The sport of ice skating in Victorian-era New York was so popular that all submissions to the 1857 design competition for Central Park were required to include a winter skating area. As one of the few socially acceptable activities that could be enjoyed in mixed company (along with tennis and bicycling), the Department of Parks’ Board of Commissioners recognized that a public skating rink would be a great source of healthful recreation for city dwellers. Called the Skating Pond on Calvert Vaux and Frederick Law Olmsted’s winning Greensward plan, the Lake was one of the first areas of the park to be open to the public for the 1858-59 skating season, well before construction of many other park areas had started.
In the early days of the park, ice skating on the Lake drew huge crowds—some thirty thousand people daily. Beginning in 1868, a three-story chalet-style “skate tent,” as it was called, was put up and taken down at the south end of the lake during the winter season. The 1870 report of the Board of Commissioners described the tent amenity: on the first floor it had concessions, changing areas, a place to warm up, a refreshment stand, and a cloak room. The second story provided windows for spectators to view the skating while enjoying a beverage, and the third level served as a “ladies look-out exclusively.”
In addition to the main skating area, Vaux and Olmsted also provided a more secluded space reserved for women who preferred to skate away from the mixed-gender, social atmosphere on the Lake. Located on a small inlet just beyond Balcony Bridge, the Ladies Skating Pond provided a “ladies only” option for the more modest skaters of the day. As construction in the park continued, other bodies of water such as the Conservatory Water and the Pond also became popular skating venues.
In an effort to make the man-made Lake safe throughout the year, it was equipped with waste weirs (to lower water levels) and sluice gates (to raise water levels). During summer, sluice gates kept the water level at seven feet deep to accommodate boaters. In winter, the waste weirs lowered the level to just four feet to lessen the possibility of an accidental drowning if a skater fell through too-thin ice and each night, a series of eighteen hydrants, or valves, spread water to create a fresh sheet of ice.
With large crowds arriving daily, Olmsted instituted many park rules for wintertime users of the Lake. He stipulated, for example, that visitors should “not drop any tobacco, segar-stumps, paper, nutshells, or other articles on the ice” and that, “a ball will be hoisted to the top of the pole, near the bell tower whenever the ice is in full condition for skating.” However, Olmsted did relax one rule during the ice-skating season—park closing time—extending it from eight o’clock to midnight. Harper’s Monthy Magazine in 1861 described the nighttime spectacle: “The dramatic aspect of the jubilee [of skating] is greatly increased by the sparkle of the moonbeams and the glare of the Drummond lights, which flood the scene with startling brilliance.”
While the popularity of ice skating waned in the later part of the century, it never completely fell out of fashion and remained a wintertime draw for the park, albeit one contingent on the fickle nature of New York weather. In 1949, philanthropist Kate Wollman donated $600,000 toward construction of a new kind of "artificial rink" to be built in Central Park. The Parks Department publicity materials stated that the rink guaranteed access to safe skating for New Yorkers "who have been deprived of the pleasure of regular, uninterrupted outdoor ice skating throughout the winter half year because of vagaries of our climate." Created as a memorial to her parents and four brothers, Wollman Rink opened at the south end of the park in 1950. More than 300,000 visitors arrived in the first year and by 1953 the rink had welcomed its one millionth skater. Noted for its vast size of approximately 31,000 square feet, the rink required over sixteen miles of 1 ¼ inch wrought-iron pipe for construction.
In addition to Wollman Rink, Central Park is also home to the Lasker Rink and Pool located at the northern end of the park near the Harlem Meer. Named for its major benefactor Loula Davis Lasker, a philanthropist and social worker, who donated $600,000 to help build the rink in 1961, the skating rink opened in 1966 and is converted into a public swimming pool during the summer months.
This blog is adapted from the Municipal Archives’ forthcoming publication, The Central Park, Original Designs for New York’s Greatest Treasure.
The book is now available for pre-order from the publisher, Abrams Books: