The Paintbrush Behind Congress Hall's Winter Wonderland Carousel

Animals feature prominently in the work of artist Penny Beck. She’s made her name via a collection of quirky portraits featuring a kaleidoscopic range of creatures, from pigeons and foxes to zebras and dragons. But during a career spanning five decades, Beck had never received a request like the one she got from Congress Hall last October. “I will probably never get an opportunity like that again,” said the Cape May-based artist.
That opportunity was to apply her brush skills to a herd of horses. More specifically, the herd of horses that comprise the quaint carousel that occupies a spot on Congress Hall’s Grand Lawn during the Winter Wonderland and Easter celebrations. “It was a challenge,” said Beck. Especially when the task entailed painting THIRTY of the creatures.
“I was approached by Congress Hall at the end of October,” said Beck. “That gave me a month to paint 30 horses because the carousel was being totally revamped in time for the annual Winter Wonderland festival.” So how did her deadline go? “It took me 194 hours over the course of four weeks, and I finished three days ahead of schedule!” said Beck, who admitted to a little equine fatigue right at the end. “When I got to the 30th horse, I just thought to myself, ‘I’m really glad it’s not 31.’ It was a LOT of work.”

A man watches as a woman paints one of many carousel horses.

Curtis Bashaw pays a visit to artist Penny Beck as she completes her project, October 2022

Congress Hall had rented the 50-year-old carousel from its owner for years before purchasing it in 2022. “It needed a lot of love,” said Curtis Bashaw, managing partner of Cape Resorts, who first hatched the idea of the Winter Wonderland festival back in 2011. “When it arrived, we found that during COVID, the owner had painted the horses on the vintage carousel in garish, fluorescent colors—not ‘on brand’ for Congress Hall. We almost paused on the purchase as a result. And then the team thought of Penny. So while our maintenance staff were busy replacing rotting panels and upgrading the lighting, Penny rose to the challenge of repainting the 30 steeds.”
Beck got to work in a warehouse on Stevens Street in West Cape May, adjacent to the company’s Beach Plum Farm. She worked on six horses at a time, using water-based alkyd paints from Benjamin Moore. When it came to picking specific colors, she was inspired by the buildings that are owned by Cape Resorts – everything from the purple hue of the beach plum fruit that’s featured on the Farm logo to the pale yellow of Congress Hall and the soft red of the Virginia Hotel.

Painted carousel horses of brown and black

It was a lot of work, but also a very welcome and exciting change of pace for Beck, who spends most of her time painting residential murals for customers up and down the East Coast—“typically, it’s Coastal Living-inspired images for bathrooms and hallways.”
Has she taken a ride on the Congress Hall carousel? “I did! It’s been a while since I was on one. Growing up in the Finger Lakes area of New York, I would ride the carousel at Roseland Park.”
So, what is it about carousels that still capture the imagination of kids in an iPad world? “If you think about all the artistic things that man has made, this must be one of the most special. A carousel just evokes a very nostalgic feel. It’s an antique, and there’s something magical about the whole experience. When I was young, I would stand by the carousel at Roseland and pick out the horse I really wanted to ride. You’d speak to the boys and they always just wanted to ride the biggest one!”
For her next project, Beck is sticking with Congress Hall—in time for the Fourth of July, she’s repainting four larger-than-life panels featuring the four presidents who famously stayed at the grand old hotel—Franklin Pierce, James Buchanan, Ulysses Grant and Benjamin Harrison. “I moved to Cape May from Reading, Pennsylvania in the 80s, and one of the things that I love about this town is the historic buildings, especially the Cape Resorts properties. Congress Hall was a boarding house when I worked as a waitress during the summer at the Virginia Hotel, and now it’s just so majestic. Getting to do my work there right now—yes, that’s pretty special.”

A lit up carousel against the night sky