OLYMPIC LEGACY: Anchor of Lake Placid

Olympic Arena becomes hub for community’s social, tourism activity

This postcard of Lake Placid's 1932 Olympic Arena was taken by local photographer Grover Cleveland in June 1941.

(Editor’s note: This story is part of an “Olympic Legacy” series to celebrate the 90th anniversary of the III Olympic Winter Games at Lake Placid in 1932. What happened that year led to this village hosting the XIII Olympic Winter Games in 1980 and the continuing legacy of training Olympic athletes, inspiring future Olympians and hosting international winter sports events.)

LAKE PLACID — It was a Saturday, Dec. 14, 1957. Helen Devlin was pregnant — very pregnant — and her husband, Olympian Art Devlin, was busy at Bear Mountain State Park in the Hudson Valley winning the ski jumping championships.

The next morning, Helen went into labor, and when Art found out, he skipped the Torger Tokle Memorial trophy jump and “made a bee-line for his car and then for his home in Lake Placid,” the New York Times reported on Dec. 16. Helen gave birth to a 8.5-pound baby boy: Arthur John Devlin.

That baby grew up to be today’s mayor of Lake Placid and co-owner/operator of Art Devlin’s Olympic Motor Inn on Main Street. He’s now 64.

Lake Placid Mayor Art Devlin waves the 2023 FISU Winter World University Games flag at a flag raising ceremony in Mid’s Park on Saturday, Jan. 22, 2022. (News photo — Lauren Yates)

It’s tough for the younger Art to answer a question like, “How would your life be different if Lake Placid never held the III Olympic Winter Games in 1932?” Yet there’s a clear line between the 1932 Games and the motor inn.

“There’s a good chance that Art wouldn’t have had the motel,” the mayor said. “He wouldn’t have had the ability to have the motel because his job with ABC and everything worked together. I don’t know that any of that would have ever happened.”

Ski jumping career

Regional Office of Sustainable Tourism CEO Jim McKenna, left, and Lake Placid Mayor Art Devlin shake hands while holding a framed poster for the 2023 FISU Wiinter World University Games during a flag raising ceremony in Mid’s Park on Saturday, Jan. 22, 2022. (News photo — Lauren Yates)

Arthur Donovan Devlin was born on Sept. 7, 1922, to John and Anna Devlin, of Lake Placid. The family lived on the property where the motel is currently located. There were two houses closer to the street, and they lived in an apartment above the livery in the back. Eventually the Devlins acquired the property.

Art’s mother died of tuberculosis in 1927. His father then suffered a nervous breakdown and was admitted to the state hospital in Ogdensburg. Art was sent downstate to live with family for a short time until his father’s recovery.

By the 1931-32 school year, Art was back in Lake Placid living with his father. He was an honor student in Miss Ryan’s fourth-grade class at the Lake Placid school, according to the Lake Placid News archives. The Jan. 29, 1932, issue of the LPN reported that three families were “routed from their homes by fire” at 2:30 a.m. the previous Sunday in the Devlin cottage on South Main Street, including John, Art and a housekeeper on the upper floor.

Weeks later, Art’s life would change forever.

On Friday, Feb. 12, Lake Placid was hosting the Winter Olympics. It was a warm morning, with temperatures reaching 44 degrees F by 8 a.m., according to the official report of the 1932 Games. Then the temperature started to dip and by the time the ski jumping competition began at the Intervales 60-meter jump, it was below freezing and the hill was “lightning fast.” Art Devlin, age 9, walked 2 miles to see the competition.

Fans watch a hockey game at Lake Placid’s arena during the III Olympic Winter Games in February 1932. (Provided photo — Lake Placid Olympic Museum)

“The reason my father got into ski jumping was that he walked down to the ski jumps, crawled up a tree and watched Birger Ruud win the ski jumping here in Lake Placid, and that’s when he knew what he wanted to do for the rest of his life,” the mayor said.

At age 10, Art won the 14 and under trophy that’s currently in the motel’s trophy case in the lobby. He spent most of the 1930s jumping with the Lake Placid Club Sno Birds organization, competing at Intervales and around the region. At age 17, he earned a spot on the 1940 U.S. Olympic ski jumping team, but the Games were canceled due to World War II.

Graduating from Lake Placid High School in 1941, Art attended Syracuse University for a year before joining the U.S. Army Air Force in 1943. Instead of flying on skis, he spent the next three years flying for his country. Based in Italy, he flew 50 combat missions as a bombardier over Europe in a B-24 Liberator, earning three distinguished flying crosses, five air medals, three Purple Hearts and two presidential citations, according to his obituary. The Army also trained him as a pilot. In 1946, he was discharged at the rank of captain.

Whenever Art was on leave during the war, he continued to ski jump, and he dove back into the sport in 1946. In February of that year, he won the national amateur ski jumping competition at Steamboat Springs, Colorado.

Devlin went on to compete in the 1948, 1952 and 1956 Winter Olympics. He had hoped to compete in the 1960 Winter Olympics; instead, he became a TV commentator for CBS, covering the Squaw Valley Games.

Residents and visitors enjoy public skating in the 1932 Rink of the Jack Shea Arena in December 2021 after improvements were finished. (Provided photo — ORDA)

By this time, Art had been operating Devlin’s Motel, which became Devlin’s Olympic Motel in 1960 and later Art Devlin’s Olympic Motor Inn.

Art spent decades covering ski jumping events as a TV commentator, working for ABC’s Wide World of Sports for 21 years starting in 1962.

He was also involved with Lake Placid’s 1980 Olympic bid committee and was the vice president of the Lake Placid Olympic Organizing Committee for the 1980 Games. He was inducted into the U.S. Ski Hall of Fame in 1963 and the Lake Placid Hall of Fame in 1983.

Art died on April 22, 2004, at the age of 81. There is a statue of him located at the Olympic Jumping Complex in Lake Placid.

The 1932 Arena is seen in December 2021. (News photo — Andy Flynn)

Passing the torch

Arthur John Devlin did not have a storied career in sports. He had a disability that limited his athletic abilities.

“And it prevented me from playing any sport that required eye-hand coordination,” Art said. “So I was never on the hockey team. I was never in football. I couldn’t play baseball. I did track and I did skiing and that was it.”

Art and his father didn’t bond over sports.

“With my eye disability, there wasn’t much I could do, so the thing that he and I did together was work. And that was fine,” he said.

Art grew up working in the family business.

“Growing up in a motel is like growing up on a farm. There’s always something to do,” he said.

From his father, Art learned how to work, how to treat everyone with respect and how to run a business. Like any father, he demanded higher standards from his son.

“It didn’t matter,” Art said. “We were still really good friends. … You learn that when nothing was said that you did it right. And you heard about it when you did something wrong.”

Art’s two sisters didn’t want to stay in the motel business when they grew up.

“I stuck around, and I attacked it,” he said.

Art graduated from Lake Placid High School in 1976 and attended Ithaca College for his freshman year. But it was too far away from home.

“I was coming home almost every weekend to run the motel on the busy weekends, and it’s five hours each way,” he said. “Even when you’re young, that gets old.”

So Art transferred to SUNY Plattsburgh and graduated early, in December 1979, with a bachelor’s degree in business administration. He began working full time at the motel in January 1980, just before the Olympics. There were only eight winterized rooms, and they were hosting ABC staff.

“We kind of went through and did some quick stuff with insulation so we could stay open for the Games,” he said. “But if it had been really cold, we would have been in trouble.”

Art’s memories of the 1980 Winter Olympics were limited to the motel. He worked all the time.

“I don’t think I went to anything. Everything I did was watching on TV and being here,” he said. “When you’re in the motel business, you do everything backwards from everybody else. Everyone works Monday through Friday. Everyone says, ‘Great, Friday is here.’ In the motel business, that’s when you get the busiest.”

For a brief moment in the 1980s, Art had the opportunity to change careers and work for Clinton Aero, a regional air service. He had been flying with Steve Short’s Adirondack Flying Service at the Lake Placid Airport since the late 1970s.

Art’s first flying lesson was on Wednesday, Sept. 6, 1978, the same day a single-engine 1971 Cessna Cardinal plane carrying four people from the capital region crash landed near the 17th green of the Lake Placid Club Resort’s upper golf course. It was extremely windy that day. Everyone escaped with minor injuries, but the plane was a total loss.

Art never took that job. He could have been become an airline pilot, possibly based out of a hub like Pittsburgh. But he decided to stay in Lake Placid and continued flying for Steve Short until he and his wife Sue bought the motel on Jan. 1, 1992. It was in the middle of a cold snap when overnight temperatures dipped to 20 to 30 below zero and the daytime high hovered around zero.

“I can remember thinking, ‘What kind of a nut am I to buy a place like this?’ But here I am,” he said.

Olympic legacy

As the village’s newest mayor — having been sworn in on April 5, 2021 — Devlin is one of Lake Placid’s chief representatives at the World Union of Olympic Cities. He traveled to Europe for the organization’s annual meetings last November with former Mayor Craig Randall and his wife and Regional Office of Sustainable Tourism CEO Jim McKenna and his wife. They attended the Smart Cities & Sport Summit at Copenhagen, Denmark, and the World Union of Olympic Cities executive committee meeting at Lillehammer, Norway.

“We’re kind of the poster child” for Olympic legacy, Art said of Lake Placid.

The proximity to the limelight was much different for Art Devlin, the Olympic ski jumper and TV commentator, than it was for the younger Art Devlin, the motel owner.

“I was always the guy in the background,” Art said. “My father was the person out front. I didn’t mind. I was just happy to be in the background.”

But now it’s the son’s turn. As mayor, he’s in the front, running village board meetings, giving speeches and welcoming people to Lake Placid. When he’s done in the limelight, Art hopes his hometown will be more like it was in the past.

“I do not want Lake Placid to become all big hotels and vacation rentals and turn into Disneyworld,” he said. “That’s not why I’m there. I want it to be a community more like it was growing up. And I’d like to see it get back in that direction where people live here and enjoy the area and volunteer.”

Anchor of the community

When Gov. Franklin D. Roosevelt declined the III Olympic Winter Games Committee’s request for money to help construct the Olympic Arena, he said it was too much money for the state to spend on the Games, particularly during a time of depression.

“Furthermore,” he wrote on Feb. 16, 1931, to III O. W. G. Committee President Godfrey Dewey, “it is a highly unwise precedent to set for one week’s official use, the building thereafter to become practically a local structure for local use.”

For 50 years, the North Elba Park District operated the 1932 Olympic Arena; however, in 1982, New York state took over the expanded facility after creating the Olympic Regional Development Authority a year earlier. It’s still a local structure for local use, owned by the town and run by the state, but its role as the anchor of this community has never changed. With the 1932 and 1980 arenas and the attached Lake Placid Conference Center, the Olympic Center is the crown jewel of Lake Placid.

From day one, after the III Olympic Winter Games ended in February 1932, the Olympic Arena became a social and economic hub in Lake Placid. Strategically located on Main Street, residents and visitors were drawn to the arena for athletics, meetings, office space, social events, competitions and conventions.

The building’s post-Olympic benefits were used as a selling point prior to the North Elba Park District’s special election on July 30, 1931, to spend $150,000 for the arena’s construction. During the July 18, 1931, meeting of the New York State Olympic Commission at the North Elba Town Hall, Dewey called it “one of the most important projects in the history of this region.”

“One by one members of the commission pointed out the necessity for Lake Placid to have this structure and what it would mean in the continued development of this resort,” the Lake Placid News reported on July 24, 1931. “The advantages to Lake Placid both during and after the Olympic Winter Games of having this unique and permanent addition to its sports facilities were stressed by the leading legislators of New York state who were at the meeting.”

Voters approved the funding resolution and the arena was quickly built in time for the Olympics. The building was dedicated on Jan. 16, 1932.

Its main benefit during the Olympics — to guarantee ice on a refrigerated indoor rink for hockey, curling and figure skating events when outdoor ice was poor — served the community well after the Olympics.

Further benefits of the arena were promoted after the Olympics by Lake Placid News Publisher George Lattimer, who also served as the publicity director for the III O. W. G. Committee.

“As the town resumes the quiet tenor of its ways and the Olympic Games are filed away with our pleasant memories,” the LPN editorial stated on Feb. 19, 1932, “there is one monument to the international games which will remain in Lake Placid for many years — the Olympic arena.”

The editorial reported that the arena had been in constant use since it opened to the public. Local crowds packed the building daily to watch figure skaters practice, and attendance at local hockey games “jumped almost ten-fold.” The Lake Placid Club held its figure skating competition and daily practice at the arena, and the newspaper said the building had “become a happy meeting place.”

Yet, depression or not, the town of North Elba would have to find a way to pay for the building’s upkeep and operations. The arena’s backers already had a solution for that: conventions and competitive events.

“A manager on his toes could not only pay his own salary and carrying expenses of the building,” the editorial stated, “but might do much toward cutting down the principal of the investment, as well as draw the numbers of people to Lake Placid which after all is the purpose of a resort town.”

Resort town

The town of North Elba has been a popular tourist destination since the mid-1800s, long before the village was incorporated in 1900. In her Aug. 16, 1979, essay titled, “Joseph Nash: Jovial Father of the Village of Lake Placid,” former town/village historian Mary MacKenzie said the town “was astir with strange activity” in the 1850s, as “outlanders” began to appear on the farm roads.

“A man and woman came all the way from Boston on horseback,” she wrote. “Painters, writers, mountain climbers, sportsmen — all were trekking in for a look at the unspoiled wonders of the wild. Travelers seeking a bed began to pound on the Red House door.”

The Red House was Nash’s, near the shore of Mirror Lake at the bottom of what would later be called Saranac Avenue. It was a small frame house above his cabin, where the High Peaks Resort’s Lake House is currently located. Seeing a hostelry demand for travelers, Nash put an addition on his house, “and by 1855 had turned innkeeper for the summer tourist trade,” MacKenzie wrote. “… Overnight Nash’s became the place to stay.”

As the years progressed, the town hosted more and more tourists. Inns made way for small hotels, which got larger and larger. Stagecoach runs from Lake Champlain transported visitors to North Elba. Then, in December 1887, the railroad line from Plattsburgh reached nearby Saranac Lake. It was extended to Lake Placid in 1893. Two years later, Melvil Dewey founded the Lake Placid Club, which expanded every year and hosted a groundbreaking — and successful — winter tourism experiment during the winter of 1904-05. After that, the village of Lake Placid became a year-round resort.

Before the Olympic Arena opened, large conventions were held at local hotels or the Lake Placid Club. Social events, public meetings and entertainment were held at the town hall, hotels, movie theaters or the Lake Placid Club. Winter sports events were held outdoors at Mirror Lake or Mill Pond at Newman or the Lake Placid Club.

Yet this town grew even more as a tourist destination because of the publicity generated from the 1932 Games. Strategic use of the Olympic venues helped shield the community from the harshest days of the Great Depression and solidified Lake Placid’s reputation as a leader in international sports competition. The facilities were tourist attractions, but they meant much more to the local families who used them year-round for all kinds of social events.

A busy 1932

Some of the first post-Olympic events at the arena in 1932 were figure skating shows, and the ice sheet was kept open until April for residents and tourists.

The Lake Placid News reported on March 25, 1932, that 20,000 square feet of ice was available for public skating.

“Ice is uniformly of the highest quality because of the refrigeration system installed,” the LPN stated. “Music, supplied by radio and phonograph, adds materially to the enjoyment of the skaters, who come from neighboring villages to indulge in skating under ideal conditions.”

On April 8, 1932, the LPN reported that a full schedule was planned for the arena. The ice sheet had been removed, and seats along the north and south sides were taken down so the entire space could be used for conventions.

“Horseshoe pitchers will have a chance further to perfect their skill in the two regulation horseshoe pitching boxes that the Olympic committee has laid out along the north side of the building where the bleacher seats formerly stood,” the LPN stated.

Other sports planned for the space included tennis, boxing, roller skating and baseball.

The Lake Placid Athletic Club sponsored an indoor baseball league of five teams at the arena from April to June.

“The Lake Placid Club team was jolted off the top position of the local indoor baseball league with a whirlwind 16-11 defeat by the American Legion Wednesday evening of this week, leaving the lead to the High School sluggers,” the LPN reported on April 29, 1932. The Athletic Club and the Fish and Game Club also had teams.

About 3,900 people visited the arena in early May for an automobile show, and entertainment was provided by circus and vaudeville acts and a band called Perry Dring’s Georgia Aces.

“Last but not least in the show was Hap, the bear,” the LPN stated. “Housed in a cage at a corner of the arena, at times it was almost impossible to get a peek at the eight-year-old bear owned by F. Paul Stevens and captured at the head of Lake Placid when a cub.”

On June 1, the III O. W. G. Committee transferred the arena to the North Elba Park Commission (June 3, 1932, LPN).

The Lake Placid Athletic Club sponsored boxing bouts at the arena in the summer of 1932.

In July, the Park Commission appointed Herman L. Garren the manager of the arena. He was the construction superintendent during the Olympics.

“A complete program of summer and winter amusements will be formulated creating a stimulus for both social and athletic community gatherings,” the LPN reported on July 8, 1932.

In July, the arena’s refrigeration system was engaged to re-create the ice sheet that made the building famous, and it was available for speed and figure skating.

“Approximately 225 skaters took advantage of the summer rink over the week end,” the LPN stated on July 15, 1932, “Jack Shea, 1932 Olympic speed champion reviving his memory in technique and muscle training which may have lapsed since his last race in March.”

Entertainment in the form of broom ball was offered the evening of Aug. 3 during an ice gymkhana.

“Stars of the evening, the hockey teams, playing with one skate on and one off, basket ball for puck and brooms for sticks, kept things moving and at no slow speed for twenty minutes,” the LPN reported on Aug. 5, 1932. “Half of the players, dressed in women’s clothing of antique and bizarre design, added to the obstacle element of the game.”

On Aug. 16, Michael Covert and his NBC Waldorf Astoria orchestra of 10 pieces played during a charity ball at the arena. Proceeds went to furnish food and clothing for people in the colder months “when suffering among the poor is acute in this section” (Aug. 5, 1932, LPN).

The arena was becoming a popular tourist destination. Over the Labor Day weekend, Garren told the LPN that 1,693 people had visited the facility, coming from 25 states and five foreign countries (Sept. 9, 1932, LPN).

By the time the New York State Nursing Association held its convention at the Olympic Arena in early October, the Lake Placid Chamber of Commerce had moved its offices from the North Elba Town Hall to the new building.

“The large room to the left of the main entrance on the south side of the building will afford ample room for the reception of tourists in the busy season and advertising literature may be displayed in a convenient and attractive manner,” the LPN stated on Oct. 7, 1932.

Coach Gustave Lussi launched Lake Placid’s summer figure skating school in 1932, under the auspices of the Adirondack Figure Skating Club. It is a tradition that continues today with the Skating Club of Lake Placid.

Lussi also contributed to the ice carnival that summer, bringing famous U.S. and Canadian Olympic figure skaters to a show on Aug. 6. It was part of a mid-summer festival that included the ice gymkhana on Aug. 3 and hockey games on July 30 and 31.

The LPN lauded the success of the ice carnival and its Olympic venue in the Aug. 12, 1932, editorial.

“It is earnestly to be hoped that this carnival will be the forerunner of a long series of similar affairs planned for August each year. The Olympic arena is again proving to be the asset that its sponsors promised. With such affairs as the one last Saturday staged within its walls it could not be anything else.”

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