For Michael Sullivan, the early 1990s in Tacoma were filled with one grand possibility after another, and one of them was the International Museum of Carousel Art.
“That was a time when there were so many ideas, so much energy in the city,” said Sullivan, who was Tacoma’s cultural resources director. “That museum elevated our ideas of what we could do along the waterfront.
“It was a huge, valuable collection of carousels and carved animals — it filled buildings in Portland. We had funders interested, from Weyerhaeuser to grant money.”
Karen Vialle was Tacoma’s mayor 25 years ago when a group of city leaders and representatives visited the carousel museum in Portland, where Duane and Carol Perron were displaying part of their collection.
“Our theory on economic development was we wanted to be the city of museums,” Vialle said. “We had the Children’s Museum, and thought the carousel museum would enhance that.”
These were the days before Museum Row began to take shape downtown — before the Washington State History Museum, Museum of Glass and the Tacoma Art Museum anchored Pacific Avenue, long before the LeMay car museum opened near the Tacoma Dome.
The Perron family came to Tacoma to look over the Foss Waterway area. What they saw sold them on Tacoma.
“We found this old building, the Municipal Dock building, that was fabulous,” Duane Perron said. “My son Brad made a model to show what that building would look like if it was renovated and made into a museum.
“The city was talking to Dale Chihuly about a museum. They were looking at us. I thought it was going to be perfect.”
But the the deal fell apart. Why?
“Saving the Municipal Dock building turned out to be just too expensive,” Vialle said. “The will was there to make it happen, but was it feasible? At the time, I don’t think so.
“Portland offered them more money, and the family stayed in Portland.”
Sullivan believed the museum was not only within reach, but was a lock.
“I thought there was an agreement in place for the Municipal Dock building,” Sullivan said. “In the end, the Municipal Dock building was demolished.”
From his Hood River, Oregon, home, Duane Perron remembered it differently. It never came down to the best offer, he said.
“What it came down to was Tacoma wanted total control of the collection,” Perron said. “I can’t blame them — why do all that work, put in the money, and have someone else control the collection?
“Back then, we weren’t ready to do that. I wasn’t ready.”
Today, the Perron collection takes up two large buildings.
“We have about 1,100 carved carousel horses and 21 working carousel mechanisms, seven now in complete, pristine condition,” he said. “We have 12 horses in the house, including my wife’s favorite, ‘My Guye.’
“The grandkids have climbed all over them, but they’ve grown up with them, so they’d rather play video games.”
After Tacoma’s window of opportunity closed, the museum remained in Portland until 1999.
Then it moved up the Columbia Gorge to Hood River.
“We bought a bank (building), put it there, and became almost too successful,” Perron said. “We were part of the Gray Line tour, but we were located in the middle of downtown. If you had three or four buses trying to drop off passengers, you jammed up the whole town.”
The city, he said, banned buses from parking downtown. Gray Line dropped the museum from its tour.
Five years ago, the International Museum of Carousel Art closed. The collection went back into storage. But the dreams haven’t died.
“We’re going to make the little town of Dee, Oregon, the carousel capital of the world,” Perron said. “It’s an old mill town, destroyed many years ago. Only one building survived, a huge, gorgeous wooden building 350 feet long.
“There’s room to operate six carousels there, and display the collection.”
The family is using private funds to renovate. Perron, now 80, isn’t sure he’ll live to see the museum open.
“Carol and I got into this when people began breaking up carousels to buy or sell individual animals,” he said. “We’d buy the mechanisms, all the animals we could, so they could be refit to carousels.”
Bette Largent runs the carousel in Spokane, and she’s an artist who has worked on carousel animals for more than 25 years. She has seen the Perron collection, both in the museum and in storage.
“It’s a travesty that Oregon hasn’t stepped in and created something for this collection,” Largent said. “It’s Smithsonian-worthy. It represents the history of the country.
“A fire could wipe it out tomorrow — and everything in that collection is irreplaceable.”
And it all could have been in Tacoma.
“We threw everything we had at Tacoma. We had big dreams there,” Brad Perron said. “It just didn’t get done.”