Where Winter’s Silver Skates Warmed the Soul

Empire City Skating Rink, circa 1868, in the East 60s, was roughly the length of a football field and among the city’s first indoor skating palaces.

The surprising thing about Frances A. Rosenfeld’s extremely tall map of New York City is that the lake in Central Park is not first or second or even third. It is merely No. 4.

Dr. Rosenfeld’s white-on-light-chocolate map shows the chronology of ice skating in the city by location. It turns out that the lake in Central Park came late to a craze that had captivated early Dutch and English settlers, and so No. 1 on Dr. Rosenfeld’s map is the colonial-era canal that was covered over for what New Yorkers now call Broad Street. No. 2 was a pond in Lower Manhattan, and No. 3 was another pond, on what later became fashionable Fifth Avenue.

But — oh! — No. 4, the see-and-be-seen magnet that fixed skating in the city’s consciousness. Dr. Rosenfeld, who has documented the pastime for a new exhibition at the Museum of the City of New York, says that the Central Park lake pulled in the crowds when the still-unfinished park opened in December 1858, wintry temperatures having done what wintry temperatures will do to 18 acres of water.

“It was a flash mob kind of thing for its day,” she said. “All of a sudden, there was this new, artificial landscape that people heard about — Central Park — and they went there to go skating, and more people heard about it and went there to go skating, and more. It was wildly popular, way more than boating in the summer.”

And that was that — the real beginning of skating in New York City, according to “New York on Ice: Skating in the City,” the exhibition that will continue through April 15, a full two weeks after the Wollman Rink in Central Park is to close for the season. (From Tuesday through Dec. 31, the first 100 visitors each day can have free hot chocolate at Chalsty’s Cafe, run by Amy’s Bread on the second floor of the museum.)

Dr. Rosenfeld, who learned to skate as a child growing up on the Upper West Side and says she still skates confidently — “It’s not like I’m doing axels” — calls the exhibition “my passion project.”

It is an homage to what she describes as “a seemingly innocuous topic that turns out to have great depth.” Skating figured in the culture and night life of the city, and even in the ascension of Midtown Manhattan as an entertainment district before World War I. Skating was once so popular that there were rinks on the roofs of hotels and rinks in the shadows of Gilded Age mansions — the Rockefellers skated on their own very private ice, next to their mansion on West 54th Street, long before they turned a sunken plaza in Rockefeller Center into a very public rink.

Strolling through the exhibit, you almost expect to hear “Les Patineurs,” the timeworn “Skaters’ Waltz” — composed in the 1880s by Émile Waldteufel — even though it was inspired by the frozen Seine and a rink in the Bois de Boulogne in Paris. Dr. Rosenfeld is fond of a closer-to-home waltz, “Skating in Central Park,” which the Modern Jazz Quartet performed at the Wollman Rink in 1973.

She created her map from a spreadsheet on which she recorded any reference to a skating rink or pond or “skating site” that she came across in a year of research and preparation for the exhibit. “I found references to 116 rinks,” she said. “But ‘rinks’ is a loose term. It doesn’t mean indoors, it means a site for skating.” Eighteen of the entries have opened since 2004.

Every curator makes choices about what to show in an exhibition. Dr. Rosenfeld considered giving pride of place to a famous photograph of skaters on the lake with the Dakota apartment house in the background, still so new it was the only building that far uptown. But she decided on something else.

“I thought people who know about New York would know about that photo,” she said, explaining why she enlarged a lithograph of the Empire City Rink, which opened in the 1860s in the East 60s. It was roughly the

size of a modern professional football field — and it was among the first indoor skating palaces.

With refrigeration came more such places — there were three “Icelands” in Midtown Manhattan alone — and more ice that had to be cleaned. The first Zamboni-like cleaner was “one horse and a guy,” Dr. Rosenfeld said. “I’m not sure what they called the tool, but it planed the ice.”

The contraption did its work at No. 36 on Dr. Rosenfeld’s map, the St. Nicholas Arena, on West 66th Street at Columbus Avenue.

It had famous backers, including John Jacob Astor and Cornelius Vanderbilt, both amateur hockey players who wanted to face off indoors. But it is more notable as one of the first rinks in the city to make its own ice. That was something that had been tried in London at least as far back as the 1840s, when an inventor mixed salts, sulfate of copper and “hog’s lard, to render it more slippery” and patented a “substitute for ice for skating and sliding purposes.” For financial purposes, the rink that used it, the Glaciarium and Frozen Lake, was a flop.

Another London rink, also called the Glaciarium, tried again in the 1870s, using pipes filled with coolant to chill the skating surface. The St. Nicholas rink depended on a similar system, tubes gurgling with coolant that lay on a concrete bed.

Skating in the city surged and waned in distinct waves over the decades. The St. Nicholas rink’s heyday was from the mid-1890s to the mid-1920s, when it became a boxing arena. Later on, Floyd Patterson made his professional debut there and Muhammad Ali (then Cassius Clay) fought there.

It also earned a footnote in rock ’n’ roll history: In the mid-1950s, the disc jockey Alan Freed presided over the first “Rock ’n’ Roll Ball” in New York there. The ABC television network bought the arena in the 1960s and used it as a studio for 20 years before demolishing it to make way for offices and newer studios.

Dr. Rosenfeld chronicled “the first Sonja Henie,” a skater named Charlotte Oelschlägel, who appeared at the New York Hippodrome — on Sixth Avenue between 43rd and 44th Streets — in a revue called “Hip-Hip-Hooray!” in 1915. “Five thousand seats, sold out every night,” Dr. Rosenfeld said. And she has an unexpected nickname for Robert Moses, who ravaged neighborhoods as the “master builder,” or master “Power Broker,” in the words of Robert A. Caro, his biographer. She called Moses “the secret Santa” of skating rinks, because as parks commissioner, he built several, including the Wollman Rink in 1949 and the Kate Wollman Memorial Rink, in Prospect Park in Brooklyn, in 1961. She said that he was also involved in planning the Lasker Rink, which opened in 1966.

Also in the exhibit is a photograph from 1986, of a real-estate developer who had recently turned 40 cutting the ribbon at the refurbished Wollman Rink. It was Donald J. Trump, who tackled the project after the city had spent six years and $12 million without getting the job done. As he declared at the time, in news conference after news conference, he spent $3 million and finished more than two months ahead of schedule.

Inevitably, though — given her emphasis on the lake in Central Park — a conversation with Dr. Rosenfeld circles back to No. 4 on her map, the site where skating in its earliest days amounted to “civic dancing.” (Skating was banned there in the 1950s.)

“A rink is like a big dance floor,” she said, “but you didn’t have to be paired with anyone and you didn’t have to touch anyone. You could show off in the middle, so it was a communal activity, but you could do your own thing. It seems really New York, even then.”

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