April 30, 2012
Madison Square Garden was born in NoMad
Have you ever wondered why one of the world’s most famous sports and entertainment arenas, located in midtown, is called Madison Square Garden. It’s not a garden or near Madison Square. Well, once it was both, it was right here, by Madison Park in NoMad New York.
The first Madison Square Garden was actually right on Madison Square Park at Madison Avenue and 26th Street in the heart of present-day NoMad neighborhood of New York. It was originally a passenger depot of the New York and Harlem Railroad owned by Commodore Vanderbilt before the terminal moved uptown to Grand Central Terminal.
The Madison Square depot building had a seating capacity of 10,000 and was covered over by a tent, making it cold in winter and hot in summer. It was first leased to P.T. Barnum who called it the Great Roman Hippodrome. Then it was leased to Patrick Gilmore, who name it Gilmore’s Garden and finally to W.M. Tileston. When Vanderbilt’s grandson inherited the site in 1879, he gave it the name Madison Square Garden. During the first years, the 10,000-seat arena had a wide range of activities from circuses, flower shows, beauty contests, music contests, ice carnivals, riding lessons, and temperance meetings to the first Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show.
It had the first velodrome, a special cycle racing track. This first Madison Square Garden was the most important track in the US at a time when cycle racing was at its peak of popularity. So significant was the Garden’s role in cycle racing that the Olympic event the “Madison” was named after the arena. It also had the first indoor ice rink in the United States.
Vanderbilt sold the “Garden” to a syndicate, that included J. P. Morgan, Andrew Carnegie, James Stillman, W.W. Astor and some say, P.T. Barnum. They commissioned Stanford White to design a new arena. Demolition began in 1889, and in 1890, White delivered a completed Beaux-Arts structure in Moorish style with a tall tower soaring 32 stories. The main hall was the largest in the world, and it also boasted a theatre, concert hall, the largest restaurant in the city and a roof garden. Topping the tower was a famous sculpture of a nude Diane by Augustus Saint-Gaudens (a copy can be seen at the Metropolitan Museum of Art )
The new Garden was famous for introducing the first boxing matches — even before they were legal, calling them “illustrated lectures.” It was here too that the very first professional football games were played indoors. Nevertheless, perhaps the most noteworthy event at the new building didn’t take place inside but on the roof. On a fine summer night in 1906, the architect of the building and the most famous architect in the city at the time, Stanford White, was shot to death at the rooftop restaurant by millionaire Harry Kendall Thaw. Thaw was enraged over White’s affair with the beautiful Floradora girl, Evelyn Nesbit, who happened to be Thaw’s wife.
In 1925, the Madison Square Garden II was closed and replaced by Madison Square Garden III at Fiftieth Street and Eight Avenue. That Garden lasted until 1967 when Madison Square Garden IV opened at it’s current location over Penn Station.
The Bowery Boys have a great history podcast about Madison Square Park, which is great fun to listen to and which we could never match for comprehensiveness.