LAKE PLACID — On Aug. 31, 1931, work began on the first Winter Olympic arena in the United States.
Built on a Main Street hillside in Lake Placid, what became known locally as “the ‘32” has been retrofit for crowds over the years.
It was altered to hold a larger audience when the second Olympic field house went up. And two successive conference centers have been affixed to the northern end.
The centerpiece of the original 1932 façade is a two-story arch window that once shed light on the main stairwell. The arch keystone lifts to a parapet on the roof line.
For years, the window has been hidden behind giant 1980 Olympic rings, the windows filled in with wood and cement.
Now, engineers at the Olympic Regional Development Authority are peeling back time, removing mortar that held some mystery.
“The biggest thing was to see how the arch was framed, whether it was built with a keystone holding it in compression or if it was formed by structural steel,” said Bob Hammond, director of planning and construction for the Olympic Authority.
“Each window arch does have a keystone; they are in compression,” he said of their discovery.
“There were no real surprises. We found the old window frames and some glass.”
The long horizontal rows of smaller windows won’t shed light into the rinks below, Hammond said.
“During improvements in the buildings for the 1980 Games, they put the concrete cast bleachers in and bricked in the windows,” Hammond explained.
“We’re removing brick and opening the windows to see the original framework. We’ll put in a faux window glazing, but light won’t have clear passage into the building. The seats are still there.”
But the top of the arch will soon shed light on the rink.
The main arch window reaches to the top of the building. It will be fitted with a tinted glass.
“We are working to preserve the masonry. That building was designed locally by Wilhem DeLear from Saranac Lake,” Hammond said.
“Unfortunately, we can’t fix everything. Behind the window, there used to be a cathedral ceiling into the building. The main stairway was once there, but it was reconfigured for the new rink. Inside, the third floor of the Conference Center will connect to the mezzanine of the ‘32. It will be American Disabilities Act compliant with a ramp.”
Restoring the ‘32 is a $400,000 project that began in early August.
“The roof was repaired first. Masonry takes time. It had fallen victim to aging,” Hammond said.
There are various shades in the brick, fired into different tones of gold and yellow.
“We’re trying not to take anything out more than we have to,” Hammond said. “My point to the architect was the ‘32 outlasted one conference center already.”
Builders from J.T. Erectors out of Malone won the contract for the work.
“They are the ones who restored the Toll House on Whiteface for us. They are a good local contractor, and they’ve always done right by us.”
The restoration process pulled engineers back to original drawings.
In reviewing the old plans, Hammond said, they couldn’t find schematics for the rink interior.
But they did find a research paper written years ago by a high-school student who figured out the arena was made from a pre-fabricated zeppelin garage — pre-engineered for the airships of the early 20th century.
“You just ordered one,” Hammond said. “The arches were fabricated for one size fits all. It was perfect.”
RESETTING THE CLOCK
No airships were housed here.
But no one could even count how many skates have flown across the arena’s ice since it opened Jan. 16, 1932, with a hockey game.
Work on ‘32 will exhaust the $18 million in state grant funds from Empire State Development used to build the Conference Center and restore the arena.
The five interwoven steel Olympic rings emblazoned on the arch for the 1980 Winter Games will be moved inside.
“We will fabricate Olympic rings to scale to fit above the arch, where it used to be,” Hammond said.
And the sequence of international flags on the ‘32’s outside wall will be displayed inside.
The collection from that first U.S. Winter Olympics tells a lot about history; some of the countries don’t exist any more.
“The world has changed,” Hammond mused.
But in Lake Placid, they are resetting the clock on the historic winter sport’s arena.
Work is on schedule to be finished by mid-October.
Email Kim Smith Dedam: firstname.lastname@example.org