The Winter Lodge: Skating Through the Political Process
It has been said that democracy is a participatory sport. And indeed in America only the citizens and communities that can effectively lobby their elected officials tend to get what they want. Contrary to popular opinion, politicians do listen to their constituents. After all, anytime phone calls to Congressional offices are running 10-1 against a controversial bill, you can bet its political viability will be pretty short-lived. It’s also true that through the years virtually every urban blight-causing, cross-city highway has wound up in the wards of the poor and politically unorganized.
So it is possible to fight city hall, but you’ve got to have the time, money and stamina to attend council meetings, collect signatures, stand on street corners, and wear down the system. Of course, in Palo Alto, citizens can be pretty persistent in that wearing-down process. And that’s one reason that Palo Alto remains the kind of city where you want to raise your kids. They play the sport of democracy pretty well here ---and it shows.
Case in point: that once-doomed local institution known today as the Winter Lodge. In 1981, it was announced that the only permanent outdoor ice skating rink west of the Sierra Nevada was scheduled to close at the end of the 1983 winter skating season. In response, local ice skating enthusiasts waged an epic battle, overcoming wads of red tape and eventually proving that intense political participation can pay off.
Ice skating in Palo Alto began in 1956, thanks to San Jose State engineering professor Duncan Williams. After migrating to Palo Alto from chilly Wisconsin, Williams began experimenting with how to freeze an ice skating rink in milder weather. Using a refrigerant system with a brine solution in the pipes and some strategically placed shade, Williams managed to create a functional outdoor rink in Palo Alto’s less-than-freezing winter. But while his engineering skills proved
successful, it was at first unclear whether his marketing strategy was particularly honed. As Williams would later say, “It was sort of a wild adventure. I didn’t have very good grounds to know it would [succeed].”
Still, on February 15th, 1956, The Winter Club opened in a largely undeveloped area along Middlefield Road. It was an immediate hit. California ice was a skate down memory lane for the many non-native PaloAltans who had spent their childhood winters twirling triple salchows or falling on their backsides at rinks back east. For homegrown California kids, lacing up winter skates had a novelty appeal --- and offered a little taste perhaps of what they were missing in a nearly single-climate region.
The Winter Club consisted of an outdoor rink --- compact at 65 by 125 feet --- as well as a separate smaller area for “patch practicing” figure skaters. It operated mainly on individual and family memberships, and by 1959 the rink was running at a 500 family peak capacity. The Winter Club hosted activities such as youth hockey, junior ice follies and birthday parties as well as open skate nights. Throughout the ‘60s and ‘70s, Williams proved the naysayers wrong by turning a consistent profit in the warm California sun.
By 1981, however, the Winter Club’s driving force was finally hanging up his skates. Williams planned to retire in 1983, at the end of his lease, while owner Richard Peery intended to knock down the ice rink and put up condos. It was then that a small group of ice skating aficionados rather innocently entered the fray. Determined to keep ice skating in Palo Alto, they proposed either renovating the rink or building a new one.
The pro-skating movement began with the establishment in 1981 of the non-profit Friends of the Winter Club. Their initial pitch was to build a new rink at half-completed Greer Park, but a rather confrontational meeting with 40 or so West Bayshore residents scuttled that plan.
Regrouping, the Friends of the Winter Club found another city-owned parcel --- technically park land --- just west of the Palo Alto Golf Course near Geng Road. After getting a favorable lease option from the city council, the skaters were soon making plans to build a grand 250 x 150 foot outdoor ice rink dubbed the Friendship Pavilion. It would serve as an ice skating rink in the colder months and host dance, music and gymnastics in the summertime.
But the group found it could not raise enough money in private donations to build the pavilion. Back at the drawing board, the Friends asked the Palo Alto City Council to put up a loan to build it. The city balked at that idea. Then, scrapping all hopes for a new ice rink, the group entertained the possibility of renovating the closing Winter Club. Back to the council they went to request $175,000 to make “crucial repairs” to the Middlefield site. Again the council said no.
But Palo Altans are a tenacious group. As the day of reckoning approached in April of 1983, the pro-skating forces reorganized under the leadership of future Palo Alto councilman Jack Morton as the Trust for Community Skating. Seeking the help of the YMCA to run the rink, and appealing to better angels, the Trust convinced landowner Peery to give them a one-year lease extension. They even successfully lobbied the city council to pony up $25,000 for repairs. In September of 1983, the rink opened for the first time in 27 years without Duncan Williams. It was largely unchanged except for a new name --- The Winter Lodge.
Still, skating in Palo Alto remained on thin ice. As the end of the 1984 season rolled around, the Trust for Community Skating was still desperately searching for the $2.5 million needed to purchase the Lodge from Peery. Again the skaters went into City Hall looking for a loan, and again they came out empty-handed.
So instead the Trust decided to circumvent the council with a direct appeal to the public. In an attempt to force the council’s hand, the Trust collected signatures to put a measure on the fall ballot requiring the city to “provide, fund and maintain an ice skating facility.” Passage of the initiative seemed unlikely, though, once the idea was lambasted in the local press as being overly directive.
Meanwhile, as the 1985 election approached, the skaters came up with a better idea. In an inspired bit of real estate creativity, the Trust cooked up a plan in which the city would swap the land at Geng Road for Peery’s Winter Lodge plot. Peery would get to develop his new land while the Winter Lodge could stay in place.
Everyone would be a winner.
Only you don’t just go around swapping city land like baseball cards. Lawyers deduced that not one, but two, ballot initiatives would need voter approval in order to legalize the scheme. One initiative was necessary to allow the city to make such a trade at all, while another authorized the Geng Road parcel for non-park use. Finally, in November 1985, the voters overwhelmingly approved both Measure A and Measure B. A few more precarious years went by as details were ironed out and the negotiated swap was consummated, but in the end the
Trust had finally found a way to keep skating in Palo Alto.
Today the Winter Lodge has one of the largest skating schools in the country, enrolling over 3,000 skating students per season, and in 2007 it was ranked as one of the top 10 outdoor ice skating experiences in the country. The Winter Lodge remains one of Palo Alto’s hidden gems, an enduring attraction with an unlikely story. But while the glistening ice and overhead evergreen trees create a sense of timelessness, the truth is that its existence today is the result of some very timely political grunt work. 
Our Reader's Memories:
"My family lived around the corner growing up in the 50's. We (the 3 daughters) all were in ice shows held there, year after year. I can still remember the fireplace and hot chocolate machine, I am so happy now at age 54 that it is still there, I plan on taking my grandson. I have a short video clip from the 50's of the rink....."
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Skaters in the warm California sun.
Founder Duncan Williams. (PAHA)
A skater at the Winter Lodge in the 1970s. (PAHA)
A chilly day at the Winter Lodge.
Two girls in 1977 skating together. (PAHA)