Architectural richness and the romance of a time gone by help to define today’s Flatiron District. Since April 2007, the BID staff has been highlighting the area’s most historic structures as well as some of the people and businesses that have either thrived here for decades or are noteworthy for other reasons.

Jun 1, 2018

Discover Flatiron: District Building Designers

As we commemorate the June 1902 completion of the iconic Flatiron Building, the Flatiron/23rd Street Partnership takes a brief look at a few notable designers who made architectural history in the neighborhood.

Flatiron Building: Daniel Hudson Burnham

At the turn of the 20th century, America’s premier architect was Daniel Hudson Burnham, a pioneer designer of skyscrapers and urban planning. Burnham had been born in a two-story limestone house in Henderson, New York in 1846. The Burhham family relocated to Chicago, a city that would have a significant impact on the development of Burnham’s career.

With business partner John Wellborn Root, Burnham designed 165 private residences and 75 buildings following the Great Chicago Fire of 1871. But Burnham’s most ambitious building effort in the Windy City came when he was named chief of construction and chief consulting architect for the World’s Columbian Exposition, more commonly known as the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair.

“The fair helped popularize the City Beautiful movement–a trend in urban design which sought to endow American cities with some of the grandeur of European urban centers–of which Burnham was a major proponent,” noted the 1989 Ladies’ Miles Historic District Designation Report issued by the New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission.

Following the World's Fair, Burnham was commissioned by one of his former contractors, George Fuller, to design a 22-story Beaux-Arts structure to be built at the intersection of Fifth Avenue and Broadway, between 22nd and 23rd Streets, in New York. 

The property was popularly known as the Flatiron Building because of its resemblance to a laundress’ flat iron. Six years after the building’s completion, The Washington Herald asked Burnham to summarize his life achievements. “I haven’t done much,” he replied in an article published on March 1, 1908. “I have just served on a few commissions.” Burnham died in 1912 at the age of 65. 

Appellate Division Courthouse: James Brown Lord

New Yorker James Brown Lord was born in 1859. His paternal grandfather was Daniel Lord, founder of the blue-chip law offices of Lord, Day & Lord. His maternal grandfather was James Brown, who created the investment firm known today as Brown Brothers Harriman. 

Lord was a graduate of Princeton University and began his career with the architectural firm of William A. Potter. In 1896, Lord, now heading his own practice, received approval of his plans from the Court’s Justices to design the Appellate Division Courthouse at 25th Street and Madison Avenue. 

He “conceived of the building itself as an expression of the ideals of the law, which he achieved by integrating the architectural, pictorial and sculptural aspects into one monument,” notes the website nycourts.gov about the property that officially opened its doors in 1900. 

The structure featured “two-story fluted Corinthian columns and repeated pilasters, arched and pointed moldings above the second story windows, a girdling entablature separating the second and third floors, and a low balustrade on the roof, crowned with statues.”  

The New York Times reported on June 2, 1902 that “the building is said to be the first ever constructed in America in which the architect had the entire control of the sculpture and mural decorations, as well as the construction of the building.”

Lord’s prolific career as an architect, however, was short-lived. His death at the age of 43 in 1902 was reportedly caused by a combination of an undisclosed illness and stress created by noise from renovations done at a next-door neighbor’s home.

Metropolitan Life Insurance Company Tower: N. LeBrun & Sons

Philadelphia native Napoleon LeBrun was born to French immigrants in 1821. His father, Charles, had once served as a U.S ambassador to France during President Thomas Jefferson's administration. After practicing architecture in his hometown, LeBrun moved to New York in the early 1860s. Twenty years later, he expanded his business to include sons Pierre and Michel and changed the firm’s name to N. LeBrun & Sons.

“Skyscraper design and construction was in its infancy during most of the firm’s early years, but skyscrapers, too, would figure prominently in the firm’s repertoire,” wrote Joseph J. Korom, Jr. in his book Skyscraper Faces of the Gilded Age.

One such structure was the Metropolitan Life Insurance Company’s Clock Tower built in 1909. Located at 5 Madison Avenue, between 23rd and 24th Streets, it became the world’s tallest building at 700 feet until 1913 when the new Woolworth Building surpassed it by 92 feet.

The New York Times on May 26, 1996 described the Clock Tower, which was based on the Campanile at the Piazza San Marco in Venice, as “all white Tuckahoe marble, with a giant four-faced clock and a beacon at the top.” The clockface features four-foot high numerals.

Priot to the Clock Tower building, N. LeBrun & Sons were commissioned by the FDNY as the official architects of 42 New York City firehouses between 1880 and 1895. LeBrun did not see the Clock Tower make its debut as he died in 1901 at the age of 80, eight years before it was finished by the firm he founded with his sons.

200 Fifth Avenue: Maynicke & Franke

Born in Germany in 1849, Robert Maynicke arrived in the United States when he was an infant. He attended New York City public schools before enrolling in night classes at Cooper Union, where he studied mechanics and mathematics. Julius Franke, Maynicke’s business partner and a New Yorker born in 1868, had also attended the area’s public schools, studied at École des Beaux-Arts in Paris, and was a graduate of The City College of New York.

In 1895, the pair established their Flatiron District practice, Maynicke & Franke, and would design more than 100 large commercial structures, including 200 Fifth Avenue, a 14-story Neo-Renaissance retail and loft building constructed between 1908 and 1909.

This structure featured “a T-shaped marble-clad arcade with barrel-vaulted sections and richly embellished Neo-Renaissance detailing at the first story,” wrote the 1989 Ladies’ Miles Historic District Designation Report issued by the New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission, and “a stepped-back terra-cotta-clad central court with skylights of prismatic glass to provide ‘inner’ offices with ample air and natural light.”

In Maynicke’s New York Times obituary, the newspaper reported on October 1, 1913 that the architect was “a pioneer in the building of modern loft buildings.” Real Estate Record and Builders Guide on October 4, 1913 defined Maynicke as “a man of social habits, quick sympathies and varied intellectual interests.” 

Franke was an outspoken advocate for commercial real estate development. “As an investment, the office building compares with the best,” he wrote in the Real Estate Record and Builders Guide feature It Would Pay to Build Offices Now that was publishedon December 19, 1908. “It is stable and safe and the value and income of an office building fluctuates decidedly less than some popular investments.”

Maynicke died in 1913 at the age of 65. Upon his colleague’s death, Franke continued working at their firm before retiring in 1926 to pursue landscape painting. He passed away a decade later at the age of 68.

Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons

May 10, 2018

Discover Flatiron: Dollar Princesses

More than two billion global viewers are expected to tune in to the Royal Wedding of Meghan Markle and Prince Harry this Saturday, May 19th at Windsor Castle's St. George's Chapel. The total wedding could carry a $45 million price tag - all paid for by the family of the groom.

Having the monarch pick up the tab for such a lavish wedding has not always been protocol. In the late 19th century, numbers of nouveau riche American families often financed the marriages of their daughters in cash-for-class unions to men of the aristocracy to secure a title in the ranks of royalty. 

During this era known as the Gilded Age, more than 200 socialites, nicknamed “Dollar Princesses", exchanged vows with men of nobility, and the bride often had greater assets than the groom. Such was the case of five prominent heiresses with ties to the Flatiron District–Minnie Stevens, Mary Goelet, Consuelo Vanderbilt, Jennie Jerome, and Frances Work. It would be Frances who would lead those of us here in the Flatiron to experience a direct connection to the upcoming royal wedding.

Minnie Stevens

Mary ‘Minnie’ Stevens was the eldest daughter of Marietta and hotelier Paran Stevens, who owned the Stevens House, one of Flatiron’s first luxury residential buildings on 27th Street, between Fifth Avenue and Broadway. When Minnie became a benefactor of her late father’s estimated $10 million estate in 1872, she left New York City to live in Europe. 

In 1878, Minnie exchanged vows with British Army officer General Sir Arthur Henry Fitzroy Paget. Known as Lady Paget, she later became a matchmaker for American women seeking husbands overseas. Besides arranging introductions, Lady Paget’s philanthropic efforts included helping the wounded during the Balkan wars while her husband held diplomatic roles in Ireland and Belgrade. 

Mary Goelet

Mary ‘May’ Goelet’s father, Ogden Goelet, was an heir to a number of New York City properties, including the Goelet Building, located at Broadway and 20th Street. In 1903, his daughter, who reportedly had a net worth of $20 million, married Scotsman and military careerist Henry Innes-Ker, 8th Duke of Roxburghe, at Manhattan’s Saint Thomas Church. 

The newlyweds, known as the Duke and Duchess of Roxburghe, honeymooned at a Goelet family villa in Newport, Rhode Island, and later lived at the Duke’s home, Floors Castle, in Scotland, where the pair enjoyed fly fishing. The couple remained married until the Duchess of Roxburghe’s death at the age of 58 in 1937. 

In response to a belief by some that U.S.-born wives were not treated cordially in the U.K., the mother of the Duke of Roxburghe spoke about the subject before her son’s wedding with The New York Times on November 8, 1903. She declared emphatically, “Why of course we welcome them and they are very happy, which I think is shown by the number of American girls who are now with titled husbands in England.”

Consuelo Vanderbilt

Consuelo Vanderbilt was a great-granddaughter of railroad tycoon Cornelius Vanderbilt, who had an estimated fortune of more than $100 million. He owned property in Flatiron, including the railway depot at 26th Street and Fourth Avenue, which later became the site of the original Madison Square Garden. 

British soldier and politician Charles Spencer-Churchill, 9th Duke of Marlborough, and a first cousin of Winston Churchill, met Consuelo, who’s net worth was a reported $20 million, through her matchmaker friend and fellow heiress Minnie Stevens. Consuelo and Charles married at New York City’s Saint Thomas Church in 1895. 

On the day of the wedding, the press sought to publish nearly every aspect of the event including a glimpse of the bride’s lingerie worn under her cream-white satin gown worth $6,720.35. “It is delightful to know that the clasps of Miss Vanderbilt's stocking supporters are of gold,” wrote the society magazine Town Topics, “and that her corset-covers and chemises are embroidered with rosebuds in relief.”

The groom reportedly received $2.5 million in railroad stock as a pre-nuptial perk from the father of the newly married Duchess of Marlborough. The funds were used to renovate the Duke’s then deteriorating home and couple’s permanent residence known as Blenheim Palace. The pair became the parents of two boys but the marriage ended in 1921.

Jennie Jerome

Jeanette ‘Jennie’ Jerome was the middle daughter of Clarissa and Leonard Jerome, a financier known as the “King of Wall Street” and reportedly worth $10 million. His most notable Manhattan property was the Jerome Mansion on 26th Street and Madison Avenue, which featured a 600-seat opera house. 

Three days after meeting Lord Randolph Churchill at a ball on the Isle of Wight in 1873, Jennie agreed to marry the young member of Parliament. After walking down the aisle in April 1874, the pair became parents to future Prime Minister Winston Churchill, who was born several months later. 

Initially, the groom’s parents opposed the marriage, but Jennie’s million-dollar dowry convinced her future in-laws. Lady Churchill would become an avid supporter of her husband’s lifelong political career in the House of Commons. The marriage, however, ended in 1895 when Lord Churchill reportedly succumbed to syphilis at the age of 45.

Frances Work

This brings us to Frances ‘Fanny’ Work, who would become the great-grandmother of Diana, Princess of Wales, and thus the great-great grandmother to William and Harry.

The eldest daughter of Frank Work, a New York City stockbroker and business associate of shipping and railroad mogul Cornelius Vanderbilt, Frances Work and her family lived at 13 East 26th Street in the Flatiron District. She met her future husband, James Boothby Burke Roche, who later became 3rd Baron Fermoy, while he was visiting New York City. In 1880, they tied the knot at Manhattan’s Christ Church.

According to Miriam Berman, author of Madison Square: The Park and Its Celebrated Landmarks and a Flatiron/23rd Street Partnership walking tour guide, “Frances had been accustomed to a more extravagant lifestyle, and James did not work out to be quite the wealthy gentleman she thought.” The couple was granted a divorce in 1891.

James was the son of an Irish baron and held numerous jobs, including ranchman in the West, gold miner in Alaska, and revolutionist in South America. During the marriage, Frances paid off her husband’s reported $100,000 gambling debts. 

“I am an American to my backbone,” Work supposedly said in objection to his daughter’s marriage. “Therefore I have only contempt for these helpless, hopeless, lifeless men that cross the ocean to carry off the very flower of our womanhood.”

Work even stipulated in his will to not have any part of his estate given to his son-in-law. Upon her father’s passing in 1911, Frances, her two siblings, and her twin sons and daughter with James, inherited an estimated $15 million. 

So here, a simple royal lineage path from the Flatiron:

  • Frances Work marries James Boothby Burke Roche, the 3rd Baron Fermoy
  • Edmund Maurice Burke Roche their eldest son, the 4th Baron Fermoy marries Ruth Sylvia Gill (Gill was a confidant and lady-in-waiting to the late Queen Mother)
  • Frances Ruth Burke Roche, the daughter of Edmund and Ruth, marries Edward John VIII Spencer, Lord Althorp, who together have five children, including Diana Frances Spencer who marries Prince Charles, in turn making Frances Work the great-grandmother of Diana, Princess of Wales, and the great-great-grandmother to the Princes William and Harry

Perhaps more reason to enjoy and bear witness to the marriage of Megan Markle and Prince Harry as Flatiron continues its unique bond to royalty.

Frances Work - Photo Credit: The Smithsonian

 

Apr 24, 2018

Discover Flatiron: ASPCA Launches in the Flatiron District

In honor of Prevention of Cruelty to Animals Month, the Flatiron/23rd Street Partnership takes a look back at the initial Flatiron District headquarters of the nonprofit organization founded by New York philanthropist Henry Bergh in the late 19th century.

In 1863, Henry Bergh, an affluent Manhattan resident from the Lower East Side, had been appointed by President Abraham Lincoln to a U.S. diplomatic post in Russia. During his time abroad Bergh often observed the mistreatment of animals. “In Russia, he saw peasants beating horses that had fallen and were unable to continue pulling carts,” notes the New-York Historical Society website, “and was appalled by the violent nature of bullfighting in Spain.”

Bergh wanted to protect such animals, which he called “mute servants of mankind,” and soon resigned from his government position. Upon his return to America, Bergh began to gain widespread support, including recognition from notable literary figures Ralph Waldo Emerson, Louisa May Alcott, and Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. Bergh’s presentation of his document “Declaration of the Rights of Animals” led the New York State legislature to pass a charter incorporating the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA) on April 10, 1866.  

By 1876, the ASPCA established its first official offices on the southeast corner of Fourth Avenue (present day Park Avenue South) and 22nd Street. Due to the organization’s ever-expanding operations, the ASPCA sold the Fourth Avenue property in 1891 and relocated to 10 East 22nd Street. By 1898, the Society moved yet again to much larger offices on 26th Street. The new four-story building at 50 Madison Avenue, designed by Renwick, Aspinwall & Owen, was a 30' x 100' structure that was once described by the AIA Guide to New York City as a “proper London club in delicately tooled limestone.”

According to Our Dumb Animals edited by George Thorndike Angell, the first floor features included the superintendent’s office, the complaint department, and dog license division. The president’s office was located on the third floor as well as a library and fireproof vault for the Society’s paperwork.

At the nearby southwest corner of 24th Street and Avenue A were the ASPCA’s dispensary, shelter, and ambulance house. The property, which opened to the public in 1912, was comprised of kennels for homeless, abandoned, and stray cats and dogs, and a rooftop that served as an exercise runway for dogs.

The facility also featured an operating room for horses. The book Our Dumb Animals noted that “stalls were connected with an electric trolley, by means of which a horse is unable to walk can be conveyed, in a sling or resting on the movable bottom-board of an ambulance, to the operating table or any other part of the building desired.”

In 1948, the ASPCA was notified that its 24th Street property was being condemned under eminent domain and the organization had to vacate in order to make room for a veterans’ hospital. A reported $304,000 in Federal compensation, as well as a number of fundraisers, helped the ASPCA relocate its Madison Avenue offices and 24th Street facility to the Upper East Side. 

The newly designated home for the ASPCA opened in December 1950 at a property that the organization had owned on East 92nd Street and York Avenue. Although no longer located in the Flatiron District, the early mission by the nonprofit still remains from that era when Bergh sought “to provide effective means for the prevention of cruelty to animals.”

Photo Credit: ASPCA

Mar 27, 2018

Discover Flatiron: Madison Square Theatre's Tech Evolution

Flatiron flourished as New York City’s theater district during the late 19th century. One such neighborhood playhouse, the Madison Square Theatre at 4 West 24th Street near Broadway, received rave reviews as an innovative stagecraft leader under the management of actor-playwright-inventor and Buffalo native Steele MacKaye.

Madison Square Theatre owners, the Rev. Dr. George Mallory and his brother, Marshall, chose MacKaye to operate their property beginning in 1879. Rev. Mallory was also editor of the weekly publication The Churchman. “He took a keen and helpful interest in developing the scheme for the presentation of pure and wholesome plays,” reported The New York Times in Mallory’s March 3, 1897 obituary. “The primary object and consistent policy of the Madison Square Theatre was to elevate the moral tone of the American stage.” 

The Mallorys immediately began to remodel the three story building upon MacKaye's accepting the job. “That structure was erected with elaborate care and unstinted cost,” wrote The Times. “There was an uncommonly deep excavation down through the thick strata of rock in order to allow sufficient space for the operation of Mr. MacKaye’s movable double stage, which was the chief novelty of the new theater.” Upon the 650-seat venue’s completion in 1880, MacKaye held an invitation-only preview for industry insiders to showcase some of his creations.

MacKaye’s double stage invention would limit the time between acts. “Undoubtedly the most unique,” noted The New York Times on February 1, 1880. “This devise is designed to facilitate rapid changes of scenery, and is so arranged that one entire set can be substituted for another in an interval from one to two minutes. The stages are elevated and lowered by means of a crank, to which are attached heavy counter-weights.”

In his book Pictorial Illusionism: The Theatre of Steele MacKaye, author  J.A. Sokalski quotes MacKaye, who indicated that “the chief advantages of my new stage invention are—to enable us to sort and distribute our scenery upon three floors, instead of huddling it upon one…to produce scenic effects impossible upon any other stage.”

Air quality inside the theater was also a paramount concern to MacKaye. For comfort to both actors and audience, MacKaye designed a reported $10,000 ventilation system. “Sitting atop the theater’s roof, a 50-foot-high intake shaft, topped by a three-foot-wide rotary fan, drew in outside air and passed it through a gigantic bag-shaped cheesecloth filter,” wrote Salvatore Basile in his book Cool: How Air Conditioning Changed Everything

“Once the air entered into the ventilation plant,” noted Basile, “another fan in the basement forced it through a chamber containing racks of ice then propelled it through a branchwork of smaller pipes totaling more than a mile in length, enabling it to diffuse softly throughout the auditorium. MacKaye swore that the airflow even helped to carry the actors’ voices from the stage.” 

This overwhelming confidence expressed by MacKaye may have also played a part in the success of the new and improved Madison Square Theatre’s first production, Hazel Kirke. Starring former child actress Effie Ellsler in the title role, the comedy drama was written and produced by MacKaye and made its debut on February 4, 1880. It would go on to have a then record-breaking box office run of nearly 500 performances.

The profitable partnership, however, between between MacKaye and Madison Square Theatre would be short-lived following creative differences with the Mallorys. MacKaye moved on, continuing to engage in a number of ventures that included writing 30 productions and creating patents for more than 100 inventions such as folding theater chairs. 

Shortly thereafter, New York City’s entertainment district began to shift north to Midtown Manhattan. It became apparent that the final curtain call at the Madison Square Theatre was imminent. Demolition of the theater took place in 1908 and the property was replaced the following year with the Fifth Avenue Building, whose official address is 200 Fifth Avenue. The new 14-story structure, according to the 1989 edition of the Ladies’ Mile Historic District Designation Report Vol 1. issued by the New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission, would serve as a 20th century “catalyst for the commercial redevelopment of the area.”

Photo: Madison Square Theatre, 4 West 24th Street, circa 1905

Photo Credit: Charles Gilbert Hine

Feb 27, 2018

Discover Flatiron: Filmmaking in Flatiron 2.0

As the upcoming 90th Academy Awards ceremony prepares to honor Hollywood’s 2017 season on March 4th, the Flatiron/23rd Street Partnership highlights recent films starring the Flatiron District as the location of choice for star-studded productions.

In the Fast and Furious billion-dollar franchise’s eighth installment, Vin Diesel and his on-screen crew raced their cars through the streets of Manhattan in 2017’s The Fate of the Furious. The route included sections of Fifth Avenue in the Flatiron District and featured a glimpse of the Flatiron Building on 23rd Street. Directed by F. Gary Gray, the PG-13 film earned $226 million at the box office.

A current Best Director and Best Original Screenplay nominee for Lady Bird, actress Greta Gerwig appeared in front of the camera as a veterinary nurse and dachshund owner in the 2016 comedy-drama Wiener-Dog. Filming in Flatiron included 1169 Broadway, between 27th and 28th Streets, and Broadway between 28th and 29th Streets. The indie production, which was directed by Todd Solondz, had a total take of $477,000.

Breaking Bad Emmy winner Anna Gunn showcased her talent in 2016’s Equity, and was billed as the first female-led Wall Street thriller. Area shoots in the neighborhood included Broadway, between 23rd and 28th Streets, and 26th Street, between Fifth Avenue and Madison Avenue. Directed by Meera Menon, the film made $1.6 million.

Oscar winners Helen Mirren (The Queen), Kate Winslet (The Reader), and Oscar nominee Will Smith (Ali; Pursuit of Happyness) starred in Collateral Beauty, a 2016 drama about an advertising executive coping with the loss of his only child. Production shoots included Madison Avenue, between 23rd and 26th Streets, and Sixth Avenue, between 20th and 21st Streets. David Frankel directed the PG-13 rated movie that earned $31 million.

Emma Roberts, niece of Academy Award winner Julia Roberts, starred in Nerve, a 2016 thriller about a high school senior who joins an online truth or dare game. Filming locations included Madison Avenue, between 23rd and 26th Streets, Park Avenue South, between 24th and 25th Streets, and 26th Street, between Madison Avenue and Park Avenue South. Directed by the team of Henry Joost and Ariel Schulman, the PG-13 rated production grossed $40 million.

Dakota Johnson played a recent college graduate seeking new life experiences in the 2016 comedy How To Be Single. Director Christian Ditter filmed in a number of New York City locations, which included the Flatiron Public Plazas. The R-rated film raked in $47 million.

Oscar 2005 host Chris Rock wrote, directed, and cast himself in the 2014 romantic-comedy Top Five about a comedian confronting his mid-life crisis and impending marriage to a reality TV star. Neighborhood shoots included Madison Square Park’s Reflecting Pool Plaza, 26th Street, between Madison and Fifth Avenues, and 23rd Street, between Broadway and Madison Avenue.The box office total was $25 million.

Former SNL cast member Will Ferrell returned to the big screen as newsman Ron Burgundy in the 2013 comedy sequel Anchorman 2: The Legend Continues. Madison Square Park appears in some scenes as the battlefield where Burgundy and his team have a media face-off with other outlets, which included MTV News, headed by Kanye West, BBC News Service, led by Sacha Baron Cohen, and Tina Fey and Amy Poehler, hosts of Entertainment News. The PG-rated film directed by Adam McKay made $125 million.

Academy Award winners Gwyneth Paltrow (Shakespeare in Love) and Tim Robbins (Mystic River) appeared in the 2012 romantic comedy-drama Thanks for Sharing, which looked at a 12-step program group’s struggles with sex addiction. Location shoots included 24th Street, between Broadway and Sixth Avenue, and 23rd Street, between Fifth and Sixth Avenues. Stuart Blumberg directed the R-rated production that earned $1.7 million.

Two-time Golden Globe winner Jim Carrey (The Truman Show; Man on the Moon) starred in 2011’s family fantasy feature Mr. Popper’s Penguins as a high-profile real estate developer whose life undergoes a meltdown after inheriting six penguins. Carrey’s location scenes included the Flatiron Public Plazas and the entranceway to the Flatiron Building, where the filmmakers changed the iconic property’s address from 175 Fifth Avenue to 949 Fifth Avenue. Directed by Mark S. Waters, the PG-rated movie grossed $68 million.

Photo Credit: On The Set Of New York

Credit: Domestic box office figures courtesy of Box Office Mojo

Feb 6, 2018

Discover Flatiron: Best in Show

As the Westminster Kennel Club preps for this year’s Madison Square Garden show held from February 10th through February 13th, the Flatiron/23rd Street Partnership takes a trip back to the late 19th century for a look at the first-ever Best in Show competitions for dogs and cats that made their debut in the arena’s former location on Madison Avenue and 26th Street.

The Westminster Kennel Club was an idea created by an elite group of local dog owners. These men gathered to have boastful conversations about themselves and their pet’s physical prowess at the upscale Westminster Hotel on Irving Place and 16th Street, a place where notables such as British author Charles Dickens stayed while visiting New York City.

“There, sporting gentlemen used to meet in the bar to drink and lie about their shooting accomplishments,” stated author William F. Stifel in The Dog Show: 125 Years of Westminster. “Eventually they formed a club and bought a training area and kennel. They kept their dogs there and hired a trainer.” 

By 1877, the club members had incorporated their new name, Westminster Kennel Club, and scheduled their first dog competition for May 8th. The event was initially known as the First Annual New York Bench Show of Dogs. The dogs had been assigned to benches when not being viewed by judges in the ring. “This allowed for interaction of dogs and their owners with spectators and other owners and breeders as an educational process,” notes the WKC website.

The four-day event took place at Gilmore’s Garden, a passenger depot property on Madison Avenue and 26th Street then owned by railroad and shipping magnate Cornelius Vanderbilt, who leased it to “When Johnny Comes Marching Home” lyricist Patrick Gilmore. The building was later renamed Madison Square Garden by the Vanderbilt family in 1879.

Of the 1,201 entries at the dog competition, wrote The New York Times on February 1, 1976, a number of the contestants, which included two Deerhounds bred by the Queen of England and two Staghounds from a pack owned by the late General George Custer, were seen “rigged up with ribbons, mats, cushions, bells and lace collars, in the most dainty style.”

The show’s opening day attracted an estimated 8,000 spectators and as many as 20,000 its second and third days, which led to adding a fourth day with those proceeds donated to an ASPCA home for stray and disabled dogs. “There was a very good attendance all day, and at night the crush was so great that the utmost difficulty was experienced moving about,” reported The New York Times on May 9, 1877. “The streets outside were blocked with liveried carriages, and the gentlemen who served as ticket sellers could not make change fast enough to suit the throng that was clamoring for admittance.”

The outdoor recreation magazine Forest and Stream also offered a favorable review. “To say that the dog show held in the city last week was a success would but poorly convey an idea of what the result really was,” declared the publication. “It was a magnificent triumph for the dogs and for the projectors of the show. We question if on any previous occasion has there ever assembled in this city such a number of people at one time, and representing as much of the culture, wealth and fashion of the town.”

Absent from the competition, however, was the Best in Show award, which would become a newly created honor three decades later in 1907. In that year, followed by the next two, a female Smooth Fox Terrier named Warren Remedy won the award. A native of Allamuchy Township, New Jersey, the 20-month-old had been bred by socialite Winthrop Rutherford, a featured character prototype in the novels of Flatiron native Edith Wharton. To this day, Warren Remedy remains the only recipient of three Best in Show wins.

Following the popularity of competitions that showcased man’s best friend, feline lovers soon sought the spotlight. The National Cat Show, the first recognized formal cat show in North America, premiered at Madison Square Garden on May 8, 1895. The four-day event featured 176 cats and was organized by James T. Hyde, an Englishman who had work at the Garden’s horse shows.

The first cat show in New York was a great success,” wrote Frances Simpson in her book The Book of the Cat, “from the time the doors opened till its close, though the temperature–which was for part of the time as high as 96 degrees–was hard upon the cats, especially those that had just come from England.”

According to The New York Times on May 11, 1895, “The care of the cats at the Garden has been made a special feature of the show. Fresh milk is provided them three times a day, and the cooked and raw meat given them is fresh. Food can be had for them whenever their owners think they need it. Persons desiring to take their cats home at night are allowed to do so after forfeit of $5. Only about fifty have been removed at night. The others are all asleep by 11.”

A two-year-old Maine Coon named Cosey was chosen as first place winner and Best Longhaired Cat in Show. The black and gray male tabby, owned by Mrs. Frederick A. Brown, resided in Manhattan on East 27th Street. The pressures of being a contestant, however, had allegedly taken a toll on the champion cat. At the 1896 competition, Cosey reportedly “stood the flippant insults of the crowd until patience was exhausted, and the next gloved hand that was poked through the bars of its cage received a sharp blow.”

Photo Credit: Warren Remedy, Westminster Kennel Club