Madison Square Garden: A Super Quick History

For over 140 years, the name “Madison Square Garden” has been synonymous with sports and entertainment culture in New York City. There’s actually been four different venues over the years that have carried the “MSG” name, and in today’s video we’re going to look back at how each of those arenas brought their own unique experience to spectators. There’s been all kinds of interesting events over the years from all star games, and presidential birthday parties to nazi rallies and even becoming the site of an infamous murder.

Early history (MSG I & II / 1879 – 1925)

The current day Madison Square Garden wasn’t actually the first arena named Madison Square Garden, it’s actually the fourth venue to have that name. The first stadium to have the name MSG, was built in 1879 and was located just northeast of Madison Square Park between 5th avenue and Broadway at 23rd street in New York City. Madison Square Park itself was named after the fourth president of the United States, James Madison, and later the stadium would also be named after the park where it was located.

The site that the original MSG stadium was built on was the site of a railroad station for the New York and Harlem Railroad. In 1871 the railroad station was moved to Grand Central Depot, and the site sat vacant for several years. The famous showman PT Barnum leased the land from owner Commodore Vanderbilt in 1874, and built an open oval arena where he could showcase his circus and other events. The venue had a few different names such as, “The Great Roman Hippodrome” and “Barnum’s Monster Classical and the Geological Hippodrome”. Various others would also lease the space from Vanderbilt, and use it for beauty shows, flower shows, dog shows, boxing matches which were actually illegal at the time but weren’t really enforced all that well.

In 1879, Commodore Vanderbilt’s grandson Wiliam Kassen Vanderbilt took over ownership of the site after the Commodore’s death. William then announced the site would be renamed to Madison Square Garden The site continued to be used for random sporting and entertainment events like track and field, social club meetings, horse shows, and PT Barnum even used it to showcase a giant elephant that he bought from the London Zoo named “Jumbo”. The original Madison Square Garden became known for it’s bicycle races as well with a velodrome being constructed inside the stadium. In fact it was so well known for it’s cycling races, that type of relay race called, “Madison” was named after the venue and has become an Olympic event in recent years.

But the original MSG building had it’s drawbacks which eventually led to it’s demise. The venue had no roof, so during the hot summer months and the cold winter months, spectators were left out in the extreme weather. The building itself wasn’t exactly in best shape either by the late 1880’s, and Vanderbilt decided to the sell the site to a group of buyers featuring heavy hitters like, J P Morgan, Andrew Carnegie, James Stillman, and William Waldorf Astor, and no Rich Uncle Pennybags was not part of the deal. The ownership group decided to demolish the original building, and build a new arena on the same site. The building was torn down in July 1889, and nearly a year later on June 6, 1890 the second Madison Square Garden opened for the first time. Construction cost more than half a million dollars to build and was designed by architect Stanford White (more on him in a second). 

The new stadium had many features such a 32-story tower, which was the second tallest building in New York City at the time. The world’s largest main hall, which had floor space for thousands of people, while also including permanant seating for 8000 people. It also had a 1500 seat concert hall, a 1200 seat theater, and the city’s largest restaurant at the time located on the venue’s rooftop. Incidentally, Stanford White the architect who designed all of this, would later be murdered while dining in the rooftop restaurant in 1906. Millionaire Harry Kendall Thaw shot White to death over White’s previous relationship and assault of Thaw’s wife, actress Evelyn Nesbit. Many of the hundreds of witnesses in the restaurant initially thought the shooting was part of some elaborate trick or party act, and some actually cheered on the shooting before realizing that White really was dead.

Getting back to the Garden, the stadium held many of the same events as the original MSG did. The venue would become a huge part of the sports and pop culture world in New York City during the early 20th century. With one of the last major events held at the venue being the 1924 demoractic convention where John W. Davis was nominated after receiving 103 ballots. The building would stand for 35 years, from 1890 to 1925 but ultimately, Madison Square Garden II was no more of a financial success than it’s predecessor. Eventually, the New York Life insurance company decided to demolish the stadium in order to build their new skyscraper office building on top of the land. The new headquarters would become the iconic New York Life Insurance building that opened in 1928, and would later become a registered national historic landmark in 1978.

Madison Square Garden III (1925-1968)

Because the original site of Madison Square Garden was now the site of the New York Life Insurance building, that meant that the next iteration of MSG would have to be located somewhere else. That somewhere else would be the west side of 8th avenue, between 49th and 50th street in Manhattan. Boxing promoter Tex Rickard bought the property to build the third Madison Square Garden at the cost of 4.75 million dollars. Construction began on January 9, 1925, and took nearly a year to complete. The design of MSG III was definitely a departure from the design of the previous two buildings. MSG III was basically a simple box, with it’s only distinguishing feature being a marquee on the side of the building.

The first professional hockey team to actually play at MSG were the New York Americans. But after seeing how popular and successful the Americans were, MSG owner Tex Rickard approached the NHL about starting his own team to compete with the Americans in New York. In 1926, Rickard was granted a new franchise and the team became jokingly known as Tex’s Rangers, now known today as the New York Rangers. The new club began playing at MSG during the 1926-27 season, which upset the Americans because Rickard had promised them that they would be the only hockey club playing at MSG. The Rangers were immediately successful, winning the Stanley cup in only their second year in 1928. They won again in 1933, and 1940, proving to be more successful than their New York rivals the Americans. Unfortunately, the Americans would suspend their operations in 1942 mainly due to financial troubles, leaving the Rangers as the only New York hockey team for the next 30 years.

Unlike the previous versions of MSG, the third MSG was a financial success. So much so, that Rickard wanted to build other Madison Square Garden venues across the country. In 1927, Rickard gathered a group of investors and leased a newly proposed arena site at the North Station railroad facility in Boston, Massachusetts. Once constructed, the new arena would be called the Boston Madison Square Garden, which eventually was shortened to just the Boston Garden. Most famously this would be the home to the Boston Bruins and the Boston Celtics for decades, until the late 1990s when their current home the TD Garden replaced it. The Boston garden cost over twice as much as Madison Square Garden to build, that combined with Rickard’s death in 1929, meant that the Boston Garden would be Rickard’s only other garden that he was able to build while he was alive.

However, there was one more idea that Tex Rickard had which was ultimately built after this death. Since MSG was an indoor only arena, and so it’s capacity was limited, RIckard wanted to build another MSG branded site in New York City that would serve as an outdoor arena. Located in Queens, the outdoor venue would be called the Madison Square Garden Bowl and opened in 1932. It had a seating capacity of 70,000 fans, and was mainly used for horse races, and boxing matches. Arguably the most famous fight was the 1935 heavyweight title match which featured James J. Braddock upsetting and defeating Max Baer. This would later become the basis of the 2005 film “Cinderella Man” starring Russle Crowe as James L. Braddock. The venue would only last 10 years, when during World War II it was torn down in order to make way for a US Army Mail Depot. The scrap medal from the demolition was used to make ammunition and other war materials. 

Jumping back to the main Madison Square Garden site. In 1946, the Basketball Association of America, later renamed to the National Basketball Association, began with eleven franchises. One of those teams was the New York Knicks, who began play at Madison Square Garden that same year. According to rules set in place by the Arena Managers Association of American, it required all home teams to be owned by the same ownership group of the arena itself. Meaning, that the Knicks had to be owned and operated by Madison Square Garden’s ownership group. The Knicks enjoyed success early on, making it the NBA finals three years in a row between 1951 and 53. An interesting quirk in Madison Square Garden’s event schedule required the Knicks to play at another site, the 69th Regiment Armory. This was due to MSG being booked in advance and not being available to the Knicks during the finals. Because of this, MSG III never held any NBA finals games during the Knicks first 22 years of existence. MSG did however host the NBA all star games in 1954, 55, and 68.

For most of its existence, MSG III held many of the same events that the previous MSG sites did. Everything from circuses, to wrestling matches, the venue had become a success and a huge part of New York City’s sports and entertainment culture. Over the years many notable events took place such as the Boycott Nazi Germany rally that took place on March 15, 1937, however the Nazi’s decided it would be a good idea to hold a rally of their own at MSG and did just that nearly two years later on February 20th 1939. 13 people were arrested protesting the Nazi’s outside of MSG that night. Franklin Delanor Rosevelt held political rallies, and gave his last campaign speech before the 1936 election at MSG. John F Kennedy held his birthday party there in 1962, where Marlion Monore famously sang Happy Birthday to him. It was also used in film and tv, most notably in the 1962 political thriller, “The Manchurian Candidate” starring Frank Sinatra during the final act of the movie. MSG III would continue to hold events until 1968, but before then plans had begun nearly a decade earlier to build a new Madison Square Garden arena several blocks south of MSG III’s site.

MSG 4 (Current Arena)

In February 1959, the automobile company Graham-page bought a 40% stake in Madison Square Garden’s ownership for $4 million dollars. The car company eventually gained control over MSG, and plans for a new arena began to develop. By November of the next year, the president of Graham-Page, Irving Mitchell Felt bought the land where the Pennsylvania Railroad station was located. The new and forth MSG site would mean tearing down the old Penn Station entrance, and the above-ground areas of the railroad. 

The new arena would be an architectural marvel, as it would be the first venue of it’s kind to be built on top of an operating railroad station. There was however protest from the public over tearing down of the existing Penn Station structure, which was considered an architectural work of art on it’s own and a large part of New York City’s past. It’s destruction led to the city forming the New York landmarks preservation commission, With their sole purpose is to protect architecial, historically, and culturally significant buildings in New York City. 

The new Madison Square Garden broke ground on October 29, 1964 and would take nearly three and a half years before it opened for the first time on February 11, 1968. The construction cost totaled 123 million dollars and the venue has a seating capacity of 19,812 for basketball and just over 18,000 for hockey. However, MSG can expand up to 20,000 seats for concerts and boxing matches. After the grand opening, MSG received praise for its architectural design, however not all were impressed. Yale architectural historial Vincent Scully, no not Vin Scully, Vincent Scully ..yep there we go. He wrote in comparing the old and new Penn Station, “One entered the city like a god; one scuttles in now like a rat.” Meanwhile, the old MSG site that Tex Rickard had funded and built was eventually torn down the following year in 1969. Today the site is where the One Worldwide Plaza complex is located.

Initially, MSG had arranged seating in six different levels. The first level was only accessible during basketball games and boxing matches with beige colored seats. The next section was the orchestra section in red, and then the First Promenade level in orange. After that was the Second Promenade in yellow, First Balcony in green, and Second Balcony in blue. During a renovation of MSG in the 1990s, some of the top section seats were removed in order to expand the sky-boxes suites instead. Obviously the sky-box expansion was a way to increase revenue but they also hoped it would get rid of sections that had become known for their bad reputations as mini fight clubs during Rangers-Islander games.

Since the venue opened in 1968, the Knicks and Rangers have played there continuously. However there was a point in 1972 when Irving Mitchell Felt proposed moving the two teams out of MSG and into New Jersey to play at the meadowlands sports complex. The reason being, over a dispute with the city of New York over property taxes. This became in on-going battle between MSG and the city for a number of years until the 1980s when MSG was granted tax free status. However, part of the agreement for tax free status was that the Knicks and Rangers must play ALL of their home games at MSG or it would automatically lose it’s tax exemption. So this situation has created unique circumstances, for example when the Rangers play at neutral sites for the NHL Winter classic, the Rangers are always designated the away team and never the home team.

In 1994, MSG’s ownership rights were acquired when Viacom bought Paramount communications (who had been the full owner since 1977). Viacom then turned around and sold MSG to ITT Corporation and Cablevision who each had a 50% stake in MSG. Cablevision later became the sole owner of MSG, when ITT Corp sold it’s half after three years. During this time, Cablevision’s founder Charles Dolan promoted his son James Dolan to managing MSG’s sports assets with the New York Knicks, Rangers, Liberty, and AHL’s Hartford Wolfpack hockey team. Eventually James Dolan, seen here desperately trying to hold in a fart, was promoted to CEO of MSG. While under Dolan’s impressive leadership the Knicks, the Rangers, and the Liberty have won a grand total of ZERO championships over the last 25 years. Going through Dolan’s deficiencies as an owner would be too much for this video, but to give you an idea of the kind of owner he is, he once threatened to ban a fan for life from MSG after having his feelings hurt when the fan yelled at him to sell the team.

But it’s not all been bad during the Dolan years, because he has spent money over the years on different updates and renovations to the arena. The biggest renovation however, came between 2011 and 2013. MSG spent 1 billion dollars in upgrades that was completed through different phases, mainly during the offseasons of the NBA and NHL. Essentially every aspect of the arena was upgraded. They added larger entrances, and wider concourses, installed new lighting and LED high-definition video systems. They also upgraded the loc ker rooms, and dressing rooms for the players and entertainers. The renovations were completed by the start of the 2013-2014 NBA and NHL Seasons.

The current MSG site has lasted for over 50 years now, and has become the longest running venue with the MSG name. However even the current MSG’s future has become somewhat uncertain. During the same time as their 2013 renovations, the Manhattan Community Board voted against MSG’s operating permit renewal in perpetuity, and instead granted a 10-year limit. The reasoning behind this is that the community board would like to see MSG move and relocate to another site in New York City. With increased demand, and capacity issues with Penn Station, having MSG sitting right on top of the land has made it very difficult to renovate and improve Penn Station. The current 10 year agreement expires in 2023, and as of the recording of this video there are no concrete plans to move MSG to a potential fifth site. For the short term future, MSG will probably have to come to an agreement with the Manhattan Community Board to extend their operating permit once more for another 10 year agreement or work out something similar to that. At that time discussions about relocating MSG will most likely continue.

What do you guys think? Should MSG move to another site? Or Should they try and work out a plan to renovate Penn Station as it is now? Let me know in the comments below!


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