Since its opening in 1857, most of Central Park’s landscape has remained remarkably unaltered. The preservation of the park’s rocky outcroppings, meadows, forests and streams is a story of beating the odds, succeeding against dozens of failed proposals to fill the park with museums, monuments, and a racetrack, among other ideas. When a development was approved, the landscape features often sacrificed were the waterways. People can’t walk or swim in the park’s water anyway.
Why is how the northern bay of The Pond at the southeast corner of Central Park became the site of Wollman Rink.
History of The Pond
Prior to the development of the park, numerous streams flowed across the park’s footprint. What would become The Pond used to be De Voor’s Mill Stream, which originated on the Upper West side and flowed in a southeast direction towards Turtle Bay on the East River. Its namesake is colonial settler David Duffore, who set up a farm at Turtle Bay in 1677. Responding to the topography, Olmsted and Vaux shaped The Pond in a valley through which the stream flowed. With its headwaters cut off and buried, The Pond is fed by the city’s aqueduct.
The 1873 map of Central Park shows The Pond’s northern bay. The park’s bridle trail traveled past the northern bay, beneath the Green Gap Arch and Outset Arch (demolished around 1934) towards Grand Army Plaza. As with other waterways in the city’s parks, The Pond was used for ice skating in winter.
The transformation of The Pond’s northern bay into an ice skating rink began in the Great Depression period under Parks Commissioner Robert Moses. In contrast to Olmsted and Vaux, Moses believed that Central Park needed more active recreational facilities to attract the middle and working classes. By that time, winters in New York were much warmer and the lake was no longer safe for a full winter season. Moses proposed a rink atop the northern bay to continue the skating tradition. Delayed by the Second World War and the cutoff of federal funding, Moses looked to private philanthropy to pay for the ice skating rink.
The Rink’s Namesake: Kate Wollman
The philanthropist and namesake responsible for the rink was Kate Wollman (1870-1955), a wealthy stockbroker’s daughter. From the Parks photo collection, Wollman is honored by Parks Commissioner Moses, along with Mayor William O’Dwyer.
Being New York, this facility made the world’s record books when it opened on December 21, 1950. At 30,000 square feet and a cost of $750,000, it was the world’s largest and most expensive skating rink. Wollman paid $600,000 of the project’s cost. The cost included landscaping improvements around The Pond and a new playground adjoining the rink. Prior to the rink’s completion, the only all-winter skating venues in Manhattan were at Rockefeller center and Madison Square Garden. Adults were charged 25 centers and children were admitted at 9 centers on opening day. The cheap cost and naturalistic setting quickly made this rink the most popular in the city.
Heavy usage and deferred maintenance by the financially troubled city forced the rink’s closure in 1980. Which leads us to its other namesake…
Encountering drainage problems and rock formations beneath the original rink the construction project’s cost ballooned to $12 million wit not completion date in sight. Two blocks to the south of the park, real estate developer Donald J. Trump looked at the site from his eponymous tower’s windows in disgust. In June 1986, he promised to fund the renovation and complete it in record time. “I have total confidence that we will be able to do it,” Trump said at the time. “I am going on record as saying that I will not be embarrassed.” Under Trump’s guidance, the rink was reopened on October 31 of that year, two months ahead of schedule and $750,000 under budget. Above, he is posing with then-Parks Commissioner Henry J. Stern. Not sure if The Donald ice skates but his wife at the time was a skier.
You can read about Trump’s reopening of the skating rink in Chapter 12 of Trump’s Art of the Deal. He’s had his name on many books, but this one was the first.
Note: The above story in no way constitutes an endorsement of Trump’s candidacy for president nor his book. I encourage readers not to vote for this boor.
What remains of The Pond’s northern bay
If Gapstow Bridge is the point separating The Pond from its northern bay, then there is a small portion of it remaining between the bridge and the skating rink. In the middle of this waterway is a mudflat that sometimes resembles a heart shape. It adds to the romantic mood for selfie-taking couples on the bridge.
Closer to the skating rink, the water emerges from two sources, the city’s aqueduct and melting ice from the rink. In winter, the surrounding hills and trees give the rink an appearance of a frozen pond, as it was before 1949.
On the map
On the 1994 map by George Colbert and Guenther Vollarth, Wollman Rink occupies the northern bay, tucked neatly into a valley between East Drive and Center Drive. There is a second example of a waterway transformed into an ice skating rink in Central Park. That’s the Lasker Rink at Harlem Meer. That’s for another blog post in the future.
In the News: Wall Street Journal reports on a developer’s inspiration for a residential Gowanus, the Canal St. Martin in Paris.
Books on Streams
As today is Wednesday, I would like to share some stream-related reading materials. Continuing on the topic at hand, here are some books which I’ve used as references regarding the waterways of Central Park. Click on the titles for details.
Sara Cedar Miller is the historian at Central Park Conservancy. If there’s something that I don’t know about the park, she is my source.
The two books above describe the park’s formative years.
On the architects of Central Park and its waterways.
He saved the ice skating rink and devoted nearly 20 pages to it in his 1988 book, coauthored by Tony Schwartz. In contrast to his university, vodka, cologne, airline and casino, and two initial marriages, this Trump project was a winner.