Monday, April 29, 2019

The Lost St. Nicholas Skating Rink - 69 West 66th Street

photo via Office of Metropolitan History

On July 13, 1895 the Real Estate Record & Builders' Guide reported that the newly-formed St. Nicholas Skating and Ice Company had "just concluded the purchase of a site for a model ice skating rink on the north side of West 66th street, between Columbus avenue and Central Park West."  It was an exciting development for New Yorkers, since the technology necessary for creating such a massive ice sheet was new.

The price for each of the nine building plots, stretching 225 feet along West 66th Street and 100 feet deep, was about $29,000.  The Record & Guide reported that architects Ernest Flagg and Walter B. Chambers had placed the cost of construction of the "ice-skating rink and club-house" at $130,000; bringing the total outlay to more than $12 million in today's dollars.

The Record & Guide described the internal layout above the rink.  The second floor would hold a viewing gallery and "there will also be on this floor private rooms for ladies, a buffet and toilet rooms."  The third floor was "to be for the men of the club," and here were the locker rooms, dressing rooms and accommodations for visiting hockey teams.  A private gallery on this level was to look down upon the rink.  (As it turned out, the third floor never materialized.)

Calling it "New York's Palais de Glace," the New York Herald reported on the completed structure on November 8, 1896.  The writer deemed the building a "large, handsome structure."  

"The "place of rendezvous," said the article, included "lounging rooms, dressing rooms, buffets, music, all modeled on the best Parisian plan...There are also ample storage for bicycles and cloak rooms for the public...The ice is surrounded by a broad promenade.  On one end is a great lounging room, shut off from the ice by plate glass.  This apartment is for the use of the public.  A great fireplace, on which logs will burn brightly, occupies one end of the room, and it is from this room that spectators will get the best and most comfortable view of the gay scenes on the ice."

On the opposite end were the private rooms of the St. Nicholas Skating Club members.  Among those who paid the annual $25 dues were "the Astors, Millses, Livingstons, Hewitts, Hoyts, Baileys, Mrs. Ladenburg, Whitneys, Remsens, Morgans, Belmonts, Hitchcocks, Kernochans...In fact, the list is just like that of the Patriarchs [Ball], or opera or Horse Show boxes," said the New York Herald.  So that social royalty need not share the ice with more pedestrian skaters, the rink was closed to the public on Sundays and Mondays and only members were admitted.

A uniformed attendant helps a woman with her skates while fashionably-dressed skaters glide by.  Upstairs women enjoy the ladies' buffet room.  The New York Herald, November 8, 1896 (copyright expired)
The other skaters paid "a small fee" for admission, and had access to most of the amenities of the St. Nicholas Skating Rink, including a tea room, smoking room, and reading room.  A band played during the mornings and evening sessions.  The New York Herald lamented that the St. Nicholas Skating Rink "probably will not be as lively and interesting" as a similar rink in Paris, "for we take our pleasures in a little more subdued, if not sadder, fashion than the French."  But, nevertheless, "the beauty, the novelty of the scene, is certain to be appreciated by everyone who finds his way within."

Leslie's Weekly, March 15, 1896 (copyright expired)

A branch of the St. Nicholas Skating Club was its hockey team, composed of well-to-do gentlemen with names like Astor, Brokaw and Vanderbilt.  Hockey, as The New York Times pointed out, had "come to be quite the vogue" and the men held their own among other teams.  In its March 1898 issue the New York Athletic Club Journal noted that a tight race for the Hockey League championship was between the New York Athletic Club, the St. Nicholas Skating Club and the Hockey Club.

Leslie's Weekly noted that the "indoor game" was played on "artificial ice."  April 1896 (copyright expired)

As it turned out, the St. Nicholas Skating Club took the championship that year.

Among the casually-posed champions in 1898 was the massively wealthy Irving Brokaw, wearing number 3. The Illustrated American, February 12, 1898 

The excellence of the skating surface prompted the National Amateur Skating Association to hold is annual contest for the figure skating championship here.  Irving Brokaw was not only a splendid hockey player, but a figure skater as well.  As the 1899 contest neared, newspapers noted that he would not participate this year.  "Brokaw is this season in Europe to compete in the world's championship at Vienna."

The rink as it appeared in 1898.  photo by Byron Company, from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York
As the decades passed, the building would be reworked again and again.  The first major renovation came in October 1904 when architects Tracy & Swartwout designed new iron staircases, a new gallery, skylight, new fireproof dressing rooms and iron columns and beams.

Architect George A. Pearse's plans for remodeling in February 1911 used a puzzling description, calling the building a "brick garage and skating rink."  (There is no evidence that there was ever a garage in the building.) Other work in 1913, 1914 and 1915 resulted in new bleachers, repaired masonry and a new marquis.

In 1915 a fad swept New York--dancing on ice.  On November 21 The Sun reported "Fashion has set the seal of approval on the difficult art and the fox trotters are taking to the rinks."

Couples dance on blades at the St. Nicholas Rink.  The top couple is performing "The Hesitation."  The Sun, November 21, 1915 (copyright expired)

The following year, on October 22, The Brooklyn Daily Eagle reported "Ice skaters are indulging in their favorite recreation with more enthusiasm and in greater numbers this season than ever before in New York's history."  The article made note of the St. Nicholas Skating Rink's "Marimba Band and its corps of expert exhibition skaters." 

The Marimba Band was new--part of yet another renovation.  In 1915 a $20,000 improvement resulted in "enlarged and redecorated lounging, locker and club rooms" and new quarters for the visiting hockey teams.  Another significant change came the following year; one that had nothing to do with the structure, but with its policies.  According to The Evening World on October 7, 1916, "There will be no private sessions this season."  The ultra-wealthy had moved on.

By 1916 the rink was less ornate; however the columns and their capitals imitated ice and the railings and benches mimicked the rustic details of the natural Central Park skating area.  from the collection of the New-York Historical Society.

The days of skaters and hockey games came to an end in October 1918 when the rink was leased for ten years to The Palace Carnival.  The Record & Guide reported that the group "expect to make alterations costing $100,000 to convert the structure into a dancing establishment."

The Evening World, January 18, 1919 (copyright expired)

The Dancing Carnival would remain for years, a popular destination for footloose couples.  One group of young people enjoyed a night here on March 10, 1921; but a light-hearted bet landed one of them in jail.

Elsie Fisher was 22-years-old and worked as a stenographer downtown.  She and her friends left at around 11:00 that night, but their suspicious movements caught the attention of a cop.  The New York Sun reported "Patrolman William Stalba...followed a crowd that came out of the St. Nicholas skating rink...and found the object of the crowd's pursuit was a slender young man who looked innocent enough."

Intent on discovering why the group was so interested in the fellow, Stalba pushed through the group, until "the policeman's keen eye spied the end of a blonde curl sticking out from under the soft hat.  He took the curl, which was growing on a girl's head, to the Wet Sixty-Eighth street station, where after much argument, the curl's owner admitted she was Elsie Fisher."

Elsie had taken a bet that she could walk a mile in men's attire without being detected.  Cross-dressing in 1921 was a crime and Elsie was held at the West 13th Street station overnight.  The next morning she appeared in court, "dressed in the garb of her sex, which friends had brought her."  The judge listened to her story, gave her a suspended sentence, and warned her to stop "trying to paint the lily white."  The Sun reported "She told him she would."

Another group got in trouble eighteen years later.  The New York Sun reported on January 7, 1929 that 33 young women had been arrested in the "St. Nicholas dance hall" the previous Saturday night.  "They were arraigned as wayward minors yesterday before Magistrate Bushel in the Women's Court."

The Great Depression resulted in the Corn Exchange Bank Trust Company's taking possession of the building.  Calling it "The Crystal Palace, a dancing pavilion," The Sun reported on its sale in March 1934 to Jean Sunnenfeld for $340,000, a significant $6.38 million today.  It was the end of dancing in the old St. Nicholas building.

The structure was renovated as a meeting space, and sports and performing arts venue, now known as the Royal Windsor Hall.  On April 29, 1938 the New York Post announced "More than fifty New York University students will take part in 'That's Life,' the annual varsity show, which will be presented to night at the Royal Windsor."    Less light-hearted were the massive union meetings and rallies held here for years.  On May 26, 1940, for instance, The New York Times reported on the New York State Convention of the Communist Party here.

Wrestlers Hans K. and H. Olson battled it out in 1936.  photograph by Wurts Bros. from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York
But it was professional boxing and wrestling, for which the hall was best known to most New Yorkers.  A raised ring was moved into the center of the hall for bouts.  Over the years newspapers would report on the fights of greats like Kid Chocalate, Rocky Graziano, Floyd Patterson (who fought his first professional match here in 1952) and Cassius Clay (who later took the name Muhammad Ali).  Tuesday night matches were aired on television to fans across the country.

When the last boxing match was held on May 28, 1962, more than 30,000 bouts had reportedly played out here.  The old St. Nicholas Skating Rink building limped along until the 1980's when it was demolished for the expansion of the ABC TV offices.

The rink sat just to the east of the corner.  image via Google Earth


  1. From the NY Times, July 2018:

    "In a move that could speed the transformation of two Manhattan neighborhoods, the Walt Disney Company said on Monday that it would move its New York operations from its longtime home on the Upper West Side to Hudson Square, the downtown neighborhood once known as the printing district now being refashioned into a home for media, advertising, internet and other 'creative' companies.

    "Disney, which is in the midst of acquiring 21st Century Fox, plans to build a modern, one-million-square-foot complex that would house ABC headquarters, WABC News, offices, production facilities and studios, including those for 'The View' and 'Live With Kelly and Ryan,' on an entire block bounded by Hudson, Varick, Van Dam and Spring Streets. The company is leasing the property, known as Four Hudson Square, for 99 years from Trinity Church in a deal valued at $650 million.

    "On Tuesday, Disney plans to close on a separate agreement to sell its two Upper West Side campuses to the developer Larry Silverstein for $1.155 billion. Disney is leasing back the eight buildings that comprise its operations from Silverstein for up to five years while it draws up plans for the downtown complex, demolishes the existing buildings at Hudson Square and erects a new home."

  2. Also nearby and part of the ABC complex, but a landmark and ineligible for demolition: