What Were The First Two Iterations of Madison Square Garden?

First Madison Square Garden. Public domain, Wikipedia commons

I remember watching Led Zeppelin’s last concert in the current Garden from ‘Blue Heaven’. Also attending the Millrose Games when they were held at the venue. My sister had season tickets to the Knicks and suffered through the oh-so-close, but never there, Patrick Ewing/Pat Riley era.

One confusing aspect of Madison Square Garden is that the current iteration isn’t located in Madison Square but rather Pennsylvania Plaza. One of those weird things that has history because the first, and second, Madison Square Garden were located, appropriately enough, in Madison Square.

The Garden came into being because P.T. Barnum set up his circus in an abandoned rail depot just north of Madison Square that was owned by Commodore Vanderbilt starting in 1873. Eventually, Vanderbilt built an arena in 1879.

The building, however, wasn’t built to last and was torn down in 1889. However, the circus was so profitable, a second arena was built. To avoid missing more than one season, workers labored around the clock, and it opened in 1890. Upon completion, it was the second tallest building in the City.

Second Madison Square Garden. Postcard, public domain

It was a massive building for the time. The tower was 32 stories high. The interior hall was the largest in the world. Spanning by 200 feet by 350 feet it had seating for 8,000 and room for more to crowd in. The cost of construction was a whopping 3 million.

Seventeen thousand people attended the opening, including one of my favorites, General William Tecumseh Sherman. The builder of Garden II, kept an apartment in the tower where he had a “love nest.” This turned out not to be such a great idea because he was trapped and murdered on top of the building by the jilted husband of a young actress he seduced there. Always have an escape route from jilted husbands. Which I did not cover in The Green Beret Area Study Workbook. My bad.

Despite that dark cloud, the second Garden hosted a number of significant events. An indoor marathon was hosted in 1909. I used to run indoor track at the 168th Street Armory. And have run marathons, but I can’t imagine running an indoor marathon, The number of laps would be mind-numbing. But five thousand people showed up for it and the winner ran an indoor record of 2:54:45.4.

The Millrose Games were first held there in 1914. The Wanamaker Mile was always the highlight of those games which stayed in the Garden until 2011. Where it moved to where I ran indoors in high school, the 168th Street Armory. But a greatly improved armory from the splintered flat wooden floor I ran on where the track was marked by lengths of wood on the inside curves.

The Garden also started hosting the Westminster Kennel Club dog show, which is the second longest running US Sporting Event, behind the Kentucky Derby. No word when Christopher Guest showed up for the first time with his hound.

Boxing was illegal early on, but that didn’t stop promoters. They were billed as ‘illustrated lectures’, which is one way of putting it. Wrestling and bicycling also were featured.

Garden II was owned by the New York Life Insurance Company and the bean counters finally decided it wasn’t profitable enough and it was torn down in 1925 and replaced the New York Life Building.

Excerpted from: New York City Little Black Book 1: Secrets, History, and Trivia of the World’s Greatest City.

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Bob Mayer

West Point grad; Special Ops Vet; NY Times bestseller of over 80 books; for free books and over 200 free downloadable slideshows go to www.bobmayer.com