Unexamined Premises

Trump, Death Wish, the Wollman Rink, the Damn Fence, and the White House

Trump, with Henry Stern, in 1986 at the Wollman Rink

Trump, with Henry Stern, in 1986 at the Wollman Rink

Before Donald Trump became a celebrity, before he became The Donald, even before he was regularly pilloried in the pages of the old Spy magazine as a “short-fingered vulgarian,” New Yorkers knew his name thanks to one thing in particular. Not the in-and-out-of-bankruptcy real estate empire he inherited, or his flamboyant love life, but the Wollman Rink in Central Park. And while I think he has little chance of winning the Republican nomination (is he even a Republican?), mostly thanks to the fixed-fight aspect of the GOP nominating process under the auspices of the junior wing of the Permanent Bipartisan Fusion Party, I do think his largely interchangeable opponents underestimate his appeal at their peril.

What’s the Wollman Rink, you ask? It’s a skating rink at the south end of Central Park that, like just about everything else in New York City, had fallen into decrepitude by the 1970s — the stinking, filthy New York City immortalized in such films as Death Wish and The French Connection. In 1980, the city announced it was closing the popular spot for renovations that were to last a couple of years; by 1986, the rink was still “under construction,” costs had soared to over $12 million, and the work that had been done was faulty; the rink had come to symbolize the futility of government at all levels. Up stepped Trump with a challenge to mayor Ed Koch: let him take over the rink and he would have the work completed in a few months and the place open to the public before the end of the year.

He did. Here’s how it went down, as chronicled in the pages of the New York Times.

May 31, 1986

Donald J. Trump has offered to take over reconstruction of the trouble-plagued Wollman Memorial Skating Rink in Central Park, to have it open by this winter and to operate it at no profit to himself.

The Koch administration has agreed to consider Mr. Trump’s proposal. ”This offer could be very helpful, but we must be very careful,” said Parks Commissioner Henry J. Stern. He declined to elaborate, but other administration officials indicated that questions about potential profits, and the lack of competitive bidding should Mr. Trump proceed, would have to be resolved.

The flamboyant developer made his offer in a ”Dear Ed” letter to Mayor Koch dated May 28. ”For many years I have watched with amazement as New York City repeatedly failed on its promises to complete and open the Wollman Skating Rink,” he wrote. ‘Should Take No More Than 4 Months’

”During this six-year period,” he said, ”I have constructed major hotels, apartment buildings and, in 26 months, Trump Tower, a highly sophisticated and complex mixed-use building containing shopping, offices and apartments. Building the Wollman Skating Rink, which essentially involves the pouring of a concrete slab, should take no more than four months time.” Calling it ”unacceptable” that the city now wants another two years to rebuild Wollman, Mr. Trump offered to pay for the construction of a new rink, lease it from the city at ”a fair market rental” and then run it.

Naturally, this sent the bureaucracy into complete panic. But, to his credit, Koch gave the gig to Trump.

June 6, 1986:

At this point in the long saga of the skating rink that no one could fix, city officials and the developer Donald J. Trump essentially agree on how to rebuild Central Park’s Wollman Rink. They also agree on how long the job will take, barring further disaster. If the city does it, it will take 18 months. If Mr. Trump does it, it will take four months. Why? The difference, said Alan M. Moss, the head of capital projects for the Parks and Recreation Department, is that the city must adhere to a long list of procedural safeguards – which have only become more prominent since the eruption of the municipal corruption scandal – and that it cannot offer contractors the incentives that Mr. Trump, as a private businessman, can.

Mr. Moss said he believed that ”by keeping a close watch on our schedule,” the city could open the rink by November 1987. But he saw no reason why Mr. Trump, who in a barbed letter to the Mayor last week offered to take over construction and operation of the rink, could not have it ready a year earlier. Mr. Trump, not disputing that, makes some additional observations: ”I know how to build. I’m going to take the approach of leadership. I’m going to get good contractors and push the hell out of them. They’ve worked for me and they want to continue working for me. They want to prove you can do things in this city. ‘You can always get the job done through sheer force of will,” he concluded.

To all of New York’s delight, Trump finished the job a month ahead of schedule. You can read the complete timeline of events here.


Here’s the section on Trump.

Nov. 21, 1986:

TRUMP: 5 MONTHS May 28: Donald J. Trump, the developer, offers to take over rink reconstruction. Says it should take no more than four months. June 6: Mayor Koch accepts Mr. Trump’s offer. Agreement calls for developer to complete job by Dec. 15 and to make no profit. June 17: Board of Estimate approves $3 million for Mr. Trump to rebuild rink, with developer to pay any additional costs. June, early July: Trump Organization hires construction company, architect and Canadian ice-rink manufacturer. July 4: Canadian manufacturer begins building two 35,000-pound refrigeration units. July 10: Workers begin creating level base for new refrigeration pipes. Early August: Subsurface for new rink completed. Mid-August: Workers begin installing new refrigeration pipes. Sept. 10: Pipes completely installed. Sept. 11: Concrete rink slab is poured. Mid-September: Refrigeration equipment installed. Oct. 15: Tests of pipes conducted, sending brine solution through them. It rains, and an inch of ice forms on rink. Oct. 28: Mr. Trump announces that renovation is complete.

Cut to four months later.

April 1, 1987:

New Yorkers were grateful when Donald J. Trump finished ahead of schedule and under budget in renovating the Wollman Memorial Rink, where the city had spent six years and $12 million trying to produce ice. But even the Trump Organization, which controls a network of real estate developments and management corporations, did not expect to make a profit.

Yesterday, on a wet spring morning that would have been three months from the scheduled completion date if the city had not relinquished the project in Central Park, Mr. Trump announced that he had made a profit. Closing the ice-skating rink until the fall, Mr. Trump said it had made a profit of about $500,000 on $1.5 million in receipts since re-opening in November. The money will go to several charities and will be used for public works projects. Profit a Pleasant Surprise. The executive vice president of the Trump Organization, Anthony B. Gliedman, who ran the renovation project, said the profit was about $450,000 to $500,000.

At that moment, Donald Trump was probably the most popular man in the five boroughs, because he had done something that everybody knew was possible except the city’s entrenched, corrupt Democratic Party establishment, for whom the millions of dollars wasted was not a bug but a feature of personal enrichment. Recall as well that this was the era of the defeatist Upper West Side whine from behind multiple locked doors: nothing can be done! Crime is unstoppable! Kids are going to have sex no matter what you tell them! Who are we to judge?! Call the cops! (Eventually, the voters did call the cops, in the form of Rudy Giuliani and Bill Bratton.) Trump showed that, at least in the case of the Wollman Rink, something very much could be done.

This is what is behind the Trump boomlet. It’s not so much his particular stance on, say, immigration, it’s that he has the confidence to say to the voters: this can be done. “You can always get the job done through sheer force of will,” would be a hell of a campaign slogan. Forget the six-point programs and position paper beloved of the krack kadres of GOP kampaign konsultants, and the carefully parsed answers to trick questions from the media. Just build the damn fence.