Frank's Place: Rough-and-tumble Philadelphia's figure-skating heritage

PEOPLE HAMILTON
Scott Hamilton pumps his fist during the final performance of his 15-year career with the Stars on Ice show in Portland, Maine in this April 7, 2001.

I was high atop the city - literally and, after three vodka-tonics, figuratively - when I spotted a column.

The view from the Hyatt at the Bellevue's lofty 19 bar revealed a tough city of brick-and-steel sinew. West and south of Center City, in the sturdy remnants of our factory past, there was little effete or charming.

That's why, while gobbling wasabi peas, I was surprised by the painting near our table.

It was a reproduction of Gilbert Stuart's The Skater, and it seemed to have landed in the wrong city. When we think skaters, we think Flyers - tough, toothless guys who, at the drop of a puck, would pummel their sisters.

Stuart's painting portrayed a Colonial-era gentleman - elegantly attired, arms casually folded, an insouciant look on his aristocratic face - gliding gracefully across a frozen pond.

A Google search revealed that while Stuart had lived and painted in Germantown for 10 years, this 18th-century masterwork - the original is in Washington's National Gallery - had no Philadelphia connections.

The skater was a wealthy Scotsman named William Grant, the setting London, where figure skating was then wildly popular.

The painting has hung in the hotel's 19th-floor lounge ever since the city's elite gathered there. And that's when it made sense.

At the 1998 Olympics in Nagano, I was surprised to learn that blue-collar, hard-nosed Philly had a rich history in the refined sport of figure skating. The steel skate was invented here. The first skating club was formed here. Many of the early U.S. and North American championships were held here. Two of the greatest male skaters ever, Dick Button and Scott Hamilton, were for a time Philadelphia Skating Club & Humane Society members. Countless other Olympians trained there and, more recently, in northern Delaware and Delaware County.

The sport's history here stretches all the way back to Colonial days. Since skating was popular in England, Philadelphia, which always looked there for cultural guidance, imported it.

Typically, only the wealthy had the time and money for leisure activities. But according to the book Philadelphia: A 300-Year History, some pastimes spanned class boundaries.

Skating was one.

When Stuart painted Grant in 1782, the Schuylkill and Delaware River froze frequently. Philadelphians looked forward to those occasions. Instead of relying on expensive, unsafe ferries, they were able to walk to Camden. They could easily cross the Schuylkill to hunt in the game-rich woods west of the city. Best of all, they had frozen acres on which to skate.

On some days, when river commerce shut down, Philadelphians, with makeshift wood or bone blades strapped to their shoes, flocked there. For a city bounded by two rivers, skating became a civic obsession.

"Alexander Graydon [an attorney, author, and Revolutionary War captain] recalled that Philadelphia had the best and most elegant skaters in the world," the book notes.

Occasionally, the crowds were so large and the ice so thin that skaters fell through and drowned. In 1770, with the aid of Benjamin Franklin, himself devoted to the sport, the Humane Society of Philadelphia was formed, in large part to rescue imperiled skaters.

With so many participants, there soon were races, rudimentary forms of figure-skating, and plenty of spectators to watch.

"They would set out from the Vine Street Landing and other places that offered easy access to the river," said Harry Kyriakodis, author of Philadelphia's Lost Waterfront. "Booths were put up to sell refreshments to the gathered crowd of skaters and people-watchers. Sometimes an ox-roast would add to the excitement."

In 1849, the most ardent participants founded the Skaters Club of the City and County of Philadelphia. Twelve years later, it merged with the Humane Society and became the Philadelphia Skating Club & Humane Society.

A print from that era, Scene on the Delaware River at Philadelphia During the Severe Winter of 1856, depicts families, dogs, and food vendors among a throng gathered to watch an event involving skaters and a sled.

The sport's real boom came after 1850, the year Philadelphian Edward Bushnell created the first steel skate. The increased speed and maneuverability it permitted revolutionized skating.

As the Philadelphia Skating Club grew in prestige, skaters came from elsewhere for the coaching it offered. The club would host national championships in 1924 and 1934 at the Ice Palace, later called the Arena, at 45th and Market.

Icier Boston eventually surpassed Philadelphia as America's figure-skating capital. But the city's traditions held. Between 1923 and 1945, the Skating Club's skaters held 16 national titles.

Button, a North Jersey native who was the Olympic champion in 1948 and 1952, trained there, as did Hamilton, the 1984 gold medalist.

The Philadelphia Skating Club, its rink now nestled into a tiny footprint near Haverford College, came to mind recently when a plane carrying a Brazilian soccer team crashed.

The Ardmore club hosted the 1961 North American Championships. On Feb. 13, a send-off party was held there for the U.S. figure-skating team that was headed to the World Championships in Prague. Those staying behind said their goodbyes, and the 18 skaters and six coaches left for New York and a plane bound for Brussels. Just before its scheduled landing, the Boeing 707 plummeted into a Belgian cabbage field. All 72 passengers and a farmer on the ground were killed.

There's still lots of quality figure-skating in this area. But talk skating here now, and you're probably talking hockey. At the many indoor and outdoor rinks that have arisen in the past half-century, it's the mania for that sport that pays the bills.

The wasabi peas disappeared, the check came, and we exited 19. I took one long, last look at the muscular cityscape below, then at The Skater.

Maybe it was just the vodka, but I swore William Grant was wearing a Flyers jersey.

ffitzpatrick@phillynews.com

@philafitz

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