Tag Archives: Circus

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.

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.


Stanley Kubrick(1928-1999). Circus, 1948. Museum of the City of New York. X2011.4.11327

1948 was a good year for the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus.  The “Big Show” traveled from coast to coast with a coterie of performers and animals, encountering raving fans and sold out shows.

On May 25th of that year, LOOK Magazine ran a story about the circus with accompanying photographs by Stanley Kubrick.  He captured the many aspects of the troupe’s life on the road: rehearsing, playing cards, training animals, and their children at play.

Stanley Kubrick(1928-1999). Circus, 1948. Museum of the City of New York. X2011.4.11327.73

The images retain the mysticism of the circus; focusing on portraits of the performers, aero stars (possibly the famous Ming Sing group), and the workers who cherished the livelihood of ‘Big Bertha’.

Stanley Kubrick(1928-1999). Circus, 1948. Museum of the City of New York. X2011.4.11327.136

These images reflect my fascination with circuses from the late 19th century to the mid-20th century.  When I was an undergrad, I noticed that there was an underground revival of the Vaudeville tradition.  There were a few occasions when troupes traveled through our little college town.  These days, it is a romantic notion that people can exist within smaller, untouched pockets of society.  Even so, I like to subscribe to the ideas of those quiet rebellions.

Stanley Kubrick(1928-1999). Circus, 1948. Museum of the City of New York. X2011.4.11327.23

America’s intrigue with the circus has lasted over 200 years.  Ernest Hemingway once wrote, “The circus is the only ageless delight that you can buy for money.  Everything else is supposed to be bad for you.  But the circus is good for you.  It’s the only spectacle I know that, while you watch it, gives the quality of a truly happy dream.”

Stanley Kubrick(1928-1999). Circus, 1948. Museum of the City of New York. X2011.4.11327.36

Today, the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus still tours extensively.  Although the circus now plays to sold out arenas, and is a large corporation, there are still smaller operations that retain the aesthetic and values of the early 20th century circus.  One of the most noted is the Big Apple Circus, which was recently featured in the series Circus on PBS.  It’s a fantastic series, and quite honestly made me want to hop on the road with them!  Maybe next year….

Stanley Kubrick(1928-1999). Circus, 1948. Museum of the City of New York. X2011.4.11327.39