“Skating can make you feel athletic, graceful, beautiful.” Gracie Gold
Stroll around New York City in the winter and it’s not hard to discover people ice skating. But the Big Apple’s ice skating history begins long before specially designed ice skating rinks were built in the 20th century. Originally, skaters used ponds and lakes in parks for recreation.
The Lake in Central Park, labeled on Olmsted and Vaux’s original Greensward plan as a “skating pond,’ was the most notable case of this use. Before Central Park was completed in the 1870s, this section was opened to ice skaters and quickly became a top attraction. In order to ensure proper skating conditions, the Lake was drained to a level that eased the freezing of ice each year. (The Lake — then as now — was connected to the City’s water system.)
Meanwhile, other bodies of water were used for ice skating throughout the park system. In Brooklyn, skating sites existed at McCarren Park, Prospect Park, Sunset Park, and Commodore Barry Park.In fact, ice skating was so popular in the 19th century that a tradition of “raising the red ball” on Brooklyn streetcars was created to indicate favorable skating conditions at Prospect Park.
The Brooklyn Parks Department annual report of 1920 notes that in Prospect Park, the Boat House was converted to a Skate House which also offered coffee and snacks. The same report indicates ice skates could be rented for 25 cents an hour. As these wonderful photos show, by the 1930’s skating was one of New Yorkers most loved winter past times. Happily, this is a tradition that’s still going strong.