The First Three Madison Square Gardens

In my historical fiction, time travel novel, Fear Itself, the characters go back to 1939 to observe a pro-Nazi rally held at Madison Square Garden. The building where that rally took place no longer exists. As many know, the current Garden is the fourth building to bear that name. Here’s a short history of the first three Gardens:

The first Garden was an open-air structure located near Madison Square, at the northeast corner of East 26th Street and Madison Avenue. P.T. Barnum and others leased it for exhibitions and sporting events such as boxing and bicycle racing. It was not a financial success and only lasted for eleven years, from 1879 to 1890.

The first Madison Square Garden.
The first Madison Square Garden

The second Garden, built on the same site, was designed by Stanford White and financed by wealthy investors like J. P. Morgan and Andrew Carnegie. It had Moorish elements including a 32-story tower. Inside was a huge main hall, a theater, and a rooftop restaurant.

In 1906, White met his end at the Garden’s restaurant. While dining with friends, White was confronted and shot by Harry Thaw. Thaw was a multimillionaire with mental problems who was angry over an exploitative relationship White had had with Thaw’s wife when she was a teenager. White was known to be a predator. Mark Twain stated that White “eagerly and diligently and ravenously and remorselessly hunted young girls to their destruction.”

Although the second Garden was a far more elaborate structure, able to host more types of events, it was a failure financially like the first Garden. It closed in 1925 and was demolished to make way for the New York Life Building.

The third Garden was built by a boxing promoter and went up in 1925. It was built on the west side of 8th Avenue between 49th and 50th Streets and had room for almost 20,000 spectators. Many different kinds of shows, sporting events, and political gatherings took place in the third Garden.

The third Madison Square Garden
The Third Madison Square Garden

One of the most controversial events—and one which I included in my novel—was the February 20, 1939, rally of the German American Bund, a pro-Nazi organization active in the United States in the 1930s. During the rally, approximately 100,000 anti-Nazi protestors gathered outside. Mayor LaGuardia arranged for more than 1,500 uniformed police officers to maintain order.

Footage from this event was used to create the 2017 seven-minute documentary film “Night at the Garden” which garnered an Oscar nomination. In the photo of this rally, you can see American symbols—George Washington’s portrait and the American flag—displayed alongside antisemitic slogans and the Bund flag which featured a gold swastika on a red-and-white background. The third Garden was taken down in 1968. One Worldwide Plaza now stands on that site.

My novels The Better Angels and Fear Itself are available on Amazon in print and Kindle formats. They are free to Kindle Unlimited subscribers.