The Evolution of Madison Square: From Potter’s Field to Eataly

In the early-1800′s, Madison Square was a swampy area far outside of the city. The park did not have an auspicious beginning, as its first uses were a potter’s  field and then as an orphanage, the rather optimistically named House of Refuge.

Mesier's Lith. House of Refuge. ca. 1830. Museum of the City of New York. 29.100.519.

By the 1840′s a popular road-house, “Madison Cottage” was on the area of land that eventually  would be bordered by Fifth Avenue, Broadway, and 23rd Street. This converted yellow farmhouse was for many the first stop leaving the city or the last stop before entering the city proper. It served as a post-tavern, stage coach stop, a cattle exhibition hall, and the de facto congregating point for horse-racing enthusiasts among young men of the upper class.

Madison Cottage. ca. 1850. Museum of the City of New York. 57.300.509.

Madison Cottage remained popular until 1853 when it was razed to make way for a replica of a Roman arena, called Franconi’s Hippodrome, which featured chariot races.  Chariot races! In the Flatiron District!  The wonders didn’t stop there, according to an 1854 guidebook; beyond the horse and chariot races, one could see “surprising gymnastic exercises, ostrich races and performing monkeys, deer, camels and elephants.” With seating for up to 10,000 in a  two-story amphitheater with a 700 foot circumference, the spectacle must have been amazing.

Franconi's Hippodrome. 1853. Museum of the City of New York. 29.100.1463

Unfortunately, the novelty could not last forever and after a mere two years Franconi’s Hippodrome went bankrupt and the building was razed for the  creation of the Fifth Avenue Hotel.

Exterior of the Fifth Avenue Hotel on Madison Square New York. Museum of the City of New York. X2010.11.266.

The Fifth Avenue Hotel also did not have an auspicious beginning. Owned by Amos Eno, it was nicknamed “Eno’s Folly” because the idea of a year-round hotel so far uptown was considered ludicrous.  Yet Eno proved his detractors wrong and created one of the most incredible  hotels New York had ever seen.

The building, designed by Griffith Thomas and William Washburn, had all sorts of modern amenities that were so new that people didn’t quite know how to handle them, namely the elevator. Called the “vertical railway” by many guidebooks  they were the first passenger elevators ever. (For a fun side note read  this lovely New York Times about the practicability of elevators.)  Add luxurious decorations and the right clientele, and as it opened on August 23, 1859, the Fifth Avenue Hotel had arrived.

Fifth Avenue Hotel interior. ca. 1895. Museum of the City of New York. 33.278.31.

For the next four decades, the rich, powerful, and those who follow them made the Fifth Avenue Hotel their home away from home.

Byron Company. Street Scenes, Broadway & 23rd Street.1898. Museum of the City of New York. 93.1.1.15225.

Politics was also a constant theme in the hotel. Beyond merely having foreign heads of states, presidents, and military leaders stay in their sumptuous rooms and give lectures in the public spaces, a more localized political group had its beginning inside the hotel lobby.

The “Amen Corner” consisted of two sofas at the end of a wide hallway in the lobby where, as legend has it, every Sunday,  senator and “political boss” Thomas C. Platt and his associates would have their weekly chats with reporters, which Platt began calling his “Sunday school class.” Apparently Platt’s talks were so well-received that people would say “Amen” whenever he touched on a point they agreed with and with that a tradition was born. The Amen Corner lasted long after Platt’s quite luminous political career and eventually became a popular apolitical dining club.

Brown Brothers. Group of men at the Fifth Avenue Hotel. ca. 1900. Museum of the City of New York. X2010.11.4321.

For almost fifty years The Fifth Avenue hotel had been the epicenter of the gilded age of New York, yet at midnight April 4, 1908,the hotel closed its doors. The furniture, artwork and even the building were auctioned soon after.

Fifth Avenue Hotel with sign announcing auction sale. 1908. Museum of the City of New York. 33.278.17

The building was razed for a skyscraper called the Toy Center which still stands today and is an epicenter of a different kind of New Yorker with the opening of Mario Batali’s Eataly on its lower levels.

8 responses to “The Evolution of Madison Square: From Potter’s Field to Eataly

  1. Really interesting story!

  2. Giacomo Mirabella

    Fantastic! New York is coming alive thanks to you all.

  3. Very cool and informative. I had no idea.

  4. Great story! Very well written and informative. Fascinating bit of NYC history.

  5. Fascinating!! Well done! What an interesting job you have– can I be your helper?

  6. Patricia Zedalis

    susannah: great history of my neighborhood. thanks.

  7. I lived in Murray Hill for 10 years with a business on 47th Street. I love NYC, especially her illustrious history. Gangs of New York, “Gansta 1930′s films, Warton’s “Age of Innocence,” the Irish History coming into port and being signed up into the Civil War, the Riots and fires that ensued, Wall Street greed, Banksters, one story after another – all vital, passionate, and like no other place on Earth. NYC, the epicenter of Earth – imho!
    Keep up the wonderful nuggets of history, images, and excitement!~ Thanks for all your efforts.

  8. Pingback: Hidden in Plain Sight | mcnyblog

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