There are very few venues that can honestly claim they have a grander history than New York City’s Madison Square Garden. Located in Midtown Manhattan between Seventh Avenue and Eight Avenue from 31st Street to 33rd Street is the current location of Madison Square Garden as it sits right above Pennsylvania Station. The history of this particular complex comes from the same heritage as its three predecessors which were located on East 26th Street and Madison Avenue and Eighth Avenue and 50th Street, respectively.
In 1879, the first Madison Square Garden graced Manhattan with its presence as it replaced Gilmore’s Garden on May 31st. What started out as an open-air arena leased to Patrick Gilmore in 1876, it served as a venue to host concerts, beauty contests, flower shows, and a variety of other special interests that saw this as a perfect location. Such events included boxing, which was deemed illegal at the time. Prior to becoming Gilmore’s Garden, this site was best known as the New York Hippodrome.
For the world-class Westminster Kennel Club, this marked the beginning of its longstanding relationship with MSG as it began using the venue to host its annual Western Kennel Club Dog Show in 1880. Founded in 1877, the club held its first show on May 8, 1877, with the intent to show off Pointers and Setters as gun dogs.
When it was decided Gilmore’s Garden was to be renamed after the fourth President of the United States, James Madison, it was also decided to build it up. Located at the intersection of 5th Avenue and Broadway at 23rd Street, the site installed an indoor track and field, as well as other amenities. It was this particular MSG that installed North America’s first artificial ice rink on February 12, 1879.
Until 1890, this was the venue that catered to New Yorkers when it came to sports and entertainment. At the time, it was leased to P.T. Barnum. Also at the time, the future of Madison Square Garden as a successful venue was on shaky ground. With it mostly remaining as an open-air venue, it was prone to inclement weather that played a factor in the structural integrity of the venue’s balcony. When it collapsed in 1890, it claimed several lives which forced this venue to shut down.
In 1890, the second Madison Square replaced the first until 1925. Stanford White’s architectural design was put together by the manpower hired by a syndicate of investors such as W.W. Astor, P.T. Barnum, Andrew Carnegie, Darius Mills, J.P. Morgan, and James Stillman. This thirty-two-story structure was New York City’s second tallest building at the time. As it towered Madison Square Park, the 200 by 485-foot main hall was the largest in the world upon its completion.
It was here Nikola Tesla demonstrated the first radio-controlled robot in 1898. It was also here the first American indoor football game was played at a professional level. It was the first attempt arranged by the World Series of Pro Football to hold such an event. This, however, failed to catch on as the baseball version did.
Inside, there was enough seating to accommodate thousands of people on the balconies and on the floor. There was also a theater, a concert hall, the city’s largest restaurant, and a roof garden cabaret. As impressive as this all sounded at the time, its inability to draw in enough people to make this venture a success was enough to convince the owners of the property, the New York Life Insurance Company, to tear it down to make way for its new headquarters. So, in 1925, it was replaced with the Cass Gilbert-designed New York Life Building.
This became necessary as acts such as the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus drew in such huge crowds since its 1919 debut that there was a need for something bigger and better. During an era where the circus was the top draw as a source of entertainment, the Garden would lay out a schedule that would cater to the circus first and foremost. This was made evident in the 1928 Stanley Cup final when the Rangers were forced to play all of the games on the road. Luckily for the Rangers, they won the cup anyway.
In 1925, the third Madison Square Garden ventured a bit further uptown to the corner of Eighth Avenue and 50th Street. The design of the new structure came from architect Thomas W. Lamb and it cost boxing promoter, Tex Rickard, nearly five million dollars to complete. It took 249 days to build and was dubbed “The House That Tex Built.” With a maximum capacity of 18,496 to host spectators, it was designed with the intent to host boxing matches.
This was also the MSG that hosted the National Hockey League’s New York Rangers and their home games. They, however, were not the first New York-based team that played there. In 1925 it started with the New York Americans who lost their first game in the Garden to the Montreal Canadiens before a crowd of seventeen thousand spectators. However, the success of the Americans during this inaugural season in the Garden inspired Rickard to form an NHL team of his own.
Rickard’s New York Rangers entered the NHL and played their first game in the Garden on November 16, 1926. Both hockey teams shared the arena until the Americans were suspended in 1942 due to the events of World War II. Because the Rangers were so successful as a team, especially winning three Stanley Cups between 1928 and 1940, the Americans no longer had an arena to call home again. This is what prompted the belief the Curse of 1940 was the reason why the Rangers wouldn’t win another Stanley Cup until 1994. It was also believed when the Rangers won the Stanley Cup, the manager they had at the time burned the Garden’s mortgage papers inside the trophy’s bowl. Among hockey purists, the defiling of the cup, plus kicking out the Americans, was enough to deny the Rangers for the next fifty-four seasons.
Aside from Rickard’s Rangers, this particular MSG hosted notable boxing and wrestling events, as well as the annual Westminster Dog Show. It was also the favorite spot for the circus as it kept choosing MSG each time it came to town. Often, the Rangers were kept from playing in their own arena each time the Ringling Bros. took up space. This continued until 1968 when the Rangers played its final game in the arena before moving to the newly developed MSG that made sure to be more accommodating.
Before and during World War II, this MSG was the place to go to hold political rallies. During the 1950s, it was a popular venue that featured some of the biggest stars in the entertainment industry performing before a live audience. On October 17, 1957, Elizabeth Taylor and Marilyn Monroe took part in a Mike Todd presentation of the 1956 Hollywood blockbuster Around the World in 80 Days. In 1962, Monroe returned to this MSG to wish then-president John F. Kennedy a happy birthday with her memorial performance of “Happy Birthday Mr. President.”
When it was fully intended to demolish Rickard’s Madison Square Garden, the doors were kept open until the newest edition to the Madison Square Garden family was ready. After it was torn down in the summer of 1968, it was used as a parking lot until it became Worldwide Plaza in 1989.
In 1959, Graham-Paige purchased a forty percent interest in Madison Square Garden for four million dollars. It didn’t take long before the former automobile manufacturer seized control of the venue. In 1960, the company’s president, Irving Mitchell felt, purchased the rights to build at Pennsylvania Station from the Pennsylvania Railroad. The new facility in mind meant the ground-level sections of the original station needed to be torn down. This met with public outcry as it resulted in the loss of the incredible Beaux-Arts architecture that once served as a structural marvel. Even though the new Pennsylvania Station was built as a marvel in its own right, it was criticized by architectural historians. This entire ordeal was the catalyst that sparked the creation of the New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission.
On February 11, 1968, originally Madison Square Garden Center, the fourth installment of the multi-purpose facility opened up its doors to the public. However, the New York Rangers played its final game in the third MSG against the Detroit Red Wings that day. It was a night that saw an emotional closing ceremony before it hosted the final Westminster Dog Show two days later. It was the final event that took place in that stadium before it closed its doors for good.
On February 12, 1968, It became the home of the National Hockey League’s New York Rangers, as well as the National Basketball Association’s New York Knicks. On February 12, 1968, it held its first big event
When Felt proposed the 1972 idea of moving the New York Knicks and the New York Rangers to the Meadowlands Sports Complex in New Jersey, this was met with hostility. When Gulf and Western Industries purchased the Garden in 1977, the controversy between the arena and New York City over real estate taxes heightened, thanks to Felt’s efforts. This was a dramatic event that flared again in 1980 when the Garden challenged its tax bill. Since then, it has sat as a tax-free venue under the condition that the Knicks and the Ranger home games are to be kept in the Garden.
In 1986, Gulf and Western made an announcement of a new Madison Square Garden destined to be built a few blocks away. The idea was to spend $150 million which would include demolishing the fourth Garden to make way for new office tower development. However, instead of turning the fourth Garden into a causality, it was finally decided to renovate it instead. The cost of doing so was double the investment that would have gone into a brand-new building.
The renovations took place in 1991, a project that had eighty-nine suites replace the hundreds of upper-tier seats that once stood there. This move was criticized by the people of the city as they saw this as a slap in the face to the common fan in favor of corporatization.
Regardless of the public view at that time, the renovations continued. By the time renovations were completed, there were larger bathrooms, expanded food menus, an upgraded ventilation system, more comfortable seating, and refurbished locker rooms. The designer responsible for this costly project was Ellerbe Becket.
Hudson Yards now stands where the fifth Madison Square Garden was proposed to be. However, as of 2000, the current owner of Madison Square Garden, James Dolan, pointed out that the fourth Madison Square Garden’s current state as a venue is showing its age. Just like Gulf and Western before him, the desire to build a fifth MSG still loomed as a possibility.
Pruning The Garden
When a proposal made by Cablevision for West Side Stadium was canceled in 2004, it battled the City of New York clean into 2005 which resulted in an announcement to replace MSG with high-rise commercial buildings. Their location idea for its new location had the site of the James Farley Post Office in mind.
Instead of relocating just yet, the Garden underwent its second major renovation. This billion-dollar project was meant to start after the Knicks, the Rangers, and the women’s New York Liberty WNBA basketball team finished their respective seasons. This was delayed by one season that would see renovations take place in phases. The majority of the work took place during the summer had the first phase finished just in time for the 2011-12 seasons of the New York Rangers and the New York Knicks. Even though this had taken place, there were still intentions to install extensions of Penn Station at the Farley site.
As this was going on, the Knicks and the Rangers remained in the Garden. Meanwhile, the Women’s National Basketball Association’s New York Liberty team was sent to play in Newark, New Jersey’s Prudential Center while the modernization project continued. It was the first time since their inaugural season at the Garden in 1997 that the ladies had to play their home games elsewhere.
The ambitious project featured a larger entrance with interactive kiosks. It also included retail space, a broadcast studio, and larger concourses. The space was now climate controlled and there were new lighting and video systems, as well as new seating. There were also a pair of suspended pedestrian walkways known as the Chase Bridges that allowed fans to look directly down below to watch the games played before them.
As the pruning process of Madison Square Garden continued, it had new and improved dressing rooms, locker rooms, green rooms, and offices. The roof was upgraded and the upper bowl concourse was relocated to the eighth floor now known as Garden Concourse. On the sixth floor, Madison Concourse still remained. In between these two floors was a newly developed Madison Club and Madison Suites.
By the time the renovations were completed in 2013, there was also a new scoreboard, as well as a new lobby, Chase Square. Both phases of the project were finished just in time for the Knicks and the Rangers to begin their regular game season.
The four streets surrounding Madison Square Garden have been part of Joe Louis Plaza since 1984. This was New York City’s way of paying homage to the famed boxer who successfully defended his heavyweight championship title on eight different occasions within the walls of its immediate predecessor.
While inside the Garden, the large windows that were installed in the concourse levels during the ambitious renovation project that began in 2010 give a great view of the plaza that has this iconic landmark surrounded.
Madison Square Garden vs. Pennsylvania Station
When the fourth Madison Square Garden was placed directly above the subway system belonging to Pennsylvania Station in 1968, it was a good idea at the time. However, as Manhattan continued to grow and evolve, what started out as a match made in New York heaven eventually became a nightmarish experience.
Pennsylvania Station wanted to expand its physical presence but the Garden has become a major obstacle that has prevented them from carrying out those intentions as hoped. When the Manhattan Community Board 5 unanimously voted on February 15, 2013, for the Garden to undergo modernization, this struck a blow to Pennsylvania Station. The station wanted to build a new facility in place of MSG but the renewal of the venue’s permit would put this on hold for ten years. The Madison Square Garden Company pointed out at the time it would be incongruous to believe MSG would consider moving.
Despite all of Pennsylvania Station’s efforts to convince city officials their proposals for a multi-use development was a better option than keeping MSG where it stood, there were thirty-six votes that felt otherwise. In the vote, the New York City Council also stated once the Garden’s ten-year permit was up they either had to relocate or go through the permitting process again.
Upon this decision, there were ideas of potential locations for the next Madison Square Garden. It was decided in 2014 that the Morgan Postal Facility would make the ideal spot as the venue’s new site. In January 2016, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo announced the redevelopment plan for Penn Station would include the removal of The Theater at Madison Square Garden but the arena was to be left alone.
In the NBA, the Garden is the oldest arena hosting its own team and is the second oldest in the NHL Thanks to the extensive renovations costing over a billion dollars, it has also become one of the most expensive stadium venues ever built. At least as of 2016, the Garden’s revenue in ticket sales helps cover the cost as the second busiest music arena in the world.
Annually, Madison Square Garden hosts over three hundred events a year. Until 2020, the arena itself was owned by the Madison Square Garden Company. The company then split into two entities that have Madison Square Garden Entertainment handle concerns of the arena and all non-sporting assets while Madison Square Garden Sports focuses on the Knicks and the Rangers. Both of these are still under the control of James Dolan and his family.
Some of the biggest boxing matches in history took place at the Garden. This includes the dramatic Roberto Duran fight against Ken Buchanan on June 26, 1972, where he defeated him with a technical knockout, earning himself the World Boxing Association’s The Ring lightweight titles. It was also in the Garden Muhammadi Ali and Joe Frazier duked it out inside the squared circle for the first time on American soil. That epic event took place on January 28, 1974.
Before boxing was moved to Las Vegas, Nevada, Madison Square Garden was the top choice to host the sport. This had been the case ever since Tex Rickard and the vision that went into the 1925 development of what was the second Garden. While Las Vegas is considered the boxing capital of the world, for now, the fighting spirit that defines New York City still continues to make its presence felt. On December 11, 2021, Nico Ali Walsh, grandson of the late great Muhammad Ali, earned his first win inside the Garden after defeating his opponent, Reyes Sanchez. For Walsh, competing in the same arena was a fantastic way to carry on the family legacy, fifty years after his grandfather’s infamous “Fight of the Century” took place.
When it wasn’t boxing that filled the seats of Madison Square Garden as a sport other than basketball or hockey, it was professional wrestling. Vince McMahon brought three of his World Wrestling Entertainment’s WrestleMania events to this arena. The first one was held on March 31, 1985, which also happened to be wrestling’s first pay-per-view event. This was the year Hulk Hogan and Mr. T teamed up against Paul Orndorff and Rowdy Roddy Piper as the main event. There were over one million viewers who watched this closed-circuit television event, along with the 19,121 fans that were inside the arena to watch this historical Supercard take place.
When WWE celebrated its tenth WrestleMania on March 20, 1994, it was in the Garden. As the popularity of WWE continued to grow, so did the appeal of holding professional wrestling events in an arena that was willing to accommodate. The twentieth anniversary of WrestleMania was also held here on March 14, 2004, an event that witnessed a triple threat match at the end of the show between Chris Benoit, Triple H, and Shawn Michaels.
In addition to the WrestleMania events, there was SummerSlam, which was also held on three different occasions inside the Garden. In 1988, 1991, and 1998 these pay-per-view events took place before a sold-out crowd of approximately twenty thousand fans. The Survivor Series was also there three times, starting in 1996. 2002 and 2011 were the next two occasions that carried on what was a solid relationship between MSG and the WWE. There was also the Royal Rumble, which took place there in 2000 and 2008. Over the span of time, WWE’s weekly shows of RAW and SmackDown have made frequent appearances inside the arena that still continue today.
When it’s not the WWE wowing the crowd, New Japan Pro-Wrestling has held its Supercard shows inside this iconic venue. The first was held on April 6, 2019, and the tickets for it sold out in less than twenty minutes. Because the debut was so successful, there was the intent to return on August 22, 2020. However, COVID-19 put the brakes on that as the global pandemic forced many venues like the Garden to engage in the lockdown procedures that were taking place at that time.
I Wanna Rock!
As a venue, Madison Square Garden not only served as the perfect sports arena. It also became one of the most desirable locations to host a concert. Among the musicians who wanted to get the most bang for their buck when it came to wowing the crowd, there was no better place to do it than what became the apple of New York City’s eye. It was the Garden that hosted the most amount of concerts of epic proportions than any other venue in the city. Throughout America and the world, MSG has been deemed the “it” place to be if you want to really show the world you’ve got what it takes to rock the audience with your brand of music.
The legendary Elvis Presley held four sold-out concert performances within the walls of the Garden in 1972. It was here he held his first and last concerts in New York City. After this, Led Zeppelin held a three-night concert in July 1973 that was recorded, then released as an album and a movie The Song Remains The Same. (Editor’s Note: I saw Led Zeppelin in 1977 at Madison Square Garden. It was the most spectacular concert I have ever seen.)
The Garden also hosted an Elton John concert on November 28, 1974. This was the one that featured John Lennon making what became his final concert appearance before his murder six years later. As for Elton John, he’s personally admitted MSG is his favorite venue to perform in. When he celebrated his sixtieth birthday, he did so in style by performing in the Garden on March 25, 2007. There was a DVD, Elton 60 – Live at Madison Square Garden that showed what was truly a spectacular event.
Throughout the second half of the 1970s, Madison Square Garden hosted epic concerts belonging to Parliament-Funkadelic, Queen, The Who, and New York City’s musical heroes, Billy Joel and Kiss. In fact, Joel still holds the record as the Garden’s most prolific entertainer with 129 shows to his credit as of September 2022. Just like John, Joel considers there is no other venue on earth that can compare to the magic felt with the Garden. Agreeing with him would be Bruce Springsteen as he’s held forty-seven concerts inside MSG. One of those concerts ran for ten sold-out nights in 2000 between June 12th and July 1st.
On September 7, 1979, the legendary Grateful Dead performed its first concert inside Madison Square Garden. On October 19, 1994, the group performed their fifty-third and final concert inside the venue. Since 1985, Madonna and U2 have held numerous concerts inside what has also become one of their favorite venues to perform in.
Keep On Rockin’
Going into the 21st century, The Police made their final concert appearance from their reunion tour on August 7, 2008. The opening act that evening was The B-52s and together the groups rocked before the sold-out crowd of 18,348 fans.
During the summer of 2017, Phish held a thirteen-night concert titled The Bakers’ Dozen. It was a concert that featured 237 songs that were all unique. To commemorate the group, there were banners added to the rafters. Phish was a regular performer that first began to hold concerts in Madison Square Garden in 1994. As far as the Garden is concerned, holding a multi-night New Years’ celebration without Phish is unthinkable. As of 2022, the two have entertained the audience with eighty shows.
When The Allman Brothers Band celebrated their fiftieth anniversary on March 10, 2020, this took place with the five surviving members of the lineup inside the arena that would soon be forced to close its doors due to the COVID-19 pandemic. It wouldn’t be until June 20, 2021, live shows were allowed to take place again. The Foo Fighters headlined that show before an audience that required proof of vaccination before entry. It was a sold-out crowd that witnessed the group finally engage in what was a delayed twenty-fifth-anniversary tour.
Between world-class events that cover so much of the entertainment spectrum, the Garden has also hosted a number of high-profile political gatherings such as the Democratic National Convention events held in 1976, 1980, and 1992. In 2004, the Republican National Convention was held there for the first and only time.
When not catering to politicians and their supporters, MSG also hosted the Grammy Awards on four different occasions. 1972, 1997, 2003, and 2018 witnessed New York City holding this event instead of the usual Los Angeles, California location. This was also the site used to host the 2006 Latin Grammy Awards.
As for the Westminster Kennel Club, 2021 marked the first year the club did not hold its annual dog shoe at the venue. Because of the COVID-19 pandemic, it opted to take the show outdoors instead.
Adding to the magic of Madison Square Garden is its own Walk of Fame, which is located on the walkway leading up to the arena. Established in 1992, the first set of inductees began on September 15th with Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, and Muhammad Ali, as well as twenty-three equally well-deserving athletes who made their mark as legendary heroes.
On October 10, 1992, Elton John was the first entertainer to be inducted into this infamous walk. Billy Joel became the next to receive this honor on October 8, 1993. On January 1, 1998, the Rolling Stones became the first band to be inducted. The Grateful Dead wouldn’t be added until May 11, 2015. The reason why the band wasn’t inducted in the 1990s as planned was due to the death of Jerry Garcia. In total, there are over fifty names that have graced this star-studded walk.
As the nightmare of COVID-19 has been forced aside to make way for life to continue, Madison Square Garden continues to demonstrate to the world how important it is as a vital member of the community. Whatever the reason behind gathering at a venue as magnificent as the Garden, it continues to make a profound impression on the masses. Whether you’re lucky enough to enter the venue as a visitor or only gain access as a spectator from afar, there’s no denying MSG’s legacy will continue.
What MSG has become is more than merely another venue. This place is a landmark that commands respect. Since its humble beginning in 1879, it has gone a long way to become what has become a global icon today. Whatever fate has in store for the Garden, one can only pray it will be kind enough to remember the role it continues to play. While the entire world is deemed as a stage, Madison Square Garden continues to be deemed as one of the best places to host some of the greatest shows our world has to offer.
Jackson, Kenneth T. The Encyclopedia of New York City. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2011.
Haskell, David. The Encyclopedia of New York. New York: Avid Reader Press, an imprint of Simon & Schuster, Inc., 2020.
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