Paul Spreiregen’s ice skates aren’t as sharp as they were 50 years ago. But it’s a good thing he is. Had he got his way fifty years ago, the NHL’s 2015 Winter Classic could have been staged on the National Mall Reflecting Pool.
Millions of hockey fans the world over would have watched the Capitals and the Blackhawks battle it out in the middle of one of America’s most iconic landscapes; a game played literally at Lincoln’s feet.
But perhaps, his idea still has some life left in it.
An Idea Takes Flight
Back in 1964, Spreiregen was an up-and-coming architect working in Washington DC. He hadn’t yet helped revitalize downtown’s languishing core, designed the striking glass-and-green IntelSat headquarters in Northwest DC (“You’ve got to see it through the trees!” he proclaims), or authored his landmark book “The Architecture of Towns and Cities.”
But 50 years ago this summer, Spreiregen and his colleague Louis Justement had a genius idea. Noticing that visitors to DC dropped off precipitously during Winter, Spreiregen offered a proposal as radical as it was simple: freeze the Reflecting Pool on the Mall for season-round ice skating and hockey.
The Administration held a sweltering July press conference at the base of the Lincoln Monument, the long pool extending into the background, with Spreiregen holding up a pair of authentic Dutch long distance ice skates…the kind you might imagine Hans Brinker sporting.
Just think, they said, what this could look like in just six months.
For the then relatively low price of $3 to 4 million dollars (about $25-35 million today). refrigerator coils would freeze the entire Reflecting Pool for the duration of the winter season. That’s an 8 1/2 acre ice rink – enough area for ice skating, curling, and upward of 7 hockey rinks – all in the heart of the National Mall.
Everyone was on board it seemed, until the bureaucrats got involved. In the time-honed Washington tactic of ‘delay until dead’, Spreiregen’s proposal foundered and eventually melted away.
But Spreiregen is still very much around, and so is his idea. And this time around, with Washington preparing to become the largest stage in the NHL calendar hosting the 2015 Winter Classic, it just might be an idea whose time has come…again.
“There’s an old joke,” Spreiregen says, speaking of one of his first DC projects. “Doctors bury their mistakes. Architects plant vines.”
Spreiregen is sharing lessons he’s learned over his 50+ year career, seated in the shade of his outdoor porch high above his Glover Park home. He’s funny and engaging, and the conversation sweeps between urban design, music, the transformative uses of buildings, Boston’s Fenway, and the biology of wolves.
“Why didn’t it happen?” he asks of the Reflecting Pool rink that never was. “That’s just one of those classic Washington stories,” he says, and laughs.
In the early 1960’s, as Washington filled with the boundless New Frontier energy of the Kennedy administration, Spreiregen began to design buildings, champion the re-imagining of urban spaces, and meet like-minded DC movers and shakers. One of them was Louis Justement, “an excellent architect” and designer of, among other things, Sibley Hospital.
“Justement was trying to build a new organization of urban planners, and asked me if I’d submit an article to his new journal,” he says. “I said ‘Sure, what on?’ He said ‘Anything you want.'” So I had this idea, and the rest is history.”
An MIT graduate and lifelong New Englander, Spreiregen grew up playing in winter’s snow and ice. “You ever notice people on a ski slope? Even if the weather’s rotten, everybody’s smiling.”
The Washington winter of 1960, his first one since moving from his Boston home, was particularly cold. “Everything froze, including the Reflecting Pool, and people went skating on it. Duh,” he chuckles.
Everyone agreed the idea was as natural as it was obvious. “It just caught fire. It was national news. Garfield Kass (a Washington philanthropist) offered seed money, and the Washington Post endorsed the idea. They were quite complimentary.”
Quickly the idea to turn the Reflecting Pool into a national wintertime attraction rocketed up Washington local and federal bureaucracies. Secretary Udall staged a major news conference in July – the one Spreiregen attended with his wooden Dutch skates.
“I said ‘If we were standing here 100 years ago, we’d be up to our needs in mud, because 100 years ago, this was a swamp. This pool was built by people of vision.’ That’s all this was. Freezing the Reflecting Pool in winter is only a minor engineering and financial problem. This was just an issue of vision.”
Many in the government agreed, except for an obscure collection of bureaucrats who saw themselves as holding the keys to the Mall.
“Udall instructed the Interior department to do a feasibility study, which I agreed with,” recounts Spreiregen. “I met the park service staff, and happened to point out that I liked that the Mall then had tennis courts so locals and visitors could play.” (From 1940 to 1972 there were ten very popular tennis courts between 3rd and 4th streets, which were ultimately closed to make room for the National Gallery’s East Wing.)
“I said, you want people doing things outside, just having fun, but they sort of sniffed and said ‘We really don’t like that kind of thing.’ They wanted pristine lawns, absent of people. How times have changed,” he said.
When he heard that the study would take a year, Spreiregen knew that the fate of his proposal was sealed. “Here’s the lesson: delay equals death. They didn’t like it, and they killed it with delay.” Sure enough, by 1965 few remembered his idea. The bureaucracy had moved on, leaving his hopes behind.
“I had this drawing for the article, grey skies and landscape, and then all these little colorful dots of people playing on the Mall. It was like a Bruegel painting.”
In this town, there’s nothing so old as yesterday’s hot story. Both Washington and Spreiregen moved on. He joined the Downtown Progress Association and helped the city’s center again become vital and filled with people.
His idea might have just evaporated as well, were it not for a short letter to the Washington Post, published on May 13, 2011. It concluded: “building a rink nevertheless remains a most compelling idea that awaits a fortuitous moment in our city’s evolution.”
And now, with the Winter Classic just six months away, that moment may be at hand.
A Global Stage for Hockey
It’s increasingly clear that the main event – the beat-down the Capitals will deliver to the Hawks – will be held either at Nationals Park, or in a pinch, the rather less glamorous but definitely more old school RFK Stadium. Or God forbid, Baltimore. The NHL will be announcing the venue soon.
The stadiums make sense. An event that big, you need a stage big enough to accommodate the throngs of fans, press, curious and hockey-obsessed that will pour into town.
But Winter Classic week, and hockey more broadly, is about much more than one game…one very, very important game. (The first Classic attended by a sitting President? It’s a possibility – if the Obama family forgoes their usual Hawaiian Christmas vacation).
Throughout the week, and in the months and years following, the Classic provides a showcase for getting entire families involved; those playing and those who want to start, hockey moms and dads and those-to-be, and everyone else who never really thought much about the skating or hockey, but might now be tempted to try.
Could there be any better stage, any more national stage, for showcasing all of the best things about hockey and winter sports more broadly than that stretch of land that lies between the Washington Monument and the Lincoln Memorial? The sight of thousands of locals and visitors alike gathering to frolic on the site where so many Americans have gathered before?
If nothing else, it’s a photo-op the NHL, or any major sport, could never duplicate.
“This could easily happen,” says Spreiregen. “The key is finding someone in town who really wants to see this done, and the authority to make it happen.”
Yes, if you were to use Spreiregen’s original model of installing refrigeration coils in the shallow pool, there would have to be some temporary modifications – again, nothing outside the scope of a competent civil engineer.
Or, using the NHL’s technique of building an ice rink up with consecutive layers of freezing water, a portion of the Pool could be drained and a base constructed on just one part for the building of a rink. If you can play outdoor hockey in Los Angeles at Dodger Stadium, you can build a rink in the Reflecting Pool.
“This isn’t a technical problem,” says the grey-haired Spreiregen as he dashes out drawings and illustrations. “It’s a problem of politics. It’s a problem of imagination.”
Yes, there are several small hockey rinks ringing Washington, and yes, they do a great job. But that’s not what this is about.
Baseball may have come first, and football still draws in the most money, but hockey is every bit an American sport and pastime as any you can name. A seasonal hockey rink on the Mall? Think what could be done.
Lessons to teach city kids and clumsy adults how to skate. A venue for players from PeeWee to beer leagues. Speed skating. Figure skating. Curling. Families of all sorts reveling in the cold in the most American of settings. “A carnival of humanity,” says Spreiregen.
It would cost less than peanuts. It would provide hockey fans memories to last a lifetime. It would celebrate all that’s right about sport, and a nation built by visionaries.
It’s an idea, we believe, whose time might finally have come at last.