We’ve uncovered the secrets of a lot of the major “squares” in New York City – Times Square, Herald Square, Union Square, and Washington Square Park. Next on our list is Madison Square (and Madison Square Park). Madison Square Park was named for James Madison, the fourth president of the United States. It has been an urban public place since 1686 but officially became a public park in 1847, when the area was a bustling, trendy shopping district. Without further ado, here are our top ten secrets of Madison Square.
12. The First Versions Of Madison Square Garden Were Here
The first Madison Square Garden. Image via Wikimedia Commons
Today, we know that Madison Square Garden is located on the West Side of Manhattan in Pennsylvania Plaza. However, the “World’s Most Famous Arena” had its origins right here in Madison Square.
The block northeast of Madison Square Park (between 26th and 27th streets) was the site of the first and second Madison Square Gardens (there were four versions in total). It started in 1873, when P.T. Barnum started hosting his circus in an obsolete railroad depot north of Madison Square, owned by Commodore Vanderbilt. He made it the site of his “Great Roman Hippodrome” every year, and the first arena officially became a reality in 1879. In fact, the circus kept the first (and financially poor) Madison Square Garden building stable.
However, structurally speaking, the building wasn’t working out, and it was demolished in 1889. To avoid missing more than one show season, a second Madison Square Garden Building was built at the same location, designed by famed architect Stanford White.
The second version of Madison Square Garden in 1890. Image via Wikipedia
Workers built it around the clock so that just a year later, in 1890, the building was completed (and the second tallest building in the city) until it was closed in 1925. The second Madison Square Garden was no stranger to notoriety. Stanford White built himself a seduction lair inside the building and was later shot to death on the roof.
The third version of Madison Square opened in 1925, but at 49th street and 8th Avenue.
11. America’s First Christmas Tree Lighting Occurred In Madison Square
Image via Library of Congress
Every year, people around the country await the Christmas tree lighting at Rockefeller Center to ring in the holiday season. Though it’s now a nationally popular event, American Christmas tree displays actually have their origins in Madison Square Park. The first, albeit simple, public Christmas tree lighting occurred here in 1912. The tree was from the Adirondacks with lights from the Edison Company
Interestingly, the tree was erected for more than just the holidays; it was part of a progressive movement to address New York City’s impoverished. According to The Bowery Boys, Emilie Herreshoff planned it to emulate European civic customs as a “clean, proper, somber affair, closely tied to Jacob Riis’s equally non-riotous New Years Eve celebration scheduled the week after –righteous counter-programming to the Times Square celebration.” Riis believed that the holidays weren’t a time for wild behavior, and that events like Christmas tree lightings would give the poor with “acceptable” alternatives.
Today, the Star of Hope monument in Madison Square Park honors the approximate point of the first tree lighting.
10. Madison Square Park’s Lost Grand Arches
The Dewey Arch between 1899-1901. Image via Library of Congress
In 1889, in celebration of the centennial of George Washington’s first inauguration, two temporary arches were built over Fifth Avenue and 23rd and 26th streets. Then, in 1899, the Dewey Arch was built over Fifth Avenue and 24th street in Madison Square for a parade honoring Admiral George Dewey and his victory in the Battle of Manila Bay. It remained until 1901. Though there were attempts to rebuild the arch in stone, plans weren’t executed and the arch was demolished.
In 1918, Mayor John F. Hylan had a “Victory Arch,” created at this same location to commemorate people from New York City who died in the war. Again, there were failed plans to make it permanent (some felt it was too vengeful against the Germans).
The Victory Arch in 1919. Image via Library of Congress
9. The Historic Lamppost in Madison Square
Though hundreds of people probably casually walk passed it everyday, Madison Square’s ornate lamppost on the northeast corner of 23rd and Broadway has historic significance. It is one of the last remaining original lampposts that were intended for use along Fifth Avenue in the 1890s.
8. Madison Square Park Has A Tree From James Madison’s Estate
The oak tree from James Madison’s estate in Madison Square
There is another aspect of Madison Square Park that pedestrians probably don’t notice everyday: the James Madison Tree between 24th and 25th street. This Red Oak was actually excavated from the Virginia estate of the park’s namesake, James Madison. It was planted in the park and dedicated to James Madison by the Fifth Avenue Association in 1936 to celebrate the Madison Avenue’s centennial anniversary.
7. The First Film of a New York City Blizzard Was Shot In Madison Square
Edwin S. Porter, who headed motion picture production for the Edison Company, shot the first film footage of a blizzard in Madison Square Park near 23rd street in 1902. At the time, this blizzard was New York City’s worst one since the Great Blizzard of 1888.
It’s a real step back in time watching the video, since you won’t see the Flatiron Building (which was built a year later), traffic, and definitely not the Shake Shack. Instead you’ll see trolleys, slipping horses and top hats.
6. Madison Square Park Used to Be a Cemetery, Arsenal, Military Parade Ground and House of Refuge
For those who have read a lot of our secrets articles, it’s probably no surprise that Madison Square Park used to be a cemetery (Herald Square, Union Square, and other locations in New York City were once cemeteries as well). It was a potter’s field (a burial ground for those who died unknown or couldn’t pay for burial in other cemeteries), between 1794-1797, but this field then moved to Washington Square Park.
After its time as a potter’s field, in 1806 the land that is now Madison Square Park was the site of a U.S. Army Arsenal and then a military parade ground that was named “Madison Square” for James Madison in 1814. Both made for a key military post for drills during the War of 1812.
Once the arsenal lost its military usefulness, in 1825 it became a “House of Refuge” for juvenile delinquents until 1839, when a fire destroyed it. Afterwards, the land between 23rd and 26th streets from Fifth Avenue to Madison Avenue officially became a public park with a fence in 1847.
5. The Statue of Liberty’s Arm and Torch Were Displayed In Madison Square For Six Years
The hand and torch of the Statue of Liberty on display in Madison Square Park. Photo via New York Public Library.
Though it’s now a national symbol and popular tourist destination, the Statue of Liberty had a difficult road to construction. Starting in 1876 until 1882, the Statue of Liberty’s arm and torch were displayed in Madison Square Park to raise money for the construction of the statue and its base.
4. Some Consider Madison Square To Be The Birthplace of Baseball
Though the origins of the iconic American game of baseball are debatable (with many claiming it all started in Cooperstown), others lend credit to Madison Square Park as baseball’s birthplace in 1845. This is because a young clerk named Alexander Cartwright organized some friends into the Knickerbocker Baseball Club. Using aspects of older games, the men created written rules, many of which still apply to baseball. These rules include the nine-inning game and the requirement that base balls be pitched rather than thrown.
Where did they first starting playing by these rules? In Madison Square at Fifth Avenue and 23rd street.
3. Worth’s Obelisk Is One of Two Monuments In New York City That Double as a Mausoleum
In Madison Square North, you’ll see an obelisk that was established in 1857 right over General William Jenkins Worth’s tomb. Thus, the obelisk is actually one of two monuments in New York City that is also a mausoleum (the other being Grant’s Tomb on the Upper West Side).
Worth served in the Seminole Wars and the Mexican War (Worth Street in Manhattan is also named for him). In fact, the city designated the area around the obelisk as a kind of mini-park called “General Worth Square.”
2.The Rocking Chair Riots In Madison Square Park
New York City has been the site of many serious protests that have incited large-scale change, but in 1901, a protest started for a frivolous reason occurred in Madison Square Park. At this time, an English businessman named Oscar Spate convinced the Parks Commissioner to let him pay the city $500 annually to place 200 cushioned rocking chairs in Madison Square Park, Union Square and Central Park, and then charge New Yorkers five cents to use them. He got the idea from London and Paris, whose parks sometimes followed this practice of charging pedestrians for seating, and he also wanted to discourage homeless residency in the park. Spate’s rocking chairs even replaced free benches in shady locations.
When a July heat wave occurred, the pedestrians of Madison Square Park thus refused to pay to sit in the shade and even deliberately went there to sit in the rocking chairs without paying. The police became involved when one-thousand men and boys chased the chairs’ attendant from the park and broke the rocking chairs.
The riot lasted several days, and that same month the Parks Commissioner cancelled the five-year contract with Spate. A 10,000-person celebration with fireworks ensued. But a determined Spate took the Parks Commissioner to court for ending the contract, but the judge didn’t allow the public to pay for seating. In fact, the Evening Journal then asked for an injunction against such paid chairs, causing Spate to finally relinquish his cause.
Another fun fact: Spate then sold the chairs to Wanamaker’s Department Store, where they then advertised as “Historic Chairs.”
1. The Many Lives of Madison Cottage
Franconi’s Hippodrome. Image via Wikimedia Commons
The Museum of the City of New York published an interesting piece on the evolution of Madison Cottage, which was in today’s Madison Square Park. By the 1840s, on the land that would eventually be the northwest corner of Fifth avenue and 23rd street, sat a popular road-house called “Madison Cottage.” It had many functions: a post-tavern, stagecoach stop, a cattle exhibition hall, and a gathering place for lovers of horse racing.
In 1853, however, it was razed to pave the way for a Roman arena called “Franconi’s Hippodrome,” which featured chariot races, wild animal acts and other circus-like performances. Its structure was a precursor to that of the modern circus. However, it was extremely unsuccessful.
In 1856, a huge change occurred: this circus arena was demolished and replaced by the luxurious Fifth Avenue Hotel, which had the first passenger elevators ever and whose guests were considered among the most socially elite in New York City.
The Fifth Avenue Hotel. Image via Wikipedia
About fifty years later, the hotel was razed and became the home of the International Toy Center, which is now home to Eataly.
Next, read the Top 10 Secrets of Times Square NYC, The Top 15 Secrets of NYC’s Union Square, The Top Ten Secrets of NYC’s Herald Square, and The Top Ten Secrets of Washington Square Park Get in touch with the author @sgeier97