The Pôle Nord

Photo courtesy Bibliothèque nationale de France

The much-anticipated opening of The Pôle Nord on October 14, 1892 marked a very important milestone in French figure skating history. The rink at 18 rue de Clichy in the 9th arrondissement of Paris, next to the Casino de Paris, was the first permanent artificial ice rink in the country.

A grand but temporary ice rink on La rue Pergolèse, closed since the Exposition Universelle of 1889, had been well-attended. This was largely due to proclamations by several French physicians that skating was a health cure. However, Parisians had never seen anything quite so lavish as The Pôle Nord.

The rue Pergolèse rink of 1889. Photo courtesy "The National Ice Skating Guide".

The timing of The Pôle Nord's grand opening coincided with the formation of the International Skating Union and the release of a French translation of Montagu Sneade Monier-Williams' textbook "Figure-Skating Simple And Combined".

The six thousand square foot circular ice rink had a wood and cork floor flooded with eight thousand cubic meters of water. It was frozen by a seven hundred and twenty square meter track with four hundred iron pipes "full of calcium chloride incessantly cooled by ammonia in motion." It was powered by two fifty horsepower steam motors - a system credited to Edouard de Stoppani and similar to one used at the Exposition in Frankfurt the year prior. The Pôle Nord featured dressing rooms and a rinkside bar, where wealthy patrons were served French wine, American cocktails and German beer at their tables. 

Monsieurs Blandin and Gribouval

The beloved directors of The Pôle Nord were Monsieurs Blandin and Gribouval. Blandin was a former director of the Théâtre des Folies-Dramatiques and Grand Théâtre de Reims. Gribouval was described as a "likeable, intelligent man [and] a distinguished and courteous organizer." 

Emilienne d'Alençon

The Pôle Nord was open seasonally, seven days a week from morning until midnight. Gorgeous Belle Époque posters for the rink, designed by Paul Balluriau, Jules Chéret and Alexandre Jean Louis Jazet (under the pseudonym 'Japhet') and others, were widely distributed around Paris in various formats and contributed greatly to the rink's quick popularity. Regulars at the rink included actresses Cécile Sorel, Emilienne d'Alençon and Clémence de Pibrac. 

Photo courtesy Bibliothèque nationale de France

An article in the October 14, 1892 issue of "Le Petit Journal" remarked, "Amateur skaters are quite numerous in Paris, but the softness or better the humidity of our winters prevents them from skating as much as they wish on the mirror ice dear to the peoples of the North. Everyone knows the joke. As soon as it freezes a little in the Bois de Boulogne, the Cercle des Patineurs, which is composed of the best Parisian and foreign skaters, announces a party. Immediately the thaw arrives. This inconsistency and inconstancy of ice in Paris brings two unfortunate results: well-practiced skaters cannot engage in their favourite sport and their skates rust in the armoires, and aspiring skaters, those who would like to learn, never learn because they do not find the opportunity. The new establishment on the Rue de Clichy, which its creators spiritually called The Pôle Nord (North Pole) avoids these inconveniences. It is a perpetually frozen piece of winter that it offers Parisians."

Photo courtesy Bibliothèque nationale de France

The Pôle Nord became a mecca of high fashion, with patrons turning to designers like the House Of Worth and Maison Gagelin for their skating dresses. However, department stores - thinking they had a hit with "the most extraordinary skating toilettes... baptised Russian, Canadian, Polish, etc." - were disappointed to find not only Parisiennes but visiting Canadians and Russians turn their nose up at the novelties. An 1893 account from an unnamed British correspondent in Paris remarked, "Skating has already begun in Paris. Last week the 'Pôle Nord' opened its doors, and many enthusiastic votaries of the pastime put in an appearance. Very natty and smart were some of the costumes worn. Furs, being suited to the occasion, were much 'en evidence'. The wide short skirts now in vogue are admirably suited for skating purposes. Many black gowns were conspicuous, and during the graceful evolutions of the fair patineuses glimpses of gay-coloured linings occasionally flashed out." 

Photo courtesy Bibliothèque nationale de France

Louis Laporte of Rhe Paris Conservatory led the rink's resident forty member orchestra. Blandin and Gribouval wisely employed professeurs - skating teachers who both gave lessons and performed exhibitions for the rink's patrons. Monsieurs Léon and Plumet served as two of the rink's main professeurs. Jean Richard, another French professeur, introduced the Waltz to Parisians. Visits from Axel Paulsen and George Meagher warmed them up to speed and figure skating. 

Nadja Franck. Photo courtesy Bibliothèque nationale de France.

Decorated Scandinavian skaters Nadja Franck and Thidolf Borgh joined the staff and helped introduce patrons to the techniques of school figures and free skating. There was a minor scandal when another of the club's professeurs, François Boleslas de Zdzienski, was fired for "failure to use the rules and regulations imposed on skating teachers". The hullabaloo centered around him showing up at the rink not wearing the required uniform for professeurs.

Photo courtesy Bibliothèque nationale de France

The rink's entertainments ranged from charming to downright bizarre. On Christmas Eve 1982, a lavish holiday party was thrown at The Pôle Nord. The walls were decorated with snowflakes and a gigantic fir tree decorated with garlands was erected at center ice. There were raffles for flowers, soaps, chocolates, brooches and necklaces from the House Of Bluze and even a bicycle. Skaters enjoyed taking part in races and games so much that The Pôle Nord's owners kept the rink open an extra hour. And then there was the rabbit hunting...

A very theatrical scene indeed took place on the ice during a fête The Pôle Nord in the winter of 1896. A report from Jules Roques' "Le Courrier français" stated, "We witnessed a brilliantly fantastic procession: the fantasia of the Golden Calf, borne by four servants in Assyrian costumes, and with a Norman peasant leading it by the nose: beautiful young girls in silver and gold dresses and dripping with gold, accompanied it, burning incense and throwing flowers before it and encircling it with enormous garlands, whilst the Pig, King of Enjoyment, was borne along on his throne by his exquisite adorers; frail and graceful, gilded, silvered, suggestive, and frightfully seductive; an enormous success for all the little company and especially for Carmen, a love of a Love, and Amélie, a Mercury who was ogled to death. The saraband starts. Gold and silver is showered down from above; Bengal lights are set off; burning perfume sends out scented clouds; Projectors shoot forth green, lilac and purple rays; the effect is really magical. Then fanfares of trumpets blare out whilst the orchestra plays, supported by the choir. Now the chase of the Golden Calf begins, a mad race round the rink which ends in a battle of golden ingots in which the public mix with the skaters in a most amazing scene. The conception of these amusements did not lack a little amiable philosophy. Was it not the definite triumph of Love over the brutality of physical enjoyment and the power of gold, that was celebrated with such joy and with such blaring of trumpets? At the end there was tremendous applause and the crowd of spectators departed with memories of a delightful evening and with the dazzle and sparkle of all this brilliant scene still before their eyes."

Photo courtesy Bibliothèque nationale de France

Admission at The Pôle Nord was initially two francs or one franc for members of the Club des Patineurs - a steep enough price to keep anyone but the rich away. During the first couple of years, the take at the door was the equivalent to one hundred and twenty pounds a day. The managers were forced to lower prices when the Palais de Glace opened at the Champs-Élysées in December of 1893 and business dwindled quickly. Many of the elite patrons migrated to the new rink, disgusted that it had "deteriorated [to the point of becoming] quite impossible for a lady to go to nowadays." A big part of that 'deterioration' was also the fact that hockey players were pushing pleasure and figure skaters to the sidelines.

The Pôle Nord closed in 1898, validating naysayers who believed that there simply weren't enough Parisian skaters to keep two rinks going. The following year circus impresario C.M. Ercole took over The Pôle Nord's lease for Carl Hagenbeck, who presented his living panorama "Life At The North Pole", which had been a major success at the Vienna Exhibition. The space later became absorbed into the Casino de Paris with the section near the present rue Blanche demolished to make way for the Nouveau-Théâtre.

Skate Guard is a blog dedicated to preserving the rich, colourful and fascinating history of figure skating. Over ten years, the blog has featured over a thousand free articles covering all aspects of the sport's history, as well as four compelling in-depth features. To read the latest articles, follow the blog on FacebookTwitterPinterest and YouTube. If you enjoy Skate Guard, please show your support for this archive by ordering a copy of figure skating reference books "The Almanac of Canadian Figure Skating", "Technical Merit: A History of Figure Skating Jumps" and "A Bibliography of Figure Skating":