Last October workmen with electric jackhammers began to tear at the sides of Pennsylvania Station in New York. Part of a continuing operation, the demolition is to be completed in about three years. While trains run down below, the facade of the station will be converted on the Seventh Avenue side into a 31-story skyscraper, and to the west, toward Eighth Avenue, into a futuristic sports palace, the Madison Square Garden Sports Center.
This Garden will actually be the fourth bearing the name. The third Garden, which was opened in 1925, still stands on Eighth Avenue between 49th and 50th Streets. The second Garden was completed in 1890—on the site of the first Madison Square Garden—and it lasted until 1925. To many, this Garden will always be The Place. More than any other arena or stadium, it established sports solidly on the American scene. From the tips of its minaret towers to the horse stalls in the basement, the second Garden had atmosphere.
During its 35 years of existence, the Garden was a gathering place for New York society. But it also gave room to prizefights, wrestling matches and six-day bike races, not to mention political conventions, revival wingdings, the Wild West Show and the circus.
On its site—Madison Square, Fourth Avenue from 26th to 27th Streets—originally stood a terminal of the New York Central and Harlem River Steam Railroad. In the early 1870s the railroad turned the terminal into a car barn, which was in turn converted into a rickety show-place for P.T. Barnum's circus and a military band, under the direction of Patrick S. Gilmore. It was variously called Gilmore's Gardens and Barnum's Hippodrome (causing some confusion) until 1879, when William Vanderbilt bought the property for use by the National Horse Show. He promptly dubbed the old terminal Madison Square Garden.
In 1889 a group of prominent horse fanciers offered to raise $3 million in bonds to erect a palace where the annual horse show and other social functions could be held in more comfortable surroundings. The new corporation had both the flamboyant Barnum and the conservative J. P. Morgan on the board of directors.
The Garden grows
The old terminal was torn down and construction of the second Madison Square Garden started in 1889, with the society architect, Stanford White, of McKim, Mead & White, in charge. The exterior consisted of pale yellow brick and white terra cotta, and the architect aimed at making the motif "...bold and vigorous enough to be dignified; light enough to be graceful; lively, and yet stately enough to be rightly expressive." White fashioned the upper part of the structure after the Giralda Tower in Seville. He wanted to top the building with a weathervane statue of Diana, goddess of the hunt, and he commissioned Augustus Saint-Gaudens, the sculptor, to design a small bronze. From this an enlarged replica was cast, with Julia (Dudie) Baird as the model. "The goddess was modeled from a plaster cast which was actually taken from my figure," Miss Baird daringly confessed. "The plaster was put around me as I posed. B-r-r! I can feel it now. It was so cold at first it made me shiver. It took six workmen three-quarters of a day to get the plaster cast of my figure. Of course, you mustn't think that I was plastered all over at once. I was, so to speak, cast in sections."
The building itself, an expanse 200 by 425 feet, housed an elaborate restaurant, with private service rooms, a theater, a concert hall, a ballroom, executive rooms, apartments in the main tower and a roof garden. White, something of a boulevardier, designed an apartment for himself in the tower which became the scene of many a frolic, involving beautiful girls and theatrical personages.
The arena, where the big events were staged, was 122 by 268 feet, and contained four balconies above the amphitheater. There were stable accommodations in the basement for 400 horses—the symbolic number for New York's elite. On June 16, 1890, the 400 gathered for the gala opening, along with 12,000 lesser socialites, to hear Edward Strauss and his Vienna orchestra. Shortly after, the horse show took over and was termed a "brilliant affair."
But society had to yield occasionally to more plebeian goings on when Barnum brought in his circus. This was a three-ringed affair, first tried out in the former arena, and though some spectators complained about not being able to watch everything at once, most of the customers felt they were getting triple their money's worth. After P.T.'s death, his younger colleague, J. A. Bailey, who had outlasted a whole series of partners to form Barnum and Bailey, continued to push the circus as a Garden offering and to suggest numerous spectacular ways to fill the showplace between social events. Since the activities of society's 400 could not keep the Garden in the black, the board of directors was forced to welcome the moneymaking circus and, later, some less savory attractions.