The first time Americans gingerly touched skate to parquet floor in a public roller rink was just one year after the Civil War, in a rented hotel in Newport, Rhode Island, a space that had served during wartime as the site of the United States Naval Academy. James Plimpton, the inventor of the modern skate converted—under the auspices of his New York Skating Club—the hotel's dining room into a rink, brought in rental skates by the truck-load, and gave a war-weary populace a diversion from the twin traumas of civil conflict and presidential assassination.
From this improvised first rink to the roller skating arenas of the mid-20th century and beyond, the buildings America has built to provide a covered, weather-proofed place in which they can safely strap wheels to their feet and travel in endless circles provides an insight into why and how we build our communal structures and, ultimately, what value we place on them.
Though it was an ad hoc solution to the problem of just how, exactly, to house roller skating rinks, the Atlantic House was a well-regarded luxury resort, before and after the war. It has long since been demolished, but in photos it stands stately and serene, an imposing Georgian edifice that seems an unlikely birthplace for a craze that would eventually sweep the country in successive waves of popularity.
In the 1880s the pastime was well enough established that purpose-built roller rinks began to spring up around New England, whose residents took to the sport quickly and enthusiastically, hurling themselves across the floor in ways that moved the editorial staff of the Lowell, Massachusetts paper to lament that the local rink was "the cause of more and worse immorality [...] in the city" than even music halls.
Rinks of that era were multi-purpose facilities, playing host to dances, meetings, and other community events, and were often large cavernous affairs, with grandstands overlooking the rink where couples in top hats and bustled skirts endlessly circled under the flickering light of gigantic chandeliers.
In the 20th century, the popularity of the sport outstripped the available resources and money to build enough of these grandiose roller rinks-cum-ballrooms. As Post-World War II America began the country's rapid suburbanization, and roller skating rinks began following fleeing urbanites into the new subdivisions that now ringed the emptying cities of the Northeast and Midwest, a new design paradigm was needed.
In Levittown rose the archetype of the roller rink of the 1940s and '50s, a huge, utilitarian building whose giant neon sign beckoned commuters whizzing down the Hempstead Turnpike to pull into its capacious parking lot and take a spin around its polished wood floor.
The vast red brick expanse of the Levittown Arena's front elevation was offset by a tidy Modern ticket kiosk directly adjacent to the parking lot, a portal that offered skaters a human-scaled entrance to the rink and then funneled them through into the cavernous interior, where a 200-foot-long rink spread out under the fluorescent lights, and a live organ player serenaded the 1,700 or so skaters, who jammed the place on weekends.
Like many post-war landmarks, the Levittown Arena eventually fell victim to the cultural shifts that created the suburbs themselves: a drive to tear down the old and replace with the new, an indifference to historical continuity, and a market-driven emphasis on creating architectural homogeneity within communities. It was demolished in the 1980s, to the dismay of generations of Long Islanders who had grown up gliding around its planked oval rink.
Where Levittown was a rejection of city-life in a region that had been heavily urbanizing for a century and a half, in the West there was no deep-seated tradition of urban living to overcome. While Los Angeles, for example, had a dense urban core downtown, even before World War II the spread of streetcars, and the region's undeveloped land had begun to encourage a string of suburban islands to spread westward to the shores of the Pacific.
In Southern California the roller rink—like the drive-in restaurant, the subdivision, and eventually the freeway—found geography and a citizenry for which it was distinctly suited. North of L.A. in the city of Glendale is a living relic of that era of expansion, the Moonlight Rollerway.
Even in land-rich Southern California, economic necessity sometimes bred adaptive re-use. The rink began life as an aircraft parts foundry and was converted to a roller skating arena in the 1950s, an era which has been preserved much as it was when it first opened its doors as an outpost of the Harry's Roller Rink chain.
The entrance to the rink is festooned with multi-color fluorescent lighting and, inside, the snack bar area retains much of the feel of the place when it first welcomed skaters in 1950—right down to the popcorn machine. Molded plastic furniture, the original maple flooring, and even a vintage organ sitting in the same spot it has always occupied give today's skaters and midcentury architecture fans a welcome glimpse into the past.
As the disco-infused 1970s and '80s roller skating renaissance began to fade, and the inline skating fad came and quickly went, the rinks began to close, many of them—as in Levittown—torn down.
But, like those other seemingly dying pastimes of previous generations' bowling and billiards, roller skating's reputation has been somewhat rehabilitated as an anxious, insecure country looks to the past for reassurance. Today—even while newly constructed roller rinks are few, and the ranks of existing rinks still mostly on the wane—there is at least one community which has recently seen the launch of a newly constructed rink.
Brooklyn Bridge Park's Pier 2, with its magnificent views of the Manhattan skyline, threw open the doors to its new roller rink in July. This throwback to the pleasure piers of the 20th century features a series of shed-like structures which shelter shuffleboard and bocce courts, fitness areas, and playgrounds.
It's a far cry from the gilded roller skating palaces of the late 19th century, though the exposed steel beams of the ceiling and the corrugated roof do recall the modest, stripped-down rinks that once dotted small towns across America, when roller skating was in its heyday, and all you really needed to have a good time on a Saturday night was a smooth floor, a roof to keep it dry, and a pair of strap on, steel-wheeled skates.
· James L. Plimpton, Roller Skate Innovator [Smithsonian]
· The Controversial First Days of Roller Skating Rinks [Forgotten New England]
· Annapolis Comes to Newport [Civil War Navy]
· A Rink Rolls into History [USA Roller Skaters]
· Rolling the Years: Moonlight Rollerway's Enduring Appeal [KCET Artbound]
· A New Spin on Roller Skating in New York City [Brooklyn Bridge Park Blog]