There’s a winter wonderland in Palo Alto, and it’s just off Middlefield Road.
The Winter Lodge, a non-profit ice skating facility in an old-fashioned wooden hut, features festive trees, Christmas lights, cocoa and fireplaces, in addition to the main attraction, an outdoor ice rink that has held its own against Palo Alto’s Mediterranean climate and the threat of development for more than 65 years. For generations it has served the community as a special place where children can have fun and play on the ice.
The ice rink – which claims to be the only permanent outdoor ice rink west of the Sierra Nevada – has had a number of challenges since opening in 1956, and most recently survived a developer’s plan to convert the land into condominiums in the 1980s global pandemic that closed the facility for seven months.
The show at the Winter Lodge is directed by Linda Stebbins Jensen, who has been the rink’s general manager since 1986 when it became a non-profit organization.
The rink opened in February 1956 as The Winter Club, founded by San Jose State University engineering professor and former Wisconsinite Duncan Williams. According to an article on PaloAltoHistory.org written by former resident Matt Bowling, he developed a “refrigerant system with a brine solution in the pipes and some strategically placed shade” to create an outdoor ice rink.
Williams, father of three boys, leased the property on a whim to see if he could get the rink up and running, Jensen said.
Williams was planning to retire by 1983 when the lease expired and owner Richard Peery was planning to redevelop the property and build condominiums there, according to Bowling. Ultimately, a 1985 electoral initiative tabled to Palo Altans in two ways: one to approve a land swap and the second to allow a property on Geng Road to be swapped for the Winter Lodge property, he said.
According to Jensen, both measures were adopted with a historically large gap. Now the non-profit organization is leasing their land from the city of Palo Alto.
In 1986, Jensen, who was once a high school employee at the Winter Club, was appointed managing director of the newly renamed Winter Lodge.
Over the years, the facility has grown into what it is best known today: one of the largest ice skating schools in the country with a reputation for old-fashioned fun.
“You just feel welcome when you walk in,” said Jenna Bay, manager and all-level instructor at Winter Lodge. “It’s a cozy, familiar place. Everyone comes here and can relax.”
She said her favorite part about her job is seeing the joy her young students feel when they master a new skill on the ice. “It’s worth it – if they get it and take a hard jump. It’s like, ‘Oh, that’s what I worked for.’ “
Winter Lodge had been humming along under Jensen’s leadership – until COVID-19 struck.
“Of course you can’t run a company-funded non-profit organization if you’re not allowed to,” she said. “We were closed for seven months.”
The damage would have been worse, Jensen said if the Winter Lodge team hadn’t been able to work with congregation member Marc Berman, D-Menlo Park, and his office to iron out the language in California’s COVID-19 restrictions. State and county COVID-19 regulations made it clear that all ice rinks must be closed until a county has reached the “yellow” level, she said, which rated the risk of infection as “minimal”.
However, like other outdoor activities, outdoor ice rinks pose a far lower risk of infection than indoor activities. “They didn’t think about us,” Jensen said of the civil servants who made the regulations. “There are no other permanent outdoor ice rinks in California.”
“I was more than happy to argue to the California Department of Health that outdoor ice rinks were a safe – and much-needed – opportunity for fun and relaxation when there weren’t many,” said Berman.
“I have fond memories of parties at the Winter Lodge as a child and I am glad that children (and adults!) Were able to have these fun experiences in a safe way even during COVID,” he said.
Berman’s office, Jensen said, helped change the wording of those regulations to allow outdoor rinks like hers to reopen – albeit under a series of new restrictions – in late October 2020, she said. Capacity was limited to about 35% of what the nonprofit rink did during a regular season, “which is not sustainable,” she said.
However, between the opening in October 2020 and the financial support from the federal, state and local governments through the pandemic, Winter Lodge was able to survive the last two years with an intact management team, said Jensen.
Community Skating Inc., the name of the nonprofit that operates Winter Lodge, received a total of $ 289,065 since then in two rounds of federal paycheck protection program loans. The rink was also funded by a triple grant from the Anne Wojcicki Foundation, Jensen said.
“It took a village,” she said.
Just when things were feeling their darkest during the pandemic, the rink was announced as the best-voted rink in November 2020 based on the Yelp results, as reported by USA Today, Jensen said. The announcement felt “extremely good” and inspired the team to keep going, she said.
“We have to keep going and trusting that we will return to our mission, which is simply to be a really fun family place for kids, families … relaxation (and) healthy fun.”
This mission seems to resonate with a number of the Winter Lodge staff. In interviews everyone talked about their own childhood on the ice rink and the friendly atmosphere they found there.
Corey O’Farrell, a college-aged man who helps with the management and maintenance of the ice, said he grew up playing hockey at the Winter Lodge and had worked there since high school when he started skating and ” Ice watch “to distribute” – like a lifeguard, but on ice.
According to Jensen, maintaining the outside lane requires “constant dancing with the weather”. This means that you keep an eye on the sun, rain, wind, humidity and their hourly changes. While she was explaining this, the outer lane was covered with a thin, insulated tarpaulin to keep the sun away from the ice and to reflect the heat.
“This place is like a community,” said O’Farrell. “It’s like walking into a neighborhood with a lot of people you know.”
Karie Nanez, assistant director at Winter Lodge, said she had skated at Winter Lodge since she was nine and worked there since she was 13. Your aunt trained there once, and her sister also trains. The place, she says, “feels like a home away from home. … It’s a very pleasant atmosphere here.”
She coaches the performance teams and says she has worked with many of her students since childhood. She has developed a bond with the same girls around the age of 4 through high school and enjoys the reward of seeing them develop through higher levels of skating. It feels like a luxury not to have to compete, she said.
“It’s all about supporting and having fun in the sport that you love. I don’t know you can get that anywhere. “
The Winter Lodge at 3009 Middlefield Road in Palo Alto is open until April 10th this season, with scheduled closings for the holidays on December 24th, 25th and 31st and January 1st. Admission is $ 16 per person and skate rentals are $ 5 per person. Public sessions are offered daily from 3 p.m. to 5 p.m., Wednesdays to Fridays from 8 a.m. to 10 a.m., and Fridays and Saturdays from 8 p.m. to 10 p.m. An additional adult session is offered on Wednesdays from 8:00 p.m. to 10:00 p.m., and an additional family session is offered on Sundays from 5:30 p.m. to 7:30 p.m.
The rental of ice skates is possible from a toddler size 6 up to a women size 14 and a men size 15. Courses at the Winter Lodge are available from 5 years of age.
Visit winterlodge.com for more information.