Central Park welcomed one of its top attractions years before the park was officially completed in the 1870s. The first dedicated ice-skating rink in New York City opened in the winter of 1858, drawing hundreds of thousands of city dwellers who wobbled and glided on the frozen lake near 72nd street. New Yorkers, en masse, were immediately transfixed by the activity, which was transformed from commonplace pasttime to thrilling recreation.
“Ice-skating became this unbelievable social, cultural phenomenon,” Frances Rosenfeld, a curator at the Museum of the City of New York told Hyperallergic. “Now in this new incarnation in Central Park, skating was modern, urban, exciting, and novel.”
Rosenfeld organized the museum’s ongoing exhibition, New York on Ice: Skating in the City, which examines how ice skating developed in the city over the past 160 years, through paintings, prints, vintage photographs, costumes, and more. Together, the objects illustrate how ice skating manifested as commercialized leisure, as fashionable performance, and as a competitive sport.
Frederick Olmsted and Calvert Vaux’s lake was the first to attract crowds of journalists, artists, and cartoonists to record the ice skating scene, but it was not the first rink in New York City. The activity likely first came to the area with early Dutch and English settlers, Rosenfeld said, and the first skating sites were frozen ponds in lower Manhattan, including one where the courts stand today. Early skaters also flocked to the canal that was later replaced by what we now know as Broad Street. On display in the exhibition is a map Rosenfeld created that documents all the rinks she came across in her research, from naturally occurring ponds to rooftop rinks in Midtown to the world-famous rink at Rockefeller Center. It records 116 sites, although visitors to the exhibition have since alerted Rosenfeld to a handful more.
The 1860s witnessed a public craze for ice skating, but Rosenfeld was surprised to find that the city was actually hit by “waves of skating mania” over the last 160 years. Central Park’s frozen lake didn’t just start a fad; it planted the roots of what is now considered a beloved city tradition that all able-bodied individuals can enjoy.
“What was interesting about this craze is it was seen as a very democratic form of leisure and recreation,” Rosenfeld said. “It was not only the fashionable, wealthy, upper class people — although it easier for them — but it really was a more democratic pastime than anyone had seen before.” Ice skating, she emphasized, was all-inclusive to female skaters from its start.
However, the recreation was likely “segregated and de facto ‘for whites only’ in the pre-Civil Rights era,” Rosefeld added. “Before the late 1960s, it is rare to see any representation of skaters of color in depictions of New Yorkers ice skating.” The exhibition does include a digital image of Mabel Fairbanks, who skated professionally in ice shows in the 1940s; it also features a painting by African-American artist Joseph Delaney that features a more diverse group of skaters on Wollman Rink in 1968.
The Central Park rink quickly inspired the construction of similar rinks, from Union Pond — the first skating rink in Williamsburg — to Empire City Skating Rink on the Upper East Side. Then came a boom in the 1890s as skating became commercialized, and technological advances allowed for rinks to be built indoors. Ice hockey, especially popular among upperclassmen who attended northeastern boarding schools, became very fashionable. Around the same time, business owners began introducing rinks on rooftops, theaters, nightclubs, and restaurants.
More and more venues hosted ice shows, where people paid to watch dancers in elaborate costume perform. But it was the arrival of Charlotte OelSchlägel to the stage of the Hippodrome theater in 1915 that made ice skating truly fashionable again. The young German skater, scouted by a New York producer in Berlin, performed in elaborate ice ballets at the massive theater, which sold out every night. OelSchlägel’s performances were glamorous and elegant, combining music, visual splendor, and sport.
New York on Ice: Skating in the City illustrates the evolution of a colonial-era activity into a jazzy, commercialized one, but it also offers a lens into the development of the city’s built landscape from an unusual perspective. Although rink designs were informed and curbed by the urban environment, ice skating transformed the city’s architecture. Between 1896 and 1949, Rosenfeld found that over 15 rinks were built within a 20-block radius in Midtown alone. Some have since closed, but New York has been shaped by other rinks that have had the means to endure, from Rockefeller’s rink to the Wollman Rink — which reopened after Donald Trump repaired it (no, it wasn’t an act of philanthropy.)
Rosenfeld wonders if another golden age of ice skating might be on the horizon: plans to develop the Kingsbridge Armory in the Bronx into the world’s largest ice-skating complex have been underway for a few years, although the ambitious project has been delayed by lawsuits and funding challenges. The plan, backed by former professional NHL player Mark Messier, underscores how New York’s narrative of ice skating is dotted with tensions between public and private development. Beneath the glamor of ice rinks, as Rosenfeld put it, is “a very New York story about how amenities get built — something we don’t talk about enough.”
New York on Ice: Skating in the City continues at the Museum of the City of New York (1220 Fifth Avenue, East Harlem, Manhattan) through April 15.