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A Grand Time for All at the Garden

For 35 years, between 1890 and 1925, the old Madison Square Garden—featuring everything from bike racing to wrestling—was the most exciting sports arena in America

Last October workmen with electric jackhammers began to tear at the sides of Pennsylvania Station in New York. Part of a continuing operation, the demolition is to be completed in about three years. While trains run down below, the facade of the station will be converted on the Seventh Avenue side into a 31-story skyscraper, and to the west, toward Eighth Avenue, into a futuristic sports palace, the Madison Square Garden Sports Center.

This Garden will actually be the fourth bearing the name. The third Garden, which was opened in 1925, still stands on Eighth Avenue between 49th and 50th Streets. The second Garden was completed in 1890—on the site of the first Madison Square Garden—and it lasted until 1925. To many, this Garden will always be The Place. More than any other arena or stadium, it established sports solidly on the American scene. From the tips of its minaret towers to the horse stalls in the basement, the second Garden had atmosphere.

During its 35 years of existence, the Garden was a gathering place for New York society. But it also gave room to prizefights, wrestling matches and six-day bike races, not to mention political conventions, revival wingdings, the Wild West Show and the circus.

On its site—Madison Square, Fourth Avenue from 26th to 27th Streets—originally stood a terminal of the New York Central and Harlem River Steam Railroad. In the early 1870s the railroad turned the terminal into a car barn, which was in turn converted into a rickety show-place for P.T. Barnum's circus and a military band, under the direction of Patrick S. Gilmore. It was variously called Gilmore's Gardens and Barnum's Hippodrome (causing some confusion) until 1879, when William Vanderbilt bought the property for use by the National Horse Show. He promptly dubbed the old terminal Madison Square Garden.

In 1889 a group of prominent horse fanciers offered to raise $3 million in bonds to erect a palace where the annual horse show and other social functions could be held in more comfortable surroundings. The new corporation had both the flamboyant Barnum and the conservative J. P. Morgan on the board of directors.

The Garden grows

The old terminal was torn down and construction of the second Madison Square Garden started in 1889, with the society architect, Stanford White, of McKim, Mead & White, in charge. The exterior consisted of pale yellow brick and white terra cotta, and the architect aimed at making the motif "...bold and vigorous enough to be dignified; light enough to be graceful; lively, and yet stately enough to be rightly expressive." White fashioned the upper part of the structure after the Giralda Tower in Seville. He wanted to top the building with a weathervane statue of Diana, goddess of the hunt, and he commissioned Augustus Saint-Gaudens, the sculptor, to design a small bronze. From this an enlarged replica was cast, with Julia (Dudie) Baird as the model. "The goddess was modeled from a plaster cast which was actually taken from my figure," Miss Baird daringly confessed. "The plaster was put around me as I posed. B-r-r! I can feel it now. It was so cold at first it made me shiver. It took six workmen three-quarters of a day to get the plaster cast of my figure. Of course, you mustn't think that I was plastered all over at once. I was, so to speak, cast in sections."

The building itself, an expanse 200 by 425 feet, housed an elaborate restaurant, with private service rooms, a theater, a concert hall, a ballroom, executive rooms, apartments in the main tower and a roof garden. White, something of a boulevardier, designed an apartment for himself in the tower which became the scene of many a frolic, involving beautiful girls and theatrical personages.

The arena, where the big events were staged, was 122 by 268 feet, and contained four balconies above the amphitheater. There were stable accommodations in the basement for 400 horses—the symbolic number for New York's elite. On June 16, 1890, the 400 gathered for the gala opening, along with 12,000 lesser socialites, to hear Edward Strauss and his Vienna orchestra. Shortly after, the horse show took over and was termed a "brilliant affair."

But society had to yield occasionally to more plebeian goings on when Barnum brought in his circus. This was a three-ringed affair, first tried out in the former arena, and though some spectators complained about not being able to watch everything at once, most of the customers felt they were getting triple their money's worth. After P.T.'s death, his younger colleague, J. A. Bailey, who had outlasted a whole series of partners to form Barnum and Bailey, continued to push the circus as a Garden offering and to suggest numerous spectacular ways to fill the showplace between social events. Since the activities of society's 400 could not keep the Garden in the black, the board of directors was forced to welcome the moneymaking circus and, later, some less savory attractions.

It was here in the Garden, 16 years after the opening, that White played out the last act of his full life. He and Harry K. Thaw, an eccentric Pittsburgh millionaire, both admired Evelyn Nesbit, a chorus girl. Thaw took the trouble to marry her. White, however, continued his attentions to the girl. The husband finally cornered White on the roof of Madison Square Garden and shot and killed him.

A dandy in disgrace

"Scandal" tainted even the exclusive horse show. Berry Wall, a society dandy and the horse show's self-appointed master of ceremonies, disgraced himself by getting into a fight with a hack driver and a policeman, and had to officiate with his hand in a cast. Hoi polloi also gained admission, ogling the society ladies. The height of frustration for Berry Wall occurred when Peter Jackson, a popular West Indian boxer, entered the main arena in a dress suit and a shiny silk hat and was mobbed by socialites seeking to fraternize with him.

Harry Stevens, who began his career as a program seller in the Garden and progressed to caterer, had a hand in something called the Irish Fair in the 1890s. With sod transplanted from Ireland to appeal to the immigrants from the Old Country, the Fair ran on and on, filling the Garden every night. There were murmurings among the elite that most of the spectators were being taken right off the boats from Ireland and brought to the Garden without pausing to go through customs. The Irish Fair ran for a month and launched Stevens as a concessionaire.

The Garden's money troubles increased. Even though such stars as Sarah Bernhardt and Richard Mansfield appeared on its stage, the theater never caught on. The more practical members of the board began to agitate for attractions other than social. The circus and the Irish Fair had broken the barrier, and now the horse show found itself competing with other garish events, such as prizefights. One of the first of these was not a real fight but almost a sentimental affair. Ten days after John L. Sullivan lost his championship to James J. Corbett on Sept. 7, 1892, the two men climbed through the ropes of the Garden ring in a benefit for the ex-champion. After a bit of halfhearted sparring, the Boston Strong Boy and Gentleman Jim called it quits.

Tex takes over

Tex Rickard, newly arrived from the West and the Yukon, made his first appearance in New York when he promoted the Jess Willard-Frank Moran fight at the Garden on March 25, 1916. Subsequently, Jack Dempsey took on Bill Brennan, a supposed setup, in the Garden and almost lost. For 10 rounds Brennan had much the better of it, but Dempsey rallied and in the 12th finished off his opponent. Wrestlers, like the great Hackenschmidt, the Terrible Turk, Stanislaus Zbyszco, and Strangler Lewis also competed at the Garden.

More genteel diversions were staged from time to time: a sportsmen's show, flower, cat and dog (on different days), boat, industrial and automobile shows. Some of these exhibits were the first of their kind in the world. When it arranged for its first show in 1900, the Automobile Club of America intended the affair for "society devotees of the motor vehicle." The Times noted haughtily, though, that "mere sightseers" outnumbered the socialites in inspecting the horseless carriages.

Promoters brought in live pigeon-shooting matches, six-day walking races, six-day bicycle races. Originally, the bike riders were on their own for six days, sleeping on, but not leaving, the bicycle when they had a safe lead.

Then, for humane purposes, a limit of 12 hours a day in an endurance test was enforced, and this led to two-man team contests which became even more popular. The two-man setup no longer left the racers haggard, and the contestants, despite the rigors of the grind, appeared to be in better condition than the spectators, most of whom were not used to staying up all hours. Each pair of riders now had its own "camp," situated in various parts of the Garden, with three masseurs and a cook as part of the entourage. The rules permitted a rider to stay in his camp unless his partner became involved in a jam (an attempt by a team to circle the track, leaving the rest of the pack behind). Stealing a lap was the main scoring element in gaining a victory but jams were rare, almost by mutual consent, since they took a lot out of the riders. Off the track, the cyclists spent much of their time eating.

On the other hand, some of the customers went hungry. The practice of Bowery derelicts was to buy the cheapest admission price, 50¢, on Sunday nights, when the grind started at midnight, and to hope for a six-night flop. There was no way of getting food except to steal it, and that took skill, for the attendants were vigilant. The guards were also on the lookout for anyone trying to shave in the men's rooms and so, as the week wore on, the uninvited lodgers began to look more and more like what they were: bums. Their nights of sleeping in the seats near the roof came to an end around Thursday when the city police would move in with the paddy wagons.

One of the most exciting races ever run occurred in March 1923, when the winner among the 15 starting teams was not decided until the closing minutes of the final hour. From the time Frankie Genaro, a boxer of the day, fired off the starting gun, at one minute after midnight on Sunday, until the following Saturday night, the Garden was a bedlam of international rivalry. The riders ranged from Americans through the Tasmanian, Alfred Grenda, to the Swiss Oscar Egg. Whenever Egg became involved in a pileup, the wits of the time could be depended upon to refer to it as a scramble.

The real favorite, however, was Maurice Brocco, an Italian, who was noted for starting jams. As soon as he streaked out of the single-file pack, the yell would go up: "B-r-o-c-c-o!" Brocco was the best jammer but on this occasion it was Grenda and Alfred Goullet, who waited until the waning minutes of the 1923 race to speed around the track without being caught, while the spectators screamed hysterically.

Another annual event was the Wild West Show, with Colonel Buffalo Bill Cody bringing on his troupe of cowboys and Indians. The trick riding and roping and the flavor of the Old West always thrilled the eastern audiences. The scenes of carnage were especially popular, and Buffalo Bill gave the customers their full share of gore. When he announced his retirement in 1910, with the words, "This old scout must no longer follow the trail," he got one of the Garden's greatest ovations. There was many a tear shed as the Colonel, well past 60, with his long white hair, white mustache and chin tuft, backed his intelligent horse the length of the Garden.

In between the social and sporting events at the Garden were the political conclaves. At the turn of the century, young William Jennings Bryan, the Democratic candidate for President, mesmerized a hostile Garden audience with his oratory. Many years later the famous Al Smith-William Gibbs McAdoo deadlock convention tied up the Garden in 1924, with the interminable "Alabama casts 24 votes for Underwood." Tex Rickard, by then custodian of the lease, had offered the politicians the Garden without rent and with free use of the food concessions, on the assumption that the meeting would be a quick one, but as the days dragged on, with the stand-off balloting, Rickard was literally eaten out of business.

The Garden was sometimes used for loftier purposes, though, such as bazaars for the cause of women's suffrage, and religious revivals. An evangelist from Chicago, the Reverend John Alexander Dowie, preached there in 1903. He was called, obscurely, Elijah The Third and he did not draw well (except for the first week of a two-week stand when mobs stormed the Garden to laugh at him), perhaps because he was given to such subject matter as "Zion's Conflict with Methodist Apostasy, Especially in Connection with Freemasonry." When the listless revival was over, some free-thinking critic attacked Dowie in a tract called, "The Prophet and His Profits."

Eventually, despite an occasional moneymaker, the Garden became known as a white elephant. In 1917 the New York Life Insurance Company decided to foreclose on the mortgages it held, and to erect an office building in the Garden's stead. But Tex Rickard, financed by John Ringling, now owner of the circus, stepped forward and signed a long-term lease as proprietor of the Garden.

Rickard put on big box-office fights, and in the early '20s the Garden held its own. But one final scandal caused even Rickard to become disenchanted. The Garden had installed a swimming pool that took up the whole arena and the public was encouraged to consort with such Olympic stars of the day as Aileen Riggin, Helen Meany and Helen Wainwright. A diving board up near the roof was used for exhibitions and at least one paying customer tried the high dive, with disastrous results.

Early in 1922 several young girls, ranging in age from 11 to 15, accused Rickard of making their acquaintance at poolside and then luring them up to the tower, Stanford White's old quarters. There was an aura of frameup about the charges, and Rickard, backed by his wife, Edith Mae, elected to go to court. His lawyer, the brilliant Max Steuer, won a verdict of not guilty.

Rickard continued to operate the Garden for the next few years, but he finally decided to let the New York Life foreclose on its mortgages and put up its office building. The wails of the sports fans were quieted when Rickard announced that he had induced a group of investment men to guarantee $5½ million with which to build an uptown Garden. He was fascinated by the thought that the enterprise could incorporate and be listed on the New York Stock Exchange.

So the transition began. The old Garden, with its atmosphere of drama and sheer excitement, was demolished in 1925 and replaced by its more orderly offspring, the third and present Madison Square Garden. At the time, one commentator wrote, "It is the engaging quality of the Garden's history that it never kept anything separate—it was the whole wide jumble of our adolescent stage—and what passes with it is not a building but a state of mind."