Monday, April 29, 2013

The Lost 1868 Empire Skating Rink -- 3rd Ave and 63rd Street

A contemporary lithograph shows the block-encompassing building in the inset and the soaring cast iron arches.
After enduring years of civil war, New Yorkers were ready for carefree diversion in the fall of 1868.  John C. Babcock, who had been an important secret service agent during the Civil War, would provide such diversion in the form of the new Empire City Skating Rink on Third Avenue between 63rd and 64th Streets.   The innovative structure took full advantage of arched cast iron construction and boasted “the largest clear span in America.”

As the massive indoor rink prepared for its grand opening in November 1868 The New York Times called it “a magnificent structure.”  The newspaper touted its hyperbolic dimensions.  “It is 350 feet in length, 170 feet wide and 70 feet high, with a ground floor and raised platform for spectators, accommodating an audience of 10,000 persons.”

Yet from its inception Babcock intended the building to house more than just ice skating.  Even before the rink was officially opened the New-York Athletic Club (of which Babcock was a co-founder in September that year) hosted its first semi-annual games here on November 10.  The building was crowded with spectators who were no doubt as eager to see the new structure as to see the games.

The athletes and spectators alike may have been a bit disappointed.  Half of the roof was not yet in place and the day of the games was stormy and frigid.  The games committee rushed to commandeer all the used tarpaulins they could find in the area and jerry-rigged a roof as best as possible.

Among the expected meets, from a modern viewpoint, like the running broad jump and running high jump, were some more particularly 19th century events. 

 “There was now an exhibition of French velocipedes, two of which were driven rapidly around amid the plaudits of the audience,” reported The Times.  And J. E. Russell, who took first place in the One-Mile Walk was admired by the press.  “Mr. Russell’s walking was a splendid exhibition, and drew forth loud applause,” said The Times.

Schribner’s Magazine was less enthusiastic.  “The records made were very ordinary,” it reported.

On December 14 that year the Parks Commissioners allowed skaters the use of the city ponds.  The Empire City Skating Rink beat them to the punch by opening a day earlier—even though the grand opening was still a few days off.  Throughout the afternoon and evening around 3,000 skaters visited the rink although “only one-half the entire ice-bed was permitted to be used.”  Dodworth’s Band played as the happy skaters glided round and round into the night.

“In the evening the building was beautifully illuminated, though all the gas jets were not lighted,” said The Times.

Things went a bit more smoothly the following year as the rink was prepared for skating.   The ice was slowly built up layer by layer to ensure perfect conditions.  Skaters eagerly watched for the appearance of flags that announced that the ice was ready.  The flags were attached to the Second and Third Avenue street cars as well as the Empire Rink itself.

Anticipation of the season opening was heightened by the formation of the Empire City Skating Club here.  The club promised that “the champion skater of Chicago will show his powers of endurance on skates by an attempt to keep in motion sixty hours.”

In the meantime the American Institute was having problems.  The organization had been formed in 1828 to “promote and encourage the industrial arts in America.”  A principal means to accomplish these goals was the staging of annual exhibitions in which inventors, manufacturers and others displayed their innovations.  The exhibitions were greatly successful, introducing the public to inventions like Samuel Morse’s magneto-electric telegraph.

Morse’s invention was exhibited at Niblo’s Garden, where the fairs were annually held.  But it was destroyed by fire in 1846.  Then, until 1853 the group exhibited at Castle Garden, and subsequently took over the immense Crystal Palace behind the Croton Reservoir.  It was an impressive setting; but on October 5, 1858 an inferno consumed the Palace and all the inventions on display inside.

The Institution moved around for the next decade, but now eyed the Empire Skating Rink which “contained at that time the largest exhibition hall in the United States,” according to The Times.  Beginning in 1869 it leased the great space in what would become its home for years.

The American Institute advertises its Industrial Fair outside the entrance -- photo NYPL Collection

In April the arched space filled with cackles and crowing as the First Annual Exhibition of the New York State Poultry Society was held here.  Later, in September, the Institute opened the doors to its first exhibition in its new headquarters.  Despite its cavernous structure, The American Phrenological Journal bemoaned that “after all their efforts, many applicants were denied for want of room in which to arrange their goods.”

Exotic fowl were exhibited in the 1869 poultry show here -- Harper's Weekly April 1869 (copyright expired)
“This is the most Complete Exhibition ever made by the Institute,” boasted an advertisement in The Nation, “and is held in the Best Building for a proper display of the various articles entered.” 

Tickets could be purchased for 50 cents (children under 12 years old for 25 cents) or season tickets were available at $3 for gentlemen and $2 for ladies.  The Second and Third Avenue railroads added nearly one hundred extra cars to accommodate the throngs.

Ticket holders would tour the Department of Fine Arts and Education (paintings, glass, engravings, photographs, sculpture, musical instruments, etc.), the Department of the Dwelling (apparatus for lighting, warming, cooling, and ventilating, cooking stoves, kitchen utensils carpets, furniture “ornaments for parlors,” etc.), the Department of Dress and Handicraft (wearing apparel, sewing machines, artificial limbs, wigs and hair-work, jewelry trunks, umbrellas, etc.).  In  the Department of Chemistry and Mineralogy were soaps, paints, dyestuffs, sugars and “gutta-percha preparations” among others; there was the Department of Engines and Machinery; the Department of Intercommunication (including locomotive engines, cars, carriages, wagons, sleighs, models of ocean or river vessels, electric telegraphs, etc.); and the Department of Agriculture and Horticulture  where visitors viewed plants and flowers, cheese, butter, plows, cheese presses, and other products for or from the farm.

The last department fell short of the expectations of The Country Gentleman magazine.  The periodical found the catalogue “rather confused and far from complete” and felt that the farmer was upstaged by other departments.  It complained that the Department of Agriculture and Horticulture certainly gains nothing by comparison with other parts of the grad display, and it fails adequately to support the relative dignity and importance of the farmer’s art as compared with that of the mechanic.”

Despite that magazine’s disappointment, The Evening Telegraph found at least one item in Department 7 worth mentioning.  “One chicken an hour,” it reported on December 8, 1869, “This is the rate at which chickens are hatching…at the Empire City Skating Rink.  The artificial incubators there are about as attractive as anything else—almost as much so as the Cardiff giant at Wood’s.”

While the America Institute grabbed the spotlight during the warmer months, the Empire Skating Club held sway in the winter.  On February 24, 1870 it was “the scene of great animation and gaiety” when the club hosted a fancy dress and masquerade carnival on skates.

The Times reported that “There was a large number of ladies and gentlemen present, including several in costume.  A band of music was in attendance.  The ice was in superb condition, and the skating was enjoyed with lively zest.”

The American Institute held a meeting on October 7, 1871 during which a resolution was adopted authorizing the purchase of the Empire Skating Rink.  The decision was not without dissenters, however, and a subsequent meeting was necessary to investigate one member who has used language “calculated to excite confusion and dissension among the members in violation of by-laws.”   The unnamed member, according to later documents “did not, in speaking upon a certain question under debate, confine himself to the question, but wandered therefrom into indecorous language.”

The indecorous language did not sway the majority and the rink was purchased by the Institute.  The building continued to be home not only of the annual fairs, but of athletic events and other spectacles.  In the spring of 1877 a five-mile walking race took place here.

In 1881 when the Westminster Kennel Club and Madison Square Garden could arrive at a mutually acceptable rent, the club turned to what was still widely known as the Empire Skating Rink.  The building was well-suited for the esteemed dog show with its greater floor space.  The single objection before opening day was the location which was feared to be too remote.  But instead, newspapers reported that on opening day the show was so crowded—even with twice the space as Madison Square Garden—that moving about was difficult.

In 1883 the convention and exhibition of the American Bottlers’ Association was held here.  Over 1,500 bottlers attended.  The American Bottler reported that “the wagon procession, with band of music of the New York Bottling Co., under the brilliant leadership of the late Geo. W. Rayner, was followed to the exhibition by nearly a thousand people who paid their entrance fees, because they had learned that they could get all the free soda water they could drink inside.”

As the 1890s dawned the American Institute contemplated replacing its building.  Finally in 1893 it commissioned architects Romeyn & Stever who had recently designed 48 Exchange Place to plan a new structure.  On May 15, 1893 The New York Times which had once called the Empire Skating Rink “magnificent” now deemed it an “aggregation of old sheds.”  In reporting on the proposed building the newspaper said “it will take the place of the ramshackle structure at Third Avenue and Sixty-third Street.” 

The proposed new headquarters designed by Romeyn & Stever -- The New York Times May 15, 1893 (copyright expired)
Twenty-five years after its construction, the ground-breaking skating rink was demolished to be replaced by the handsome Flemish Revival exhibition hall.  But, as is often the case in Manhattan, good architecture gives way to bland and this wonderful building, too, did not survive.  An unappealing brown brick apartment building was erected on the site in 1961.

photo by Alice Lum

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