Tuesday, May 30, 2023

Old Building Gets New Life as the First Madison Square Garden

Phineas T. Barnum's Roman Hippodrome.  Note tent covering the open roof.

When William Kissam Vanderbilt finally got control of a chunk of grandpa Cornelius Vanderbilts estate in 1879, he knew just what he wanted to do with one of the assets.  The old Commodore owned the property where a half-derelict hulk of a building sat on prime Manhattan real estate

The large structure had originally been the New York & Harlem Railroad depot, which the Commodore bought and incorporated into what became the New York Central.  In 1871 station operations moved to the shiny new Grand Central DepotPhineas T. Barnum then stepped in and leased the building.  He took the roof off, gutted it, and converted it into an oval arena 270 feet long, with tiers of seats and benches.  It was rechristened first  as the Great Roman Hippodrome then even more grandly  Barnums Monster Classical and Geological Hippodrome.  The bombastic showman experienced great success staging his famous circus and other spectacular exhibitions including chariot racing there.

In 1876 Barnum gave up his lease to concentrate on his increasingly lucrative touring circusIrish-born band leader Patrick Gilmore, composer of When Johnny Comes Marching Home and other famous marches, then took over the building re-dubbing it Gilmores Garden.  When he was not presenting his own concerts there, Gilmore rented the space to promoters of  flower shows, beauty contests, temperance and revival meetings, walking marathons. and in 1877 the first Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show then called the New York Bench Show.  He also presented boxing matches at a time when prize fights were illegal in the Empire State by passing them off as exhibitions and even as demonstrations accompanying lectures on the manly arts of self-defense.

The promoter of the Dog Show briefly took over the building but kept Gilmore's name on it.  He added genteel tennis matches and installed an ice skating rink for use during the frigid winter months. 

Vanderbilt's renovated and renamed Madison Square Garden.

It was undoubtedly the boxing which attracted the younger Vanderbilt.  He considered himself something of a sporting man and owned a very successful horse racing stable in France.  Later he was a co-owner of the yacht Defender, which won the 1895 Americas Cup.   He took over the building and with a minor facelift re-opened it on May 31, 1879 as  Madison Square Garden

Vanderbilt booked boxing exhibitions featuring Police Gazette heroes like Heavyweight Champion John L. Sullivan.  Other sports attractions presented to crowds of up to 10,000 patrons included track and field meets and bicycle racing—maybe the most popular spectator sport in the country—on his specially built banked velodrome trackThe National Horse Show joined the dog show as an annual attraction and Barnum came back to exhibit his prize elephant Jumbo Buffalo Bill Codys Wild West Show became a national sensation there during a long run in 1886.  The place also hosted national conventions of the Elks and other organizations. 

The old building established itself as the Big Apples prime multi-purpose venue for big events.  But it was in deteriorating condition and uncomfortable or unusable much of the year—stiffing hot in the summer and freezing cold and dark during the long winter monthsHarpers Weekly described it as a “patched-up grumy, drafty combustible, old shell.”

After 11 years Vanderbilt grew tired of his toy while civic leaders clamored for its replacement, an expensive project he had no interest in underwriting.  Enter a consortium the richest men in the city and country—J.P. Morgan, Andrew Carnegie, William Waldorf Astor, and others plus showman Barnum—who bought the building and land, tore it down, and erected an impressive replacement also called Madison Square Garden.

Vanderbilt's renovated and renamed Madison Square Garden.

The second Garden was designed by famed architect Stanford White and opened in 1890 at the staggering cost of $3 million.  The grand new edifice did have a roof making it the largest indoor arena/exhibition space in the country.  In fact, the famed Roof Garden Restaurant became a place to be seen for the city elite and a venue for late night entertainment after the Broadway shows were done for the evening.  White was famously shot and killed by the husband of his lover, Gibson Girl model and actress Evelyn Nesbit there in 1906.

The second Garden became the annual home for the touring Barnum and Ringling Brothers circuses and eventually their combined show.  It continued to be the venue of choice for top prize fights and in 1902 and ‘03 the indoor games of the professional World Series of Football.  It also hosted important national events like the 1924 Democratic National Convention which nominated John W. Davis after 103 ballots.

Despite the cultural importance of the building, it was not a financial success and in 1925 the mortgage holder, New York Life Insuranceforeclosed, tore it down. then erected their skyscraper headquarters on the site.

A third Madison Square Garden was built away from Madison Square on Eighth Avenue between 49th and 50th Streets where trolley barns once stood.  The new structure was owned by Tex Rickard whose New York Rangers of the National Hockey League (NHL) made it home from 1926.

The third Garden shown on a 1941 picture postcard.

Basketball was represented in a series of collegiate double headers every week featuring top local and national teams as well as the National Invitation Tournament (NIT) beginning in 1938 and hosted seven NCAA Mens Basketball Championship finals between 1943 and 1950.  The New York Nicks of the National Basketball Association (NBA) began their residency in 1949.

Although this incarnation did not host any national political conventions, Franklin Roosevelt used it to stir up support for his first Presidential campaign with a mammoth rally in 1932.  Thirty years later the Garden was packed for a birthday celebration for John F. Kennedy at which Marylin Monroe famously crooned him “Happy Birthday, Mr. President” in a slinky silver sequined gown that she had to be sewn into. 

A large portrait of George Washington loomed over a huge German American Bund pro-Nazi rally at the Garden in 1939.

Garden III was available to anyone with pockets deep enough to pay the rent so was often the site of events for diametrically opposed groups.  The American Jewish Congress and the Jewish Labor Committee held a Boycott Nazi Germany rally there in 1937 but in 1939 the German American Bund staged an even larger event in support of isolationists trying to keep the U.S. from entering World War II on the side of the British and French.

Billy Graham conducted a 16 week revival Crusade there in 1957.

In the 1960s ownership and management was taken over by the new Madison Square Garden Company under the leadership of impresario Irving Feld of Ringling Bros.  The company laid plans for yet another incarnation, this time built over Pennsylvania Station between Seventh and Eighth Avenues from 31st to 33rd Streets.  After the new building was opened in 1968, the old Garden III was torn down.  The original plan was to erect a new worlds tallest building at the old site but that was squelched by massive neighborhood opposition resulting in strict height limits for new construction in the area.  It remained underused as a parking lot until 1989 when the Worldwide Plaza opened on the site.

Today's Madison Square Garden IV is round.

The newest Garden increasingly became a venue for big pop concert events in addition to its traditional diet of sports.  These famously included a 1971 rock-and-roll revival concert immortalized by Ricky Nelsons song Garden Party, Elvis Presley, George Harrisons Concert for Bangladesh, and the Concert for New York City following the September 11 attacks.  Artists like Elton John, Billy Joel, Parliament-Funkadelic,  and U2 have all played there many times with Joel having the record of more than 60 appearances.

The Garden was also the launching pad for the re-introduction of professional wrestling into mainstream pop culture as the venue for the inaugural WrestleMania presented by the World Wrestling Federation (WWF) in 1985 and many subsequent marquee events.

The Democrats held their convention at the Garden in 1976, 1980, and 1992.

Madison Square Garden's $1 billion second renovation took place mainly over three off-seasons. It was set to begin after the 2009–10 hockey/basketball seasons but was delayed until after the 2010–11 seasons. Renovation was done in phases with the majority of the work done in the summer months to minimize disruptions to the NHL and NBA seasons.

Despite a billion dollar renovation in 2011-‘13, the Garden lost long time tenants the Ringling Bros. Circus and Disney on Ice  to the new Barclays Center in Brooklyn.

The City of New York wants to expand Penn Station underneath the Garden which would require that it be torn down and relocated.  This has been a major issue in the city for years with the MSG company resisting the move.  In 2013 they were granted a ten year extension of their air rights permit after which time they will either have to move or begin a new, and risky, application for another extension.  Then, in January 2016, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo announced a redevelopment plan for Penn Station that would involve the removal of The Theater at Madison Square Garden but would otherwise leave the arena intact.



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