Polar Palace Inferno

by: Kent McDill

April 1, 2015

   In The Loop Extended Articles

The history of ice skating rinks in Los Angeles is sketchy, with misfortune befalling some, and the weather in Southern California affecting others.

The history of ice rink buildings built from wood is similarly filled with stories of construction problems, ice issues and eventually, fire.
The Polar Palace of Los Angeles, built in 1928, had the poor fortune of being a wooden ice rink structure built in Southern California in the 20th century and did not last beyond 1963.
But it was, at one time, the largest indoor ice surface in the world, 110 feet by 230 feet. It was a place of great celebrity, despite the fact that it stood just a short distance from another Los Angeles ice rink with a fancier name, the Palais de Glace, which opened just one month before the Polar Palace. It was home to the Los Angeles Figure Skating Club.

The location of the Polar Palace was on North Van Ness Avenue between Melrose and Clinton in the heart of Los Angeles, a city that was just finding its legs from a status standpoint. It was originally named Glacier Palace, and it was expected to provide a home for the area’s professional ice hockey teams because of the size of the ice.
Only a couple of blocks away on Melrose were the movie studios for both Paramount and RKO Pictures.

In August of 1934, the Palais de Glace, located on Melrose at Vermont, was destroyed in  a fire, and in September of 1934, the Glacier Palace was renamed the Polar Palace, and was the only ice rink in the area for four years, until the Tropical Ice Gardens were built adjacent to the campus of UCLA in Westwood. Coincidentally, the Tropical Ice Gardens burned in 1950.

While it was standing, the Polar Palace entertained the local masses with some of the best ice shows possible. The Ice Follies played for two weeks in 1938 and was a regular returner, before moving to the Pan Pacific Auditorium, which was a much larger facility. Polar also hosted significant area championships, including the North American championship between skaters from the United States and Canada, the U.S. Nationals, and the Los Angeles Figure Skating Championships.

But it is believed that one of the world’s first ice skating stars, Sonja Henie, first put on one of her famed staged ice shows at the Polar Palace.

In 1960, the Polar Palace was remodeled. Prior to the remodeling, the Polar Palace had murals at each of the rink depicting forest scenes, and those murals were plastered over. The lighting was also improved, but little more was done as the Polar Palace competed with the Pasadena Winter Garden and Paramount Iceland for the area skaters’ attention.

Because of its location and building construction, the Polar Palace ice surface had its quirks. Condensation would form on pipes above the ice surface, and the water that would fall would form tiny ice mounds, which skaters had to either skater around or shave down. In the summer, the top layer of ice often turned to water, and skating could only be done in the earliest morning or late at night.

In the spring of 1961, many members of the United States figure skating team used the Polar Palace ice to prepare for their trip to Belgium to compete in the World Championships in Czechoslovakia that year, but they did not make it as their flight crashed upon approach in Brussels. 

At approximately 3 a.m. on the morning of May 16, 1963, a fire started in the Polar Palace’s adjoining coffee shop, and the entire structure burned to the ground. One of the employees lived across the street, and he saw the fire at the height of the blaze and called several of the regular skaters to let them know. A crowd gathered in front of the Polar Palace to say a final goodbye.

A major competition, the Pacific Skating Championships, were scheduled to be held at the Polar Palace later in 1963, and it was moved to an area arena, as no local ice rink could house the event.

The land upon which the Polar Palace was built had 40 feet of permafrost beneath it at the time of the fire. As a result, it was nearly unusable for building. A greenhouse company eventually set up shop on the site.

A web page dedicated to the memory of the Polar Palace is at http://users.mo-net.com/nixit/polarpalace.html, and many former friends of the Old Barn tell their stories about the place. Among them is the remembrance of a man named Bob Turk:

“I spent my youth in that rink. My recollection goes back to 1937. As a kid, I used to bring my classical records to Polar when Sonja Henie wanted to practice with some music. I would sit up there in that booth and play everything she liked.”