The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The glorious past of a long-gone Madison Square Garden

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The building that today bears the name of Madison Square Garden is part of a soulless steel-and-glass complex, dating to the 1960s, that crouches atop the ill-lit basement that serves as Pennsylvania Station, a mile or so from the actual Madison Square. But it was not always so. Suzanne Hinman’s book, “The Grandest Madison Square Garden,” tells the story of the second of Madison Square Garden’s four incarnations: the building that made the site world-famous as a venue for Barnum & Bailey’s circus, Wild West shows, championship prizefights, six-day bicycle races, religious revivals and musical concerts, as well as exhibitions that celebrated “the finest canines, felines, poultry, orchids, and automobiles to be found in the city.”

A once swampy area east of Broadway that previously was used as a cow pasture, a horse market and drill grounds for the New York state militia, Madison Square Park officially opened in 1847. New York society, moving ever northward from the original footprint of the city, began to erect mansions around the park’s perimeter. The construction of luxury hotels, exclusive clubs and celebrated restaurants such as Delmonico’s soon cemented the square’s reputation as the most fashionable neighborhood in Manhattan. There had been a venue, the Hippodrome, for horse races and circus performances abutting the southwest corner of the square before the Civil War, and after the war, an obsolete train station across from the northeast corner was converted into what became the first Madison Square Garden. Plagued by shoddy construction and partial collapses, the first Garden was torn down in 1889.

Hinman uses the construction of the second Madison Square Garden as an armature upon which to hang a depiction of the Gilded Age. Hinman describes sumptuous dinners, processions of flower-decorated coaches, mansions chock-full of art treasures plundered from the down-at-the-heels nobility of Europe and men’s private organizations, such as the Sewer Club, where outwardly respectable members might pursue what the painter Thomas Dewing called “physiological interests and investigations” with working-class girls out for a good time (or at least a decent meal).

Two artists form the core of Hinman’s narration: the sculptor Augustus Saint-Gaudens and the architect Stanford White. Saint-Gaudens, the finest American sculptor of his day, was the maker of statuary that today is the pride of Central Park, Boston Common, Rock Creek Cemetery in Washington and Lincoln Park in Chicago. His statue of the nude goddess Diana, perched as a weather vane atop the Garden’s tower, became the delight (or scandal, depending on your moral views) of the town, attracting hordes of what a contemporary called, “young Casino Johnnies, pop-eyed dudes, Grandpa Hayseeds from Westchester, and bald-headed clubmen armed with field glasses” to view it.

White, the principal architect of the Garden, who also designed the settings for many of his friend Saint-Gaudens’s sculptures, in particular seems a personification of the Gilded Age. He was a self-made man, the designer and decorator of some of the age’s most elegant buildings, and the possessor of prodigious energies and appetites — for beautiful objects, for sex (female and possibly male as well) and for all the entertainments of the more than 50 clubs to which he belonged. One wonders when the man found time to sleep.

The story of these two friends and their associates accounts for at least half of the book, and Hinman was undoubtedly wise to make it so. A book concerned solely with the $1.5 million of capital stock needed to get the project going, the inevitable cost overruns and the engineering challenges that had to be conquered would have been interesting to a limited audience. Far more entertaining is the description of the theater’s ushers in their uniforms designed by White: “chrome-yellow-orange swallowtail coats, dark trousers with a stripe of scarlet down the side, flame-colored waistcoats with sixteen huge buttons, white satin scarves, and white gloves.”

The story winds inevitably to the murder of White in 1906 at the Garden’s rooftop restaurant. The prosecution of the shooter, a rich playboy named Harry Thaw, was dubbed “The Trial of the Century.” Thaw claimed that White had debauched Evelyn, Thaw’s wife, a former model and actress, when she was only 16. The press and popular imagination made much of one of the most picturesque accusations, that the young Evelyn had frolicked nude on a red velvet swing installed in White’s apartment.

Hinman makes White’s death the final act of the Garden’s drama. The venue struggled on for 20 more years, beset by competitors. Though it was famous, the Garden seldom made enough money to break even, and with the increasing construction of office high-rises in the neighborhood, its land became more valuable as a building site. The Garden was torn down in 1925, replaced by the New York Life Building. Two other venues would bear its name elsewhere, but the magic was long gone.

Hinman’s account is occasionally marred by lazy prose falling into cliche. She speaks of the “sound and fury” of Saint-Gaudens’s studio. I don’t doubt that the chisels made noise, but there was generally not much fury to be seen. On two occasions she speaks of persons being hung. (Note to writers and editors: Paintings and piñatas are hung. Condemned people are hanged.) There are also annoying errors of fact: The title of John Keats’s poem is “Lamia,” not “Lamina” (which sounds like a nail polish), and George Inness never studied at the Art Students League, which was founded long after he had become a well-known artist.

But the story of Madison Square Garden and the men who made it is an interesting one, even if occasionally in the most prurient of fashions. The example of our own times, when a stained blue dress and a rumored “pee tape” are associated with the most powerful names in the land, should remind us that we haven’t come as far as we like to think.

Reagan Upshaw is an art dealer and critic in Beacon, N.Y.

By Suzanne Hinman

Syracuse University Press. 472 pp. $39.95

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