A s recently as the 1950s, according to Gary Donaldson, the ice trade in New Haven depended on saws, sledges and brute force. “They used to cut ice off of [Hamden’s] Lake Whitney and bring it here.”
“Here” is P. Diana & Sons Ice House, better known as Diana’s, a small warehouse near Erector Square that Donaldson, the current owner, says has been supplying the area with ice since at least 1911. Donaldson’s father bought the business in 1979, with the son assuming ownership in 2007. Before that, the Diana family owned the business, and the name has stuck.
Today, the ice house manufactures and delivers block ice, dry ice and ice cubes. They also do ice sculpture. “We deliver ice to whoever wants it,” Donaldson says. “I always say, we’ve delivered everywhere: from the president to the prison.” In fact, three presidents, all Yalies, have cooled off with Diana’s ice: Clinton and both Bushes.
Despite its old-timey feel, ice still does a brisk business, especially in the summertime. Donaldson says that the demand during the summer months is “out of control… People have this idea that you can have a warehouse of ice and keep making money. But it’s not quite that simple.” Beyond the obvious challenge of selling a product that literally melts away, heat waves can call for 20-hour workdays at the ice house. “The hotter it gets, the harder we work. When everybody’s partying that’s when we’re working the hardest—we’re there for them,” Donaldson says.
For now, however, it’s wintertime, and Donaldson and his crew are taking a lot of orders for seasonal ice sculptures, including carved block letters, several crystalline punch bowls embedded with bright holly boughs and even a Pittsburgh Steelers-themed shot luge. The carving is done with an intimidating set of tools: chainsaws, scrapers, gougers, electrical routers and even blowtorches, which Donaldson says smooth the surface to a camera-ready sheen.
It’s not just the tools that can send a shiver down your spine. Donaldson recalls a recent ice carving demonstration he held: “There was a huge crowd. There must have been 200 people watching me. I was pretty nervous.” 30 minutes and much wielding of power tools later, his creation—a snowman—was finished. “I set him free,” Donaldson says. “He was trapped inside a block of ice.”
The front office of the ice house is cozy and cluttered, complete with Donaldson’s wolfish dog Ellie May and a sly cat named Brat. But inside the warehouse itself, the atmosphere is spartan, dim and understandably frigid. Tall chrome walls tower over stacked bags of ice. Large rectangles of block ice, about four feet by two feet by one foot, stand against one wall.
“Everyone loves block ice,” Donaldson says, reaching for his medieval-looking cast iron ice tongs. The sharp tongs pierce the sides of the ice so that he can slide it into the light coming through a nearby open door. It’s beautiful—clear, bright and prismatic—a far cry from the tiny, whitish ice cubes hibernating in your freezer trays.
The ice house’s ice machines “freeze gradually in layers so that there’s no air trapped inside. That way it becomes crystal clear instead of white,” Donaldson says, adding, “Some people say it tastes better—I think so.”
After a stint in New Haven that’s lasted over a century, Diana’s is “the oldest and only remaining ice house in the city,” he says. “There’s history here,” and unlike the product, it’s not showing any signs of melting.
Written and photographed by Sorrel Westbrook.