Photo via Library of Congress
We’ve seen a lot of images of the famous rooftop of the second Madison Square Garden where architect Stanford White was murdered in cold blood in 1906. But reading through the great book Lost New York, we came across one we hadn’t seen before. Most reports about this theater and pleasure garden speak to the Parisian influence, but this photo clearly shows a Japanese design. Was it built specifically for the theatrical performance? Either way, it’s undeniable that Americans were particularly fascinated with Asian culture at the turn of the 19th century.
White’s design of this Madison Square Garden, located at 23rd Street, was famous for a number of things: the Moorish style building had a 33-story tower modeled after the campanille of the Giralda in Seville, Spain which made it the second-tallest skyscraper in the city. An 18-foot statue of a nude Diana topped the arena, to the chagrin of the New York Society for the Suppression of Vice. Upon its opening, the main space, measuring 200 by 350 feet, had capacity for 8,000 people and a cafe and restaurant.
White, a popular New York City architect who also designed the Washington Square Arch and the Metropolitan Club among others, led two different lifestyles–one of a successful architect and one of an infamous playboy. The latter caught up to him on June 25, 1906 on the rooftop theater he designed. White’s apartment was inside the Madison Square Garden tower, so he had plenty of reason to hang around the rooftop garden. Unfortunately, it made him an easy target for his murderer, Harry Thaw, a jealous millionaire.
Madison Square Garden rooftop. Photo from Library of Congress.
The events leading up to his death are quite juicy and involve a love triangle between him, Evelyn Nesbit, and Harry Thaw. Evelyn Nesbit was a well-known model, chorus girl, and New York’s first sex goddess, dubbed as “The Most Beautiful Girl in the World.” Millionaire Harry Thaw was married to the 16-year old Nesbit in April 1905. The rub is that Nesbit was White’s underage mistress before marrying thaw, but their relationship had ended years before (though some say, the tryst continued and a love note was found by Thaw). Nonetheless, Thaw, who had a cocaine problem, was also obsessively jealous.
On June 25, 1906 thinking that White tainted his wife, Thaw shot White during a performance on Madison Square Garden’s rooftop theater. According to the New York Times, during the show’s finale, Thaw approached White, who was sitting down, and put three bullets into his head.
Possibly more interesting than the scandalous love triangle was the public’s reaction. New Yorkers named White the antagonist because they saw his actions as immoral. As a married man, he seduced an under-aged girl. Harry Thaw was seen as the hero defending his wife.
The Second Madison Square Garden went bankrupt in 1916, and a new arena was built uptown at 50th Street and 8th Avenue in 1925. The same year, the second MSG was demolished and replaced by the New York Life Insurance Building which still stands today.
Click here to see all the earlier versions of Madison Square Garden.