|Barnum erected canvas tenting over the former rail yards in inclement weather. Note the crenelated tower at the far right side of the structure.|
In 1871 the New York and Harlem Railroad abandoned its passenger depot and freight warehouse off Madison Square as it moved to a new facility uptown. P. T. Barnum procured the property, encompassing the entire block from Madison to Fourth Avenue and from 26th to 27th Street, promising to transform it into the “Monster Classical and Geological Hippodrome.”
Barnum’s plan was to create an open-air arena over the old train yards, encircled by wooden stadium-type seating. Three years later, on February 12, 1874 The New York Times reported that the hippodrome was nearly completed.
The structure, 425 feet long and 200 feet wide was enclosed by 28-foot high brick walls. “The ring for the miscellaneous performances, and the grand spectacle of the congress of monarchs, will be oval shaped, 270 feet long by 84 feet wide.” Around the ring were pine seats protected by a wooden roof. “A canopy of canvass will be raised over the arena to be used only in wet weather. On fair days the canopy will be lowered, and there will be no other covering,” explained The Times.
In true Barnum style, the level below the seats housed “a mammoth aquarium, aviary, museum, and menagerie.”
Barnum assured the public that his building would be as fireproof as possible. Wood was used as little as possible, the wooden seats sat on sheet-iron to prevent them from igniting from the gas lighting fixtures on the level below, and the two grand entrances were wide enough to admit “two fire engines abreast.”
Nevertheless, there were “complaints made by property-holders against the erection of the building in their neighborhood,” according to The Times. Mr. Coup, Barnum’s general manager, told the reporter “he was willing to do anything reasonable to satisfy everybody, but $35,000 had been already expended on the building alone, and $500,000 on the entire enterprise. Under these circumstances he did not care to abandon the project of a hippodrome on Fourth avenue without a struggle.”
|K. & H. T. Anthony & Co. published a stereo view of the open-air interior. Projecting roofs protected the stands from sun and weather.|
On the evening of April 24, 1874 Barnum invited “a large number of prominent citizens” to what he now termed the Roman Hippodrome. The audience was initially treated to a pageant called the Congress of Nations. The procession was led by England, represented by heralds followed by knights bearing the British flag, then the royal carriage “on which Queen Victoria sits enthroned surrounded by an escort of Life Guards, Grenadiers, Highlanders, and knights in full armor”
The lavish parade included actors representing the heads of states, including Kaiser Wilhelm, the Russian Czar, the Pasha of Egypt and “the Sovereign of the Celestial Empire” seated on the Dragon Car. By today’s standards, Barnum may have gone a bit far. The Times noted that following Napoleon I “came the Cross Keys of the Holy See, borne by a standard bearer, and followed by seven guards in the costumes designed by Michael Angelo. The Pope enters on a chariot guarded by eight members of the College of Cardinals, followed by a deputation of Bishops.”
The newspaper reported “This magnificent display of pageantry preceded horse and chariot races, gymnastic performances, and elephant trot, and other exciting and interesting exhibitions.”
Three nights later was opening night. All 12,000 seats were taken and the entrances were “rendered unapproachable” by the throngs who arrived later than 7:30. They were treated to the same program; and thrilled to “an exciting scene of lassoing Texan cattle, in which a Comanche Chief and three Mexicans participated,” female chariot races, and a mock stag hunt with riders and a pack of hounds chasing the deer.
There were glitches. Miss Mattie Lewis’s two-horse chariot was overturned, although she was uninjured; “in the hurdle race Miss Casteyrene was tossed violently from the bay mare she rode, and was unable to take part in any of the latter sports of the evening,” and some in the audience were put off by the cattle wrangling. A reporter said “although it was an exhibition of genuine skill, and had its admirers, it seemed to be distasteful to a portion of the assemblage because of the rough usage of the poor steers at the hands of a ranchero.”
The dangerous acts were designed with what The Times called “the popular thirst for excitement.” Within three months of the hippodrome’s opening, the newspaper complained that “many persons” had already died during performances. An Barnum agent fired back on July 7, 1874, contradicting the newspaper’s assertion of “many” deaths. “We only know that several people have been killed there…several may not be reckoned many.”
The New York Times got the last word in, writing “But, considering the claims of humanity even one death is one too many.”
Adults paid 30 cents admission, while children under 10 years old paid 15. Seats could secured a week in advance. The adult ticket price would be equal to about $6.50 today.
Barnum devised a way to keep the Roman Hippodrome open year-round by installing a heating system. Following the February 9, 1875 performance area newspapers were enthusiastic. The New York Herald wrote “The temperature was at summer heat,” and the Tribune said “Owing to the success of a new heating apparatus, the temperature throughout was maintained at the agreeable height of seventy degrees.
That summer a new pleasure garden appeared in New York, the Gilmore Garden, operated by Patrick Gilmore. The New York Herald was blunt in its critique on August 15, 1875. “It is temporary, tawdry in its adornments, while the music is not always of the highest standard. For musical purposes Gilmore’s Garden is too large, and there is a general impression that people visit it as much for beer and for conversation as to listen to the band.”
The “temporary” and “tawdry” conditions of Patrick Gilmore’s operation would soon be rectified through an agreement with P. T. Barnum. On December 7 a Barnum representative told a Tribune reporter “We are about getting ready to close up and go into Winter quarters.” But, he added, “The Hippodrome will not be altogether vacant during the Winter.”
Gilmore’s Garden moved in, sharing the Hippodrome building with Barnum when his elaborate shows were in town. An especially gala entertainment was held on July 3, 1876; the immense crowd prompting The Times to say “The number of visitors at Gilmore’s Garden last night was beyond computation.” All seats were sold and “an uneasy, moving, perspiring crowd crammed and crushed.”
|The main entrance to Gilmore's Concert Garden was located in the architecturally inconsistent crenelated section. from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York|
Crowds filled the streets to listen to the music that escaped through the open windows. Leopold Damrosch conducted his full orchestra and chorus, Patrick Gilmore’s Band accompanied 500 vocalists and opera diva Madame Pappennheim sang several solos. She closed the evening with a dramatic rendition of the “Star Spangled Banner” with “full grand orchestra and chorus aiding, and working up a fitting sensation climax to the suggestive musical features of the evening,” wrote The Times.
Barnum was back in December with his circus and menagerie. By now newspapers referred to the building only as “Gilmore’s Garden.” The circus performances included the “largest and finest African lions ever exhibited,” a rhinoceros, hippopotamus, leopards, an ostrich and many other exotic animals. Acts included Mrs. Whittaker’s comic mule, acrobats, bareback riding and trick ponies.
|Patrick Sarsfield Gilmore -- from the collection of the Library of Congress.|
Victorians were rarely what today would be termed “politically correct” and that was evidenced by the January 20, 1877 “Fat men’s foot race” in Gilmore’s Garden. Around 5,000 spectators gathered to watch five portly men compete. The Times described James Huber saying “Huber was a corpulent man, best realizing the term fat of any of his companions.” He “trotted along in the most comfortable manner, reminding one of nothing so much as the baby hippopotamus when he trudges out to be laughed at by admiring spectators.”
Even more shocking to modern readers was the announcement on December 3, 1877 that “The managers of the Great London Circus are making preparations to have a negro baby show at Gilmore’s Garden at an early date.”
Gilmore’s Garden served as the venue for a variety of events. On February 21, 1878 it was the scene of the elaborate Arion Ball which included 15,000 dancers and was deemed by the New York Herald “the largest masquerade ever given in New York.”
That same month the week-long “Great International Congress of Beauty and Culture” was held. It was, in fact, a pioneering beauty contest. The New York Herald reported that not only beauty would be contested, but “a decision has to be reached as to which is the best vocalist, the best roller skater, the best dancer, the best walkist and the best elocutionist.”
As the event proceeded, local newspapers were less than kind. On February 13 The Times reported “Mr. Hitchcock’s show of faded beauty and tenement-house culture was continued in Gilmore’s Garden yesterday…The attendance yesterday was almost as large as on the day before, and Mr. Hitchcock’s success has fully demonstrated that there are rowdies enough in the City to patronize a most degrading exhibition.”
That year Gilmore’s Garden would also host the New York Dog Show, concerts by Theodore Thomas’s famed orchestra, and botanical shows. But Gilmore announced that when his lease (at a staggering $45,000 per year) with the Harlem Railroad Company expired, he would leave.
When Gilmore refused William K. Vanderbilt’s offer of a $40,000 renewal, the railroad titan told reporters “I hardly think we shall lease the building again, at all.”
And indeed 1879 saw Vanderbilt and the Harlem Railroad Company going into the entertainment business. The railroad purchased “all the fixtures in the building” from Gilmore and appointed William M. Tilestone to manage the property. Vanderbilt made another change as well: he renamed the venue Madison Square Garden.
Among the first events in the Garden was an athletic competition on January 3, 1879. The New York Herald reported on the “nearly thirty wiry fellows” who participated in a walk race, and on the “dogged and unyielding tug of war teams wet with perspiration even in zero weather.”
The weight of 10,000 persons who gathered to watch a walking race on March 12, 1879 was too much for the aging wooden seats. The New York Herald reported “The breaking down of the crazy gallery…under its weight of spectators last night, came near being an awful catastrophe…That hundreds of lives were not sacrificed in the rush toward the doors is nothing less than miraculous. A wretched structure of nailed boards was put up to carry a moving weight ten times more than it could bear, with the inevitable result.”
The audience that night included at least three eminent patrons. The New York Times reported “Part of the south end of the gallery that gave way rested upon the roof of one of the rustic pavilions, and this was entirely demolished. This was Mr. William H. Vanderbilt’s private box, and on Tuesday evening, at the hour of the accident, it was occupied by Mr. Vanderbilt, Sir Edward Thornton, several other gentlemen, and several ladies.” Although Vanderbilt and his party were unhurt, nine persons were seriously injured.
It may have been the horrific collapse and the ensuing bad press that prompted Vanderbilt to upgrade the old building. On December 13, 1879 The Times reported work had begun “of repairing and improving the structure to suit the character of the building as a vast place of amusement.” The exterior walls were raised, “the hideous figures, called by courtesy ‘sphynxes,’ which flank the main entrance, are to be removed, and an ornamental iron portico, 40 feet wide, will shelter the main entrance, extending to the curbstone.”
Interior improvements included “a continuous suite of rooms, comprising dressing-rooms, parlors and toilet-rooms” on the lobby level. There would be new staircases, hot-air furnaces and frescoed walls.
But the improvements were short-lived. On April 21, 1880 roof timbers were apparently overheated by gas lighting. A truss gave way, causing the roof to collapse and a wall to give way. Among the four fatalities was manager William M. Tileston. Twenty-two others were hospitalized.
The Times called it “a shameful and terrible accident” and reported that on the collapse of the Madison Avenue wall which, “including the tower at the north-western corner, fell into the street, carrying away the Art Gallery, the dancing-room, and part of the restaurant.”
Seconds before the Art Gallery had been the scene of a fashionable dance. “A pianoforte was playing a lively waltz, and among the dancers were persons well known in New-York society.” When unharmed gentlemen and ladies in evening clothes collected themselves, they “began to explore the ruins up stairs a few seconds after the accident, in the stifling dust.” Working with firefighters and police, they worked among the jagged timbers and bricks in search of the injured.
Two months later Vanderbilt joined with P. T. Barnum and three other moguls to form the Barnum Museum Company. It purchased the Madison Square Garden property from the Harlem Railroad for $800,000 and announced plans “to build thereon a mammoth edifice, to be devoted to purposes of amusement.” But by December the plans were scrapped. On November 30, 1880 The Times reported “The facts are that the grand scheme has been abandoned.”
Instead, the building was patched up at a cost of $12,000. The group announced “The work is supervised by Mr. Vanderbilt’s own architects.” In April 1882 it reopened with Barnum’s Hippodrome show. And among the greatest attraction was the world-famous Jumbo the elephant.
The circus and menagerie shows continued for seven years. On May 13, 1889 The Evening World announced “Eight beauteous maidens, fair to see. This is the vision which presented itself to the eye of the beholder at Madison Square Garden this week, each mounted on a two-wheeled horse.” The two-wheeled horses, of course, were bicycles.
The end of the line for the old entertainment venue was near at the time. On August 7, 1889 demolition began on what Harper’s Weekly called Vanderbilt’s “patched-up, grumy, drafty combustible, old shell.” The Company had commissioned architects McKim, Mead & White to design a “mammoth place of amusement.”
The masterful new Madison Square Garden opened on June 7, 1890. It survived until 1925 when it was demolished by the New York Life Insurance Company.