Inspired design snowed under in California

Blyth Memorial Arena just prior to the 1960 Winter Olympics with a training rink in the foreground. Blyth broke convention in its design, earning an architectural award while conforming to IOC mandates.

Frozen under two feet of wind-stiffened whiteness sat a thin layer of asphalt shingles. Black, gritty and cold beyond their limits, they were not to be jabbed, scuffed or even grazed by shovel, as my dad would remind me each year while climbing the gables.

Lest our roof buckle beneath winter’s snowy girth, we made the annual ascent, shoveled delicately, and then celebrated – him with an ice-cold Coca-Cola; me with a plunge into the seven-foot piles that had accumulated below.

Today, there is no snow. It has been a strange winter in the frozen north. And as I look out onto the unencumbered peaks around me, I suspect the shingles are happy. A winter like this would have benefited Blyth Memorial Arena, which met its demise under far different conditions during this very time of year in 1983.

A Marvel of its Time

Constructed for the 1960 Winter Olympics in Squaw Valley, Blyth’s sharp, modern figure was a stark contrast to its surroundings. Cantilevered steel beams, vibrant red, anchored thick support cables from its galvanized, side-gabled roof. The 300-foot clear-span crown rose 90 feet (more than eight stories) above the ice, an 85-by-190 rink for which Frank Zamboni designed a special three-wheeled resurfacing machine that could navigate its unusually sharp corners. A supercharged refrigeration unit was tucked nearby, built to not only chill the Blyth ice, but also the adjacent outdoor oval and practice rink – some 2.8 acres of ice in all. Green before it became fashionable, the unit’s excess heat was recycled to warm the building.

And then there was the south end of the arena. IOC rules of the era stipulated that figure skating competition be held in the open, so architects designed Blyth with one open gable side in which the bleachers could be swung wide like a gate to the great outdoors. Against the pine-dotted snowscape of Squaw Peak, it was striking; avant-garde in both form and function. The American Institute of Architects agreed, including Blyth among its annual Institute Honor Awards for 1960.

Despite the design accolades, however, there was one very big problem. Being open to the great outdoors meant that the bright California sun poured in, searing the ice. Needing a quick remedy, two-inch thick ropes were hung from the roof, diffusing the sun like a giant bead curtain. It wasn’t a perfect solution, but it helped.

Playing Overtime

According to architectural post-mortem reports, Blyth was never meant to be a lasting structure. Even local building codes of the day worked against its longevity. Snow load criteria required Blyth’s roof to resist just 4.79 kPa (kilopascals; unit of pressure measurement, i.e., force per unit area), considered totally inadequate by today’s standard (11.49 kPa), and certainly insufficient for a long-term clear-span arena in the Lake Tahoe Basin, where annual snowfall can exceed 450 inches. Blyth was designed as an efficient, captivating Olympics host and nothing more. But the aureate afterglow was too strong and the building remained in use well beyond its intended expiration date.

Not long after the Olympics, when the exterior ice rinks were removed, demands on the refrigeration unit dwindled. Knowing that the unit’s waste heat helped melt snow from the roof, operators installed a back-up system which soon proved inadequate. Then, in the mid-1970s, the United States Forest Service simultaneously addressed roof leakage and insulation mandates by spraying fiberglass on Blyth’s crown. While this may have stemmed the tide, it also increased surface friction, making it more difficult for melting snow to slide off the roof. Eventually a ramp was installed, allowing roof access for small snow removal equipment. But like the fiberglass application, treatment for Blyth’s aging malaise was probably worse than the disease itself. Increased load stress eventually buckled the roof, starting with the ramp area, in 1983. Demolition was next, leaving the site of America’s first gold-medal hockey triumph ripe to become a parking lot.

Memories

Butch Williams skated often in Blyth after his NHL and WHA career, never fearing a roof collapse, but certainly seeing the facility’s age by the late 1970s. Snow removal had become problematic and the place was cramped both on and off the ice, a memory he shared with former U.S. Olympian Weldy Olson, who played there at its apex in 1960.

“We had about a 12-foot radius in the corners, so the ice was never very good there because the Zamboni, even though Frank had come up with a three-wheel design to get into the tight corners, wasn’t that effective,” recalled Olson, who won silver in Cortina four years before striking gold in Squaw Valley.

“And the dressing rooms were very small. Almost non-existent. There was only enough room to put on our skates. We had to get dressed in the dorm with four guys in a room.”

According to Olson, close-quarters cramped the Americans at rinkside, too.

“We had a double bench that couldn’t fit more than eight people in the front,” he explained. “When guys came off, they went to the second row. So you’re coming off dead tired but you still had to find a way into that second row. Other than that, the building was fine, except the sun came in from the south side. But you just played the game. We didn’t worry about it.”

Alas, for all its quirks and cramps, Blyth still proved to be a good host, housing ice sports into a third decade before finally succumbing to the ravages of time it was never meant to endure.

– Jayson Hron
Classic footage of the 1960 American hockey victory over USSR captures Blyth in all its glory:
More great footage of the Americans, this time on the training rink adjacent to Blyth:
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