020 The New York Times Company

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