Ever wonder why Madison Square Garden is located atop Penn Station and not at Madison Square? The story is very New York and is not quite finished yet. Repeated calls over the years to relocate the current Madison Square Garden have been rooted in a desire to reimagine Penn Station, but all the recent improvements to the transit hub, including the opening of Moynihan Train Hall, gingerly sidestep the behemoth in the midst.

The biggest news regarding Madison Square Garden came in 2013 when the entertainment venue was given a 10-year lease limit (the venue had hoped for a permit in perpetuity). The permit expires in 2023, but New York Governor Andrew Cuomo recently suggested he was not in support of a move, given the recent billion dollar renovation of the venue. That does not mean the winds will change in the next few years, and if Madison Square Garden does indeed relocate, it would not be the first time it’s happened. There have also been calls to relook at the venue’s tax breaks. Madison Square Garden has not paid taxes since 1982 when Mayor Ed Koch granted the abatement, which is estimated to be equivalent to over $1 billion in tax breaks by 2030, according to Gothamist.

In total, New York City has been home to not one, not two, but four different Madison Square Gardens dating back to 1879. Sadly, none of the former MSG buildings stand today. Beginning with a humble open-air arena to the world-renowned sports and entertainment venue it is today, the four Madison Square Gardens have been witness to the evolving society of New York City with dramatic scandals and murders, evolving architectural styles, and events that reflected the social and political milieu of the time.

First Madison Square Garden (1879-1889)

P.T. Barnum’s “Great Roman Hippodrome”. Image from New York Public Library.

The first Madison Square Garden was actually already an existing venue known as P.T. Barnum’s “Great Roman Hippodrome,” or “Barnum’s Monster Classical and Geological Hippodrome,” located at the northeast corner of Madison Square Park. In fact, before it was Barnum’s entertainment venue, the complex was actually the former depot of The New York and Harlem Railroad, which pulled trains using horse drawn carriages. Cornelius Vanderbilt, the railroad magnate, relocated the railroad hub to 42nd Street (first as Grand Central Depot, then Station, then Terminal).

The open-air venue was used as a velodrome, for multi-day races, and even for a Roman Carnival. When Vanderbilt opened his new station, he leased the old one at Madison Square to P.T. Barnum. After a few more proprietors and lease changes, Vanderbilt’s grandson, William K. Vanderbilt, rechristened the venue Madison Square Garden in 1879.

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Madison Square Garden facade 1925

The Lost Madison Square Gardens

Second Madison Square Garden (1890-1923)

The first Madison Square Garden was demolished in 1889. Vanderbilt, citing lack of profitability of the venue, sold the land to a consortium of esteemed buyers including J.P. Morgan, P. T. Barnum, and Andrew Carnegie. By 1890, a new Madison Square Garden opened with a Beaux-Arts Moorish design by the young celebrated society architect Stanford White. It cost over $3 million or nearly $88 million in 2020 dollars.

The most distinctive feature of the second Madison Square Garden was its tower, modeled on the Giralda in Spain, on top of which stood a statue of Diana by August Saint-Gaudens. Also notable was a rooftop garden, all the rage for entertainment in the Gilded Age, which became the site of Stanford White‘s murder at the hands of Harry K. Thaw, a jealous rival in a love triangle gone wrong.

The Second Madison Square Garden was also the site of the 1924 presidential convention, which was the first time a woman was nominated to be Vice-President of the United States. The second iteration of Madison Square Garden would be demolished just a year later.

Third Madison Square Garden (1925-1968)

New York Life Insurance held the mortgage on the second Madison Square Garden, and in 1923, the company decided to demolish the arena and build their new headquarters at Madison Avenue and 26th Street. The Cass Gilbert-designed headquarters with the gold pyramidal roof still stands today, next to the MetLife buildings.

Madison Square Garden itself was then relocated to the west side, on 8th Avenue between 49th and 50th streets. The venue was designed by renowned theater architect Thomas W. Lamb, but the seats with obstructed views proved to be a problem. It would be here, however, that many political events would take place: a Nazi rally; an anti-Nazi rally; a fundraiser hosted by Eleanor Roosevelt and the Crown Princess of Norway (recently shown in the PBS Masterpiece series, Atlantic Crossing); and the famous rendition of “Happy Birthday” sung by Marilyn Monroe to John F. Kennedy in 1962.

Fourth Madison Square Garden (1968-present)

The third Madison Square closed in 1968. The venue moved again to where it currently sits, atop the demolished site of Penn Station. The circular venue was designed by Charles Luckman. He is perhaps most famous for designing Boston’s Prudential Tower. This fourth version of Madison Square Garden has hosted everything from sports games and  circuses, to concerts and stand up comedians, and everything in between. We’ve discovered some great secrets on the all-access tour, including a hallway preserved from 1968 with vintage ads.

Learn even more about the lost Madison Square Gardens in our latest edition of Lost New York. In this virtual talk, Untapped New York’s Chief Experience Officer Justin Rivers will trace the evolution of Madison Square Garden from its humble beginnings to the entertainment venue it is today. Along the way, you will hear tales of a romantic scandal that ended in murder, see how the architectural style of each iteration changed with the times, and learn about the amazing events that took place inside!

Madison Square Garden facade 1925

The Lost Madison Square Gardens

Next, check out the Top 10 Secrets of Madison Square Garden!