Monday, November 7, 2011

The Lost 1853 Crystal Palace

Etching from the Library of Congress
In 1854 architects Georg Carstensen and Karl Gildemeister wrote a detailed description of their astonishing new building, the New York Crystal Palace. “Everybody must be aware of the motives which prompted the erection of a Crystal Palace in New York for the purpose of an Exhibition of the Industry of all Nations,” they said.

Those motives were, simply put, a need for America to join the international frenzy started three years earlier by the opening of London’s Great Exhibition in Hyde Park. The centerpiece of this early world’s fair was an enormous Crystal Palace – constructed of cast iron and glass, it was an engineering and architectural phenomenon.

Immediately the great cities of Europe scrambled to stage their own versions of the international fair.

“The astonishing success which attended the original enterprise undertaken in London in the year 1851; the eagerness with which the example was followed by various countries that signified their intention of immediately entering upon a similar undertaking—all rendered it necessary that so grand a nation as America should in its turn realize on her own soil this novel idea of our progressive era.”

In short, the young United States was compelled to prove it was equal to its overseas counterparts.

On January 3, 1852 plans were made for an international exposition in New York City with its own Crystal Palace. A committee was organized and a lease was obtained from the city for the use of Reservoir Square—where Bryant Park now sits. At the time the Croton Reservoir faced Fifth Avenue between 40th and 42nd Streets, consuming half of the block—the remainder was the open park called Reservoir Square.

The Croton Reservoir was a mammoth Egyptian Revival structure from which the citizens of Manhattan received the water to their homes and office buildings. It would be a monumental backdrop for the Crystal Palace.

Rather than try to outdo the massive London Palace, the committee recommended a one-story structure with a construction budget of no more than $175,000. As the project inched forward, however, the plans would grow to a two-story edifice. Before long the cost had risen to $200,000.  Designs were submitted by cast iron pioneers Bogardus & Hoppin, and Leopold Eidlitz. But it would be Carstensen and Gildemeister who won the commission.

Cast iron construction was just coming into its own in the 1850s. Its popularity was due to the material’s versatility, fire-proof properties and relative inexpensiveness. The architects’ final elaborate design would be in the shape of a Greek cross with three entrances (on 6th Avenue, 40th Street and 42nd Street). At the juncture of the four arms a dome rose 123 feet from the floor with a 100-foot diameter.

The Crystal Palace begins to rise -- Illustrated London News 1853
The guide to the fair published in 1854, “How to See the New York Crystal Palace,” said “It is the largest, as well as almost the only dome hitherto erected in the United States. To our untraveled countrymen it may be an instructive example of the beauty and fine architectural effect of which this structure is capable, although its dimensions are trivial when compared with the majestic domes of the Pantheon or St. Peter’s.”

Two dozen cast iron columns supported the dome, each 62 feet high. Thirty-two stained glass windows decorated the sides of the dome, each representing the arms of the individual states as well as that of the Union.

The massive Egyptian Revival Croton Reservoir can be seen in the background -- etching NYPL Collection
To reach the second story, visitors would climb one of twelve broad staircases, one on each side of the entrances and four under the dome. The cast iron fittings inside—the staircases, railings and such—were painted a rich cream color accented in red, blue and yellow “in their several tints of vermilion, garnet, sky blue and orange” according to the guidebook. The only wood used in the construction was for the floors and window sashes.

The London Crystal Palace had experienced a serious problem when the heat of the sun streamed through the glass panes. Canvas awnings became necessary on the show floor to provide shaded relief to the visitors. Several ideas were discussed to avoid the same problem here, including using different materials for the dome.

The solution, invented by William Cooper of the New York glassworks company Cooper & Belcher, was ingenious.

An enamel substance was ground to a powder then applied to the nearly 10,000 panes of glass with a brush, in a pasty state. When the enamel dried, decorations were etched out either by hand or machinery and the panes were heated in a kiln, fusing the enamel onto the glass. Sunlight streamed through the resulting frosted panes in a gentle, filtered light with none of the excessive heat.

Stained and etched glass panels -- nearly 10,000 of them -- prevented overheating by the sun -- Library of Congress
On October 30, 1852 the first column had been erected “with appropriate ceremonies,” according to the architects. And indeed, the ceremonies included Governor Hunt, Mayor Kingland, Archbishop Hughes, two senators, one former senator, a general, a judge, the Rev. Mr. Pert “from Institute of the Deaf and Dumb,” and other gentlemen.

As the magnificent glass-and-iron structure rose like something from a fairy tale, Edgar Randolph, Superintendent of the New York Fire Department, publicized the precautions against fire that had been made. In July 1853 he provided a long list of the equipment, hoses, hydrants and buckets installed in the building, prompting The New York Times to announce “These arrangements would seem to imply an almost absolute immunity from the possibility of danger by fire.”

The Massachusetts Register for the Year 1853 spoke of the nearly-completed structure. “Such is the building which will soon salute the eyes of the city of New York. In asserting that it will be the largest and most beautiful construction in the country, nothing has been said more than it deserves.”

But the Register cautioned that Palace was less than the objects it would house. “There will be gathered here the choicest products of the luxury of the Old World, and the most cunning devices of the ingenuity of the New.”

Well-dressed citizens flocked to the ticket booth on opening day -- Illustrated News 1853
The Crystal Palace opened on July 30, 1853 and, indeed, it was packed with all the marvels of science, art and industry the world could offer. Thousands poured through the wide doors to view sculpture in the South Nave, paintings from all points of Europe and America, machinery and inventions. New York and the young country, not yet a century old, had held its own with the European capitals.

The ground floor covered approximately two acres -- NYPL Collection
Despite The Times' warning in 1852 that no one would cross the Atlantic to see New York’s fair, throngs of visitors were still cramming the Crystal Palace four years after its inauguration. Then, at 5:10 in the afternoon on October 5, 1858, tragedy struck.

One witness testified that he saw two or three boys hurrying away from the 42nd Street entrance. Moments later a brilliant flash was seen in the “lumber-room” near the 42nd Street doors where old wooden patterns, canvas and other trash was stored. Within seconds the entire room was blazing.

Firemen arrived within 20 minutes, too late to save the structure -- NYPL Collection
The fire spread up the staircase where a 31-jet gas lighting fixture added to its furor. By the time the blaze reached the rim of the dome, it had been fueled by cans of paint and an exhibition of bedding, wallpaper and other household goods. The superheated air filled the dome which, a mere twelve minutes after the fire started, exploded and crashed to the floor.

Approximately 2,000 visitors were in the Palace. When the managers ordered the 40th Street doors to be opened, the rush of air fanned the flames “with increasing and most fearful rapidity,” according to The Times. Luckily the three sets of doors were ten feet wide, allowing all 2,000 potential victims to escape.

Nine minutes after the dome had come crashing down, the entire structure was burned to the ground; its cast iron columns grotesquely twisted and charred. The entire episode lasted only 21 minutes.

The following morning little was left to be salvaged -- NYPL Collection
New York City would go on to have other World’s Fairs. There would be other memorable tourist attractions set in grand parks. But nothing like the amazing 1854 Crystal Palace would ever be seen in the city again.


  1. Excellent post Tom. I've been reading a lot about London's Crystal Palace and it's beyond interesting to read about its US counterpart.

  2. I love the story of this building. Glad you enjoyed it.

  3. Oh, what a trove of information, and I had no idea! As a writer, it fires the imagination...