Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Stanford White's Lost 1890 Madison Square Garden

Madison Square Garden around 1910 -- postcard from author's collection

In 1874, as the New York entertainment district cropped up along 23rd Street in the post-Civil War years, P. T. Barnum converted a railroad freight warehouse on Madison Square and 26th Street for larger-than-life open air entertainments. In true Barnum fashion, he called the venue the “Monster Classical and Geological Hippodrome.” Not exactly a name that rolled easily off the tongue.

William K. Vanderbilt took over the space in 1879 and rechristened it Madison Square Garden. Vanderbilt used the building primarily for sporting events; but it was “dirty, rickety, even dangerous,” according to The New York Times and by 1888 the idea of a more modern, enclosed arena took shape.

On March 22, 1889 the plans for the new building were announced. McKim, Mead & White would design the “imposing quadrangular structure of the order of architecture known as Italian Renaissance, of yellow pressed brick and white terra-cotta masonry, iron, and glass,” said The New York Times.

The newspaper foretold of an arcade extending over the sidewalk around the building, an amphitheater 310 by 195 feet with a track one-tenth of a mile and an arena 122 by 226 feet. “The seating capacity will be 5,060, or double the capacity of the present garden,” said the article, and the amphitheater “will hold 12,000 people without discomfort or crowding.”

In addition, the vast venue would house a grand concert hall seating 3046 people, a café and a restaurant. On the roof would be a Summer garden for evening concerts.

The architects explained “The plan of this hall has been very carefully studied upon the actual construction of Wagner’s theatre at Bayreuth, and is in accord with the most advanced theories of acoustics.”

By August the old structure was being torn down as New Yorkers were promised “a mammoth place of amusement.” The floor of the amphitheater could be floored over for conventions, accommodating 12,000 persons. Below the sidewalk, a hall for stabling horses during horse shows and circuses was planned.  Dining rooms, rooms for supper parties, galleries and concert halls would be reached by stairways and elevators

A 300-foot tower inspired by the Giralda of Seville would rise at the corner of 26th Street, topped by a controversial 18-foot gilded statue of a nude Diana by Augustus Saint-Gaudens.  It would have not only an observation tower, but a private apartment for Stanford White that would be the source of his undoing.

On June 7, 1890 the amphitheater–the first section of the building completed–was opened to “a few privileged spectators.” Four thousand electric lights bedazzled the invited guests at what was called the largest hall of public entertainment in the world. Stretching from 26th Street to 27th Street and two-thirds of the block from Madison to 4th Avenue, The New York Times reported, “It is provided with seats for about 9,000 persons, and will easily hold 14,000.” A sliding skylight covering about half of the roof opened mechanically to improve the ventilation.

The interior was lush. Polished granite pillars supported the entrance, the staircases throughout were marble and stone and the floors were mosaics. The building was, according to The New York Times, “one of the great institutions of the town, to be mentioned along with Central Park, the bridge to Brooklyn, and the new aqueduct.”

The rarely-seen 4th Avenue facade -- postcard from author's collection

The Garden was the site of great entertainments as well as annual shows: the dog show, the cat show, the “mammoth flower show,” the sportsmen’s exposition and the bicycle show. Buffalo Bill’s Wild West and Congress of Rough Riders of the World was here in 1900, entertaining thousands with bucking broncos, Annie Oakley and marksman Johnny Baker.

Upstairs, in his private apartments, Stanford White was hosting entertainment of his own. The married architect was a notorious playboy and womanizer who frequently dated showgirls and models.

In 1900 the 47-year old architect had met 16-year old showgirl Evelyn Nesbitt who became the wife of Pennsylvania millionaire Harry Kendall Thaw.  As with so many girls, she and White entered into a sexual relationship. When Thaw found out about the affair, he simmered with jealous rage.

On the evening of June 25, 1906 Stanford White sat in evening clothes in the Roof Garden to enjoy the premiere of the musical Mam’zelle Champagne. While the chorus sang “I Could Love a Million Girls,” Harry Thaw walked to White’s table and fired a gun three times into White’s temple. According to one witness Thaw uttered, “You’ll never go out with that woman again.”

Stanford White died on the floor of what some considered his masterpiece.

On June 10, 1911 the Garden was sold for $3.5 million, just about the original cost of construction, to the F. & D. Company.  The firm immediately announced plans to demolish the building.  Madison Square Garden, despite its popularity, was a financial failure from its opening. In its place, the public was told, would rise a 25-story office building, the largest commercial structure in the world.

Financial problems saved the grand building and in December 1916 the New York Life Insurance Company purchased it for $2 million when F. & D. Company defaulted on interest on the mortgages.

A year later Helen Henderson, in her A Loiterer in New York, lamented the fate of the Garden.  "The building has an unforgivable fault--it never 'paid.'  And for that 'they' say it has got to come down."

Although in 1920 the insurance company gave a 10-year lease to the sports promoter G. L. “Tex” Rickard, four years later it revealed plans to demolish the building to be replaced by its 28-story headquarters.

The Roof Garden during demolition, 1925 -- photo NYPL Collection

In 1925, in one of New York City’s greatest acts of architectural vandalism--ranking with the destruction of Pennsylvania Station--Stanford White’s astonishing Madison Square Garden was torn to the ground.


  1. You might want to correct this:

    On March 22, 1889 the plans for the new building were announced. McKim, Mean <--SHOULD BE MEAD & White would design the “imposing quadrangular structure of the order of architecture known as Italian Renaissance, of yellow pressed brick and white terra-cotta masonry, iron, and glass,” said The Times.

  2. Sorry to have to point this out, but the Madison Square Garden Tower was inspired by the Giralda in Seville, not anything in Venice. The Giralda was the model for buildings across the country during the American Renaissance and through the 1920s, include two in the Miami area.

    1. No reason to be sorry ... the Metropolitan Life Insurance tower was inspired by the Campanile in Venice, not the Garden tower. Good catch. Thanks for that. Already fixed it!

    2. Perfect, Jeff! have reason..... :)

    3. I can def. see the inspiration from the Spanish Giralda tower, however, would you say that the area around the sidewalk with the arched coverings was inspired by the similar base at Doge's palace in Venice?

  3. Ahhh... I sometimes go back to this post to read again and dream of my favorite building from NYC. So sad it has been lost.

    1. I always think about how amazing Stanford White's apartment must have been... yet I've never seen a single photo or plan, and probably never will. : /

  4. Evelyn Nesbitt said that while she was having a relationship with White, sometimes she would visit him at his apartment in the tower they would climb all the way to the top and stand, holding hands, looking out over the city, right at the feet of the statue of Diana by White's friend, Augustus St. Gaudens. It was mounted on bearings and would turn in the wind, like a weather vane.

  5. One of the worst acts of architectural vandalism ever. The Metropolitan Insurance Company’s greed destroyed this remarkable complex. There were thoughts about preserving the tower, but there for naught as that too was demolished in 1925. At least the Madison Square Presbyterian Church, a jewel box down the street, was another victim. At least some of that was saved through incorporating it in to the then new Hartford Times building, which stands today. The publisher had them sent by train on the New Haven Railroad.