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.