Hidden History: Madison Square Park

Hidden History: Madison Square Park


Madison Square

The Statue of Liberty's torch was displayed in Madison Square between 1876 and 1882, in an effort to raise funds for the completion of the statue's construction

Madison Square Park sits three blocks north of Theodore Roosevelt Birthplace at the intersection of 5th Avenue and 23rd Street at Broadway. An area that began as a swamp has since become a pleasant urban park filled with New York history.
The land around Madison Square Park has undergone various changes over time. The swampy public area became a potter's field in 1794, serving as a burial ground for paupers and strangers. It was then made into a military parade ground in 1807, stretching from 23rd Street to 34th Street and Third Avenue to Seventh Avenue. In 1847 "Madison Square Park" opened, encompassing its present size from 23rd Street to 26th Street and Fifth Avenue to Madison Avenue.
Madison Square Park remained far uptown in the "suburbs" during the first half of the 19th century. In 1839, the principal building in the vicinity was a farmhouse, when Broadway was still a country road. The farmhouse was leased as Corporal Thompson's cottage, also called "Madison Cottage," named after the 4th President of the United States. The tavern and roadhouse served as a popular stopping place for travelers and their horses. It was at the outskirts of the city, and provided a resting stop for those traveling to or from the city through the north. It operated until 1853. In 1859, it became the site of the Fifth Avenue Hotel and a hub of New York's social life. The hotel boasted distinguished guests and four hundred servants, unprecedented private bathrooms, a "late supper" included in its standard per-day charge, and the first hotel passenger elevator in the world.
As New York developed northward, fashionable hotels and brownstone townhouses surrounded Madison Square Park. Upper class families moved into the area, including the parents of Theodore Roosevelt and Edith Wharton. In the 1870s, Ignatz Pilat, a former assistant to Frederick Law Olmsted, and William Grant landscaped the park. Like today, the park had well-defined walkways and open lawns. Madison Square Garden opened beside the park in 1879. Although the name has endured, "The Garden" has gone through 4 iterations and changed to a location away from the park.
Madison Square Park displays a tapestry of New York City history. The first of the statue installed in the park was the bronze statue of William H. Seward (1876), former New York governor and senator and Secretary of State under Abraham Lincoln. An enduring rumor holds that the sculptor was asked to cut costs, and therefore offered to sculpt only a head of Seward, which would then be affixed to an existing body from his work on a statue of Abraham Lincoln in Philadelphia. The two statues share similarities, but it is evident that they are separate works. Other statues include Roscoe Conkling, a New York Republican stalwart who TR battled for influence during his political career, Admiral David Farragut and President Chester A. Arthur, who lived nearby. Next to the square sits a monument to General William Jenkins Worth, after whom Fort Worth, Texas and Worth street in Manhattan are named. Worth Square and General Grant National Memorial are the only monuments in the city that double as mausoleums.
Madison Square Park temporarily housed the Statue of Liberty's torch during the centennial celebration of the signing of the Declaration of Independence. Her arm and torch were displayed in the park between 1876 and 1882, after being brought over from the Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia, in an effort to raise funds for the completion of the statue and construction of the base. France and the United States split fundraising for the statue, with the US responsible for funding its base. Theodore Roosevelt Sr., the president's father, was a wealthy and influential philanthropist that helped raise funds for the completion of the monument as a founding member of the American Committee, Franco-American Union. He also served on its subcommittee of contributions to raise funds for the completion of the statue's pedestal.The statue of Liberty and Madison Square have since become New York icons.
Evolving to suit the needs of the city that grew around it, Madison Square Park today is a pleasant respite from New York's hustle and bustle, as well as a monument to the city's past.

A postcard depicts Madison Square circa 1900. To the right, the second Madison Square Garden towers over the park

Manhattan's Forgotten Graveyards, Under Public Parks, Famous Hotels and Supermarkets

Here's a chilling thought for the Halloween season: If you're visiting one of New York's many amazing parks and squares, it's likely that you're standing on land that was formerly used as a cemetery or potter's field.

Manhattan is still dotted with several interesting historic cemeteries, such as the First Shearith Israel Graveyard at 55-57 St. James Place (pictured below, between 1870-1910). But a great many other burial grounds once existed but were removed due to new developments. And in several cases they even left the bodies behind!


Picture courtesy Museum of the City of New York

In the colonial era, the city of New York was mostly confined to the area south of today's City Hall. As New York rapidly grew starting in the early 19th century, its population naturally moved up the island.

At the same time, deadly epidemics ravaged the city during various periods, forcing the city to quickly develop burial grounds and potter's fields (for unclaimed bodies) on the edge of town. But as what was considered "the edge of town" moved further north, those burial grounds were suddenly considered valuable land. In many cases, they exhumed the corpses and turned those spots into well-manicured public parks.

Sometimes, however, they left the bodies where they lay.


Above: In 1831, President James Monroe was buried at New York City Marble Cemetery on Second Street. His body was later moved. (Courtesy Harper's Weekly)

Most of these burial plots date from before 1851, when the city passed an ordinance forbidding further burials below 86th Street. Historical cemeteries (like those at Trinity Church and Old St. Patrick's) and land with private vaults (such as the East Village marble cemeteries) were allowed to remain, and unique exceptions have been made, such as the singular grave of William Jenkins Worth in front of the Flatiron Building.

Here's just a handful of Manhattan's old burial sites:

Liberty Place (at Maiden Lane)
Late 17th century -1820s
This burial ground served New York's first Quaker congregation and is sometimes referred to as the Little Green Street Burial Ground of the Society of Friends (Liberty Place, a tiny alley today, was once known as Little Green Street). Its location is near the New York Federal Reserve.

In the 1820s, the Quakers sold this property, exhumed their dead, and moved to a new burial ground at.


Picture courtesy Whole Foods

Houston Street Burial Ground (105-107 East Houston Street)
Approx. 1820s-1848
This remained the principal cemetery for Quakers in New York during a period of incredible prosperity for New York City, thanks to the opening of Erie Canal and the planned formation of streets and avenue from the Commissioner's Plan of 1811.

Today this is the location of Whole Foods supermarket.

In 1848, the bodies were moved again to a private cemetery, where they remain today, located in today's Prospect Park. It was in this very cemetery in 1966 that the actor Montgomery Clift was laid to rest.


Picture courtesy Library of Congress

African Burial Ground
(Modern marker at Duane Street and Elk Street)
For almost one hundred years, starting in the 1690s, New York slaves and black freedmen alike were forced to bury their friends and loved ones outside the comfort of church and city limits, in an area south of Collect Pond, New York's source for fresh drinking water. As many as 20,000 bodies may have been interred here at one time.

It was a lonely and unprotected area at one point, in 1788, bodies were even exhumed from here illegally for medical experiments. New York simply developed over the land in the 19th century, building department stores, government buildings, even opera houses.

For decades, the area's original identity went unmarked, until burials were discovered during excavations in the 1990s. A spectacular monument was built here on one portion of the former burial ground and dedicated in 2007.

For more information on the African Burial Ground, check out our podcast on the incredible history of this area.


Courtesy New York Public Library

Washington Square Park
1797-1825
"Where now are asphalt walks, flowers, fountains, the Washington arch, and aristocratic homes, the poor were once buried by the thousands in nameless graves." (Kings Handbook of New York, 1893)

This plot was used as a potter's field during a devastating outbreak of yellow fever. When fashionable New Yorkers moved from the confines of lower Manhattan to this area of Greenwich Village, the burial ground was closed for business and a lovely park placed on top of it.

While this might seem truly morbid, in fact the city considered this a preventative and sanitary option. According to city records, a recommendation was made that "the present burial ground might serve extremely well for plantations of grove and forest trees, and thereby, instead of remaining receptacles of putrefying matter and hot beds of miasmata, might be rendered useful and ornamental."

Of course, in modern times, that "hot bed of miasmata" serves as one of New York's most bustling and vibrant outdoor spaces. But the city simply built over the burial ground. It was claimed during the 19th century that a blue mist could be seen hanging over the park at night, the creepy vapor of the remains underground.

It is believed that over 20,000 people are still buried here. Bodies are routinely uncovered during excavations.

If you'd like more information on the history of Washington Square Park, you might like my audio walking tour, which takes you through the park and around its perimeter.

St. Marks Church-in-the Bowery - Second Burial Ground
1803-around 1851

One of the East Village's most historic landmarks, St. Marks Church-in-the-Bowery has a very famous burial area on its immediate land, strewn with the vault markers of famed families, as well as that of New Amsterdam director-general Peter Stuyvesant. But the congregation owned another burial ground one block north for less wealthy members of the community. Most notably, many stars of the theater were buried here, including Stephen Price, impresario of New York's famed Park Theater.

According to historian Mary French, the land was donated to the church by Peter Stuyvesant IV, with an unusual stipulation, " that any of his present or former slaves and their children have the right to be interred in the burial ground free of charge."

This yard was closed for several years before St Mark's finally sold it in 1864, and the bodies were moved to Cemetery of the Evergreens in Brooklyn and Queens.

Union Square
Probably late 1790s-1815
Potter's fields -- where the poor or unclaimed were buried -- moved frequently around the city as land values improved with the city's growth. This particular area at 14th Street was once comfortably outside of town, but its proximity near Bloomingdale Road (the future Broadway) soon required its functions as a burial plot be transferred to other usable fields, like Washington Square.

The land here was transformed into the elliptical-shaped Union Place, a strolling park surrounded by an iron fence. By the 1830s, Samuel Ruggles would modify it further into New York's toniest park, Union Square, luring the wealthy who quickly built homes of 'costly magnificence' around it.

For more on the history of Union Square, check out our podcast history on this fascinating park.


Picture courtesy New York Public Library

Madison Square Park
1794-1797
The short duration of this burial ground stems from the fact that it was used only to inter those who died at nearby at the hospital at nearby Belle Vue Farm (today's Bellevue Hospital) and the local almshouse during a devastating yellow fever epidemic. Later, with fears of a new war with England looming, the land was given to the U.S. Army as an arsenal, and the land that was later Washington Square became the official place to bury the dead.

There's some evidence to suggest that some of the remains were never moved.

Bryant Park
1823-40 but possibly used as late as 1847
Yet another burial plot for paupers, still further north of city center. Soon however the adjoining land became an ideal spot to put the Croton Reservoir, supplying the city with drinking water. And, well, it wouldn't do to have a bunch of graves next to that, would it? After a duration as the location of the grand Crystal Palace Exposition, the land was turned into a park, named after editor William Cullen Bryant.

While it's unclear whether the old potter's field grants the park any kind of supernatural aura, the New York Public Library (on the site of the old Reservoir) provides some of the more interesting specters from the film Ghostbusters.

Park Avenue and 49th Street
1822-1859
In the early 18th century, the area soon to become known as Park Avenue, the richest street in America, was home to railroad tracks, cattle yards, various grim asylums and, yes, Manhattan's last potter's field.

Before Columbia University moved to Washington Heights, it was located here in this area of today's Midtown. The campus sat near this unpleasant spot, a potter's field so shockingly maintained that "the ends of coffins still protruded from the ground," according to historian Edward Sandford Martin, "a malodorous neighbor much in evidence and disrepute."

In the late 1850s, the city forced the potter's field off the island entirely, and the bodies were slated for removal to Ward's Island (today attached to Randall's Island). Given municipal corruption and delays, however, the project took years, with train passengers often greeted with the sight of coffin stacks and grisly open pits.

Today, that former burial plot is occupied by the Waldorf=Astoria Hotel, built on the property in 1931, long since transformed by the burial of tracks into Grand Central Terminal.

NOTE: Some of the dates above are estimates, as record keeping for these kinds of things is rather hit and miss! Many dates are from Carolee Inskeep's exhaustive survey of old New York burial grounds The Graveyard Shift.

And if you're in a Halloween mood, visit our blog and download our latest Halloween-themed podcast, Early Ghost Stories of Old New York!


Madison Square North Historic District

Lying north and west of Madison Square Park, the district's boundaries are irregular. The main southern boundary is 26th Street between Madison Avenue almost to the Avenue of the Americas ("Sixth Avenue"), but a portion of 25th Street, from Fifth Avenue to somewhat west of Broadway, is included. On the north, the district goes no further than 29th Street, but portions of it stop at 28th Street or between 27th Street and 28th Street. From east to west, the district is entirely between Madison and Sixth Avenues, without encompassing the entirety of any of these blocks.

According to the Commission's Designation Report, the District:

consists of approximately 96 buildings representing the period of New York City's commercial history from the 1870s to the 1930s when this section prospered, first, as a major entertainment district of hotels, clubs, stores and apartment buildings, and then, as a mercantile district of high-rise office and loft structures. . [T]he district also contains numerous row houses, Art-Deco style towers, as well as modest twentieth-century commercial structures, all of which testify to each successive phase in [the] area's development. [2]

The Historic District lies primarily within the Manhattan neighborhood known as NoMad, for "NOrth of MADison Square Park".


Downtown Doodler: Hidden History of Washington Square Park in NYC

Washington Square Park is an quaint place to escape the city for awhile. But I bet you don’t know the full history of the park and who or what lies below.

From 1797 to 1826, before it became a public space, Washington Square Park was a six and half acre plot designated as a potter’s field. To the East of the potter’s field were church cemeteries, the largest belonging to The Scotch Presbyterian Church. The poor, sick, brothel women and the rest of the city’s undesirables were buried here. Also hundreds of members of the African Zion Methodist Church were laid to rest here after their crypts filled up.

In the center of the square, about where the fountain is now, stood the gallows. The guilty were executed here until 1820. After their death, they were put in the ground with the others and helped fill the field to capacity with over 20,000 deceased. Ghost hunters should definitely check out the square at night, I bet there are a few spirits wandering around.

In 1827 Mayor Philip Hone allowed the city’s Seventh Regiment to use the square as a drill field. They needed more space so the borders of the field expanded to include almost fourteen acres. The field was lumpy and the militia’s heavy artillery sometimes unearthed crushed coffins and skulls, so the bodies on the top were exhumed and reburied elsewhere. The land was fenced in, paths were planned and grass was planted.

Ghosts or no ghosts, that didn’t stop the Knickerbockers from quickly buying empty properties around the square.The grand mansions on the south side have since been demolished. But the houses that sprang up on the north side were larger and grander, and they still exist today.

Fifth Avenue almost springs up from under the Washington Square Arch and travels North to house some of the most prestigious addresses in Manhattan. The Washington Square Arch has been a staple of the park since 1889. Designed by Stanford White the arch was first built out of wood and plaster to commemorate the 100th anniversary of George Washington’s inauguration. The prominent citizens loved it and paid for White to design it out of marble. Alexander Stirling Calder made the statue of Washington and Fredrick MacMonnies carved the relief work.

In 1917, painter John Sloan, dadaist Marcel Duchamp and three of their friends broke into the interior staircase of the arch. They climbed to the top, cooked food, lit Japanese lanterns, fired cap pistols, launched balloons and declared it the independent republic of New Bohemia. The citizens were outraged and the interior door of the arch was sealed. Some of the lucky have been able to tour the inside.

The fountain, which was replaced in 2018, is modeled on previous versions of the fountain going back to the 1840s. The previous fountain was refurbished in the 1930s and 1960s. The fountain reminds us of the now-covered Minetta Brook that even today still flows under the southeast corner of the park.

So whether you are are enjoying the day, watching street performers, protesting or just passing through Washington Square Park, remember who you are sharing this space with. Read on to see what other NYC parks are also cemeteries previously (more than you might think!)

Follow Untapped Cities on Twitter and Facebook! Get in touch with the author @DowntownDoodler. Check out more from the Downtown Doodler on Untapped.

Have a great week!**I got my facts from this wonderful book:

Hamil, Pete. Downtown: My Manhattan. New York: Little, Brown and Company, 2004.


In Madison Square Park, a monumental torch shines a light on African-American history

Winter is fast approaching, but with COVID rates still rising in NYC and across the country, outdoor art experiences are still more vital than ever. Enter the Light of Freedom, the latest large-scale installation to grace Manhattan’s Madison Square Park from the nonprofit Madison Square Park Conservancy.

Open to the public through January 2021, Light of Freedom is artist Abigail DeVille’s take on the iconic torch held aloft by the Statue of Liberty, recontextualized to critique the promise of freedom offered by the iconic monument and the legacy of enslaved peoples in America.

This is the Bronx-based DeVille’s first solo show in New York, and like other recent site-specific installations in the park, seems at first glance like an assemblage of found objects. The effect is intentional, and the “unfinished” nature of the 12-foot-tall Light of Freedom echoes a worksite, with scaffolding hoisting the skeleton of a torch into the air. The message is clear: If the torch symbolizes freedom, it’s a work in progress, perhaps forever.

But there are more secrets hidden inside for parkgoers to discover. What looks like flames are actually mannequin arms reaching for the heavens (both a “blue wave” and the hottest part of a fire, according to the New York Times), beckoning viewers and representing the crushing manpower required to build the country. The arms serve simultaneously as a readable symbol of oppression, but even then, they grasp towards the future.

DeVille was tasked by the conservancy to create a piece that responded to the summer of racial protesting that roiled the U.S., the pandemic, and the upcoming election that would be accessible for New Yorkers.

A diagram of Light of Freedom, which in its final iteration also contains a schoolhouse bell to call others to action. (Courtesy of the artist/Madison Square Park Conservancy)

“Abigail DeVille is known for using found materials and for uncovering the hidden record of lives lived in urban populations,” said Brooke Kamin Rapaport, deputy director and Martin Friedman Chief Curator of the Madison Square Park Conservancy, in a press release. “Art in civic space can often react to pressing issues literally and metaphorically. DeVille’s work is uplifting and contemplative in its recognition of the pandemic, protests and the election season.”

Although specific dates haven’t been announced yet, Light of Freedom will be accompanied by Zoom discussions with DeVille. This is the 40th such outdoor public art installation commissioned by the conservancy.


Madison Square Park

Madison Square Park is named for James Madison (1751-1836), a Virginian who was the fourth President of the United States (1809-17). Madison earned the title &ldquofather of the Constitution,&rdquo from his peers in the Constitutional Convention. He also co-authored The Federalist Papers (1787-88) with New Yorkers Alexander Hamilton and John Jay. Madison was Secretary of State from 1801-09, serving through both of President Thomas Jefferson's terms. As President, he was Commander-in-Chief during the War of 1812 with the British. Madison was the rector of the University of Virginia from 1827 until he died in 1836.

The largest parcel of this land was first designated as public property when Royal Governor Thomas Dongan revised the City Charter in 1686. Since then, this area has been used for a variety of public purposes. A potter's field was established here in 1794, and then was moved in 1797 to Washington Square. By 1811 the land was home to a United States Army Arsenal (1806) and laid out as part of a military parade ground (named for Madison in 1814), bounded by 3rd and 7th Avenues and 23rd and 34th Streets. The arsenal fell out of military use, and served as a &ldquoHouse of Refuge&rdquo for juvenile delinquents from 1825 until 1839, when it was destroyed by fire.

After being leveled, sodded, and enclosed, Madison Square Park opened to the public on May 10, 1847, with boundaries of Fifth Avenue and Madison Avenues and 23rd and 26th Streets. Citizens quickly claimed the public park as their own. Their protests against plans to erect the Crystal Palace here in 1853 resulted in its relocation to Bryant Park. Nevertheless, the park has been host to grand celebrations, replete with temporary decorative arches, to commemorate historic occasions and anniversaries such as the centennial of the signing of the Declaration of Independence in 1876 and the triumphant return of Admiral Dewey from the Spanish American War in 1899.

The original Madison Square Garden was located adjacent to the park at Madison Avenue and 26th Street. It was owned by William Vanderbilt, and opened in 1879. The building was razed in 1899 and replaced with a Moorish style building designed by Stanford White. The second Madison Square Garden stood until 1925 when it was demolished and replaced by the headquarters of the New York Life Insurance Company. Promoter Tex Rickard built the third Garden that same year at 8th Avenue and 50th Street.


10. There Used To Be A Wooden Arch In Place Of Today’s Marble

Image from New York Public Library

Before the marble arch was built in 1892, there was a temporary wooden arch erected in 1889 to celebrate the centennial of President George Washington’s inauguration (similar to another temporary arch at Madison Square Park). The arch, campaigned by William Rhinelander Stewart, was only supposed to be built temporarily for the celebration. Stewart, a wealthy resident of the area convinced other wealthy residents of the area to contribute funds to build this memorial, and brought in Stanford White, of the famous firm McKim Mead & White for the design.

On April 30, 1889, the wooden arch was decorated and lit up for the centennial. To build and decorate the whole thing cost $2,700, which is about $71,000 today.

The temporary arch became very popular and sparked a new campaign that brought in $150,000 (for a more permanent arch. And so in 1890, the marble arch in Washington Square Park that we are all familiar with today, still stands albeit a few feet south of where the original stood.


History of the New York Life Building

On the same piece of land that once housed the grand first and second Madison Square Gardens, on Madison Avenue between 26th and 27th streets, rose the New York Life Building. Famed architect Cass Gilbert (1859-1934), an early proponent of skyscrapers, was awarded the commission to design the building. Erected between 1926 and 1928, Gilbert’s 34-story, 617 foot tall, neo-gothic office building eventually became one of the New York skyline’s most iconic buildings. You may recognize Gilbert’s name, as he designed another iconic New York City building, The Woolworth Building, in lower Manhattan.

The New York Life Insurance Building sits on nearly two acres and has an exterior comprised of 440,000 cubic feet of Indiana limestone – the largest order of exterior stone, and more than twice the amount ever utilized in a single American building, in 1928. Gilbert exclusively used solid bronze to frame the building’s 2,180 windows he also used bronze on many interior decorations as well as on the buildings large ornate doors. The building’s recognizable pyramidal roof, originally plated in gold leaf, eventually eroded and was replaced with gold colored tile. Historian Miriam Berman shares the results, “a roof that catches and reflects the sunlight by day and by night is one of the more easily recognized shapes on the city’s illuminated skyline.”

Towering over Madison Square Park, the New York Life Insurance Building is an important piece of the neighborhood’s historic architecture. Additionally New York Life, who are still headquartered in the building, has been an important partner of the Madison Square Park Conservancy since our very beginnings, and a leader in the revitalization of the neighborhood.

Interested in more Mad. Sq. History? Come to Mad. Sq. 200 presented by New York Life, the bicentennial celebration of the naming of Madison Square, where we will share free and fun historic activities and information on September 6, from 3-6pm.

Photo courtesy of: Museum of the City of New York. 51 Madison Avenue. New York Life Building.


On This Day in NYC History, December 24th, 1912: The First Public Christmas Tree Lighting in Madison Square Park

Image via Library of Congress

This day in New York City History marked the first public Christmas tree lighting in the nation. This tree was in Madison Square Park, before New Yorkers could even think of such an opulent celebration in Rockefeller center. The Madison Square Park tree was called the “Tree of Light” and it sparked a public Christmas tree trend across the nation. It was also mentioned as the hallmark of a “community Christmas” at the national tree lighting at the East Plaza of the US Capitol.

This public Christmas tree was initiated by Emilie D. Lee Hereshoff, who was inspired by the social activism of the time. Hereshoff saw the ceremony as a way to provide a Christmas tree lighting for everyone, but especially those who couldn’t afford a tree of their own. Event organizers were drowned with requests to “see the tree”, so there was a significant effort to ensure that the event would be free and outdoors.

This tree lighting was meant to be a proper affair, and it would align with Jacob Riis’ “sane” and alcohol-free public New Years Eve celebration. The Adirondack Club donated a tree sixty feet high and twenty feet wide, and the cost of transport was covered by an anonymous railroad worker. At least 20,000 New Yorkers of all social classes attended the tree lighting ceremony. The New York Times also did the 1912 version of a live blog: in an article published on the 25th, they included timed updates, and a list of every song performed by the chorus. They also published a poem about the tree.

For more on Christmas trees, check out these seven alternatives to the Rockefeller Christmas tree, and 5 little known facts about the Rockefeller center tree.


Watch the video: 4K NEW YORK CITY - Madison Square Park, Broadway, Flatiron Building, Midtown Manhattan, Travel