Madison Square Garden, the fourth building with this name, is located between 31st and 33rd streets and Seventh and Eighth avenues on Manhattan's west side. A key sports and entertainment mecca for more than a century, The Garden, as many refer to it, has become known as "the world's most famous arena."
The first Garden was located, appropriately, at Madison Square (26th Street and Madison Avenue). Opened during 1874 at a cost of $35,000 by legendary P.T. Barnum, it first was called Barnum’s Monster Classical and Geological Hippodrome. It soon was renamed Gilmore’s Garden when the lease was auctioned to bandmaster Patrick S. Gilmore. The term “Garden” was a common description during this time for a place of public gathering and entertainment.
The building had 28-foot high walls but it did not have a roof. Social and fraternal meetings were held here along with flower shows and commercial exhibitions. Gilmore’s lease expired during 1878 and soon after William Vanderbilt of the New York Central Railroad assumed control. He renamed the place Madison Square Garden, and the showplace featured sports and entertainment such as boxing and the National Horse Show until its 1889 demolition.
Madison Square Garden Redux
The second Madison Square Garden was constructed on the same site, and it opened on June 16, 1890. It cost $1.5 million to build and it contained an 8,000-seat main arena, a 1,500-seat concert hall, a 1,200-seat theatre and the world’s largest indoor swimming pool.
The structure had a Spanish Renaissance appearance topped by a 32-story tower and roof garden on which stood Augustus Saint-Gauden’s gold statue of Diana, the Goddess of the Hunt.
This Garden was designed by Stanford White, who also was the architect for the Washington Square Arch in Manhattan, Rosecliff in Newport, Rhode Island, and many other public and private works. Unfortunately for White, the Garden was the site of his death. On the night of June 15, 1906, White was shot in the rooftop garden by Pittsburgh millionaire Harry Thaw. The confrontation was reported as revenge for White’s affair with Thaw’s wife, showgirl Evelyn Nesbit. The story of this love triangle appeared on the silver screen with the 1955 film The Girl in the Red Velvet Swing.
The White-designed Garden hosted boxing, wrestling, six-day bicycle races and horse show.s It showcased national events, too, including the 1924 Democratic National Convention.
The building closed with a boxing card on May 5, 1925 and the closing remarks, in the form of a mournful eulogy poetically conveyed by ring announcer Joe Humphreys: “Farewell to thee, o temple of fistiana. Farewell to thee, o sweet Miss Diana…”
Today, the New York Life Insurance Building at 51 Madison Avenue occupies the site and the statue of Diana now lives on at the Philadelphia Museum of Art.
MSG - The "Old Garden"
The third MSG, which many today refer to as the “Old Garden,” was built in just 249 days at 49th Street and Eighth Avenue. With 18,000 seats, it cost $5.6 million. It opened with a six-day bicycle race on November 24, 1925, and for 43 years it was America’s premier sports and entertainment stage.
Hockey, basketball, boxing and track were the key attractions, but extravaganzas such as the circus and the rodeo also were popular. The Garden even hosted President John F. Kennedy’s May 19, 1962 birthday party made famous by Marilyn Monroe’s breathless version of Happy Birthday. The last event at Garden III was the Westminster Dog Show during February 1968.
The Garden Today
Today’s Madison Square Garden occupies the location of the famed Pennsylvania Station. Needing cash, the Pennsylvania Railroad sold the air rights over its tracks to the Garden Corporation. Then, the station above those tracks came down and the new MSG rose to open on October 30, 1967.
The Garden features a distinctive circular cable-suspended roof above a 19,000-seat arena. It also contains a separate smaller showcase. The official opening was held on February 11, 1968, with Bob Hope and Bing Crosby hosting “The Night of the Century” to salute the USO.
About two years ago, this fourth incarnation of the Garden began a three-year transformation that mostly is handled during the hockey and basketball off-seasons. New amenities after the facelift is complete will include larger and more comfortable seats, a new GardenVision center-hanging scoreboard and fan walkways high above the arena floor.