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A Madison Square Footnote

There are famous buildings at Madison Square, some of which were in yesterday’s panorama: the Flatiron, the Met Life tower, the Met Life North Building, the New York Life Building, and the second (Stamford White) Madison Square Garden. A building that tends to be overlooked is the first Madison Square Garden, but it had its moments. The picture above shows the building but not the name: it was taken about 1870, looking north on Madison Avenue from 25th Street: the future Madison Square Garden is the long light-colored building on the right with the square corner tower, still in use at that time as a railroad station.

What became the first MSG was actually two stations side by side: the New York and Harlem Railroad, with a station fronting on 26th Street and Fourth Avenue, and the New York and New Haven, with a station fronting 27th Street and Fourth. When steam railroads were banned below 42nd Street in 1871, the first Grand Central was built at 42nd and Fourth (replacing a previous way station) and these two stations were abandoned. The descriptions of the stations don’t make it clear how they were oriented: the stations are described as facing east, but the tracks were on Fourth Avenue and so entered the stations at that end, suggesting that the pedestrian entrances would be at the west, Madison Avenue end. This seems to to agree with the canopies seen in the picture above.

In 1873 a group including P. T. Barnum leased the empty buildings, combined them, and converted them to a partially-roofed arena/theater/exhibition hall. Barnum, with his usual modesty and delicacy, called it “P. T. Barnum’s Grand Roman Hippodrome.” Here it is in 1874:

It makes sense that the train station would be mostly roofless: without artificial ventilation, it was necessary to be certain that the smoke from the coal-burning steam engines could escape. Covering the big central hole with a tent would help with rain and perhaps with cold. The exterior appears unchanged except for the addition of spire over the corner tower, almost certainly wood-framed, and some flagpoles.

The Vanderbilt family, which controlled and largely owned the railroads, took control of the building back in 1879 and continued the variety acts in the renamed Madision Square Garden. It continued to struggle financially despite the popularity of the idea, and was bought by a new consortium around 1889 who kept the idea of a flexible-space entertainment hall but built a much better building to house it.

So 17 years from abandoned, to used for some new forms of entertainment, to a new name, to replaced.