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.

Aug 28, 2018

Discover Flatiron: The History of Learning at 55 East 25th

As students head back to school, one's thoughts turn to crisp autumn leaves, shiny apples in brown paper bags, and the wonderful musty smell of the school library. One particular block of the Flatiron District, 55 East 25th Street, also springs to mind, as it has had the great fortune to be the address of not one, but two innovative institutions of learning: School for the Physical City and Baruch College Campus High School.

Built in 1912 for a reported $300,000, the East 25th Street property was the creation of New York City public school alum and shirt manufacturer Israel Unterberg. Area architects Simon I. Schwartz, Arthur Gross, and B.N. Marcus were commissioned by Unterberg to design the 16-story, L-shaped structure. When the building opened for occupancy, it shared the dual street address of 352 Fourth Avenue and 55-59 East 25th Street.

For the next several decades, Fourth Avenue real estate provided an economic boom to the neighborhood as “the center of one of the important business districts in the city,” reported the Real Estate Record and Builders Guide on September 4, 1915. “There are thirty-one new commercial structures on this thoroughfare, varying in height from one to twenty stories.” Tenants of the area’s dynamic properties included leaders in the silk trade and woolen industries. 

Toward the end of the 20th century, however, the commercial community would welcome to the neighborhood a real estate trendsetter–a public high school. Located on the first five floors of 55 East 25th Street, the School for the Physical City was “part of an experiment begun under the former Schools Chancellor, Joseph A. Fernandez, to establish smaller, easier-to-manage schools with student bodies that would ultimately be one-third of the average at the 124 older high schools in the city,” wrote The New York Times on October 31, 1993.

“It is one of the new, small theme schools inaugurated in 1993/94 by the New York City Board of Education with support from four non-profit organizations, initiated under the New Visions School Program by the federal government,” reported PEB Exchange: The Journal of the OECD Program on Educational Building in June 2000.“The commercial location reinforces a growing trend in city planning philosophies which leans toward the creation of mixed-use facilities and districts.” 

After spending its first two years at a temporary site on West 17th Street, the School for the Physical City moved to its permanent location on East 25th Street, between Madison Avenue and Park Avenue South, in 1995. The school’s new 55,000 square foot home featured floor plans designed by the award-winning architectural firm of RKTB. The building offered a level of infrastructure awareness to its student body composed of grades 6 through 12. 

“Structural columns on every floor are painted vivid green, overhead water pipes are painted blue, and air conditioning ducts are painted in a variety of colors,” noted the architecture industry website Architizer. “At the same juncture on every floor there is a small viewing panel, painted green, that lets one see into the room containing the heating, ventilation and air-conditioning equipment for that floor.”

Mark Weiss, the school’s then principal, told The New York Times on October 31, 1993, “It's a matter of inventing it as we go along. It's difficult what it takes to incubate a school. You have to start somewhere, and if you didn't push the edges of possibility you might not get started at all.” Two years later, on May 28, 1995, the newspaper hailed the institution with its Sunday magazine cover headline: “A City School Experiment That Actually Works.”

But by the beginning of 2010 academic year, the School for the Physical City closed based upon a report issued by the NYC Department of Education. The School and four other public high schools “had notably low four-year graduation rates, did a particularly poor job helping students who were already behind as incoming freshmen, and proved exceedingly unpopular with prospective students,” wrote The New York Times on December 12, 2006.

The former School for the Physical City property would soon become the home of another groundbreaking educational institution, Baruch College Campus High School, a liberal arts college preparatory public high school featuring grades 9 through 12 that would be located on a college campus. According to the BCCHS website, the school “is dedicated to providing a challenging interdisciplinary liberal arts education for students” and “asks students to explore the philosophical, ethical and aesthetic issues of the human experience.”  

Established in 1997, BCCHS was a collaboration between New York City’s Community School District 2 and the City University of New York’s Baruch College. Former superintendent of Community School District 2 Anthony Alvarado, and Matthew Goldstein, a former President of Baruch College, were the school’s co-creators. The school’s initial location was 111 East 18th Street. It briefly relocated to the upper floors of Baruch College at 17 Lexington Avenue, between 22nd and 23rd Streets, before moving to its present location at 55 East 25th Street in 2009.

Since its arrival on East 25th Street, BCCHS has undergone a series of improvements, including the debut of a $150,000 science laboratory in 2013. The school also continues to maintain a record of academic excellence with its current gold medal ranking on the U.S. News & World Report list of Best High Schools, an achievement building developer and former public school alum Israel Unterberg would certainly be proud of.

Photo Credit: RKTB Architects P.C.

Jul 9, 2018

Discover Flatiron: Madison Cottage

It’s July and time for a summer getaway! In recognition of this time-honored New York tradition, the Flatiron/23rd Street Partnership takes a journey back to the 1839 opening of the popular inn, Madison Cottage, at the corner of 23rd Street and Broadway.

Much of the Flatiron District was still farmland during the late 18th and early 19th centuries. Neighborhood landowners included wagon-and-wheel-maker John Horn, who owned property between 21st and 23rd Streets. Horn was also the proprietor of one of the area’s first pubs, Buck Horn Tavern, at 22nd Street and Broadway. The Tavern was where General, and future first U.S. President, George Washington reportedly met with the public in 1783. 

A half century later, one of Horn’s grandchildren, Margaret, and her husband Christopher Mildeberger, were in the midst of seeking a new site for their Fifth Avenue farmhouse, since the major thoroughfare where the property stood was undergoing a northbound extension. By 1839, their home would not only find a new location, but also a new direction as a commercial property at the corner of Broadway and 23rd Street.

That year the farmhouse was leased to a gentleman known as Corporal Thompson, who then transformed the building into a roadhouse. It was called Madison Cottage, a name chosen by Thompson in tribute to James Madison, the fourth President of the United States.

“This converted yellow farmhouse was for many the first stop leaving the city or the last stop before entering the city proper,” according to the Museum of the City of New York’s website. “It served as a post-tavern, stage coach stop, a cattle exhibition hall, and the de facto congregating point for horse-racing enthusiasts among young men of the upper class.”

Henry Collins Brown, author of Glimpses of Old New York, wrote that the cottage “was also the starting place of several stage lines that ran to the lower part of the city and notwithstanding its diminutive size from present day proportions it was a very important and well-known establishment.”

The inn’s entranceway had “a huge pair of antlers cast their shadow over its door,” reported Harper’s Weekly on January 7, 1893,and under that shadow passed every knight of the whip whose throat was parched by the dust of the road.”

Many Madison Cottage guests were “codgers, young and old,” revealed  Abram C. Dayton in Last Days of Knickerbocker Life in New York.“Scores of bon vivants would end their ride for the day by “smiling” with the worthy Corporal, and wash down any of their former improprieties with a sip of his ne plus ultra, which was always kept in reserve for a special nightcap.”

The inn’s perks were also publicized in newspaper ads. One announcement appeared in The New York Herald on May 9, 1847: “Madison Cottage–This beautiful place of resort opposite Madison Square, corner of Twenty-third Street and Broadway, is open for the season, and Palmer's omnibuses drive to the door. It is one of the most agreeable spots for an afternoon's lounge in the suburbs of our city. Go and see." 

An evening stay at the cottage cost four pence for a bed and six pence with supper, noted Miriam Berman, author of Madison Square: The Park and Its Celebrated Landmarks. In addition, said Berman, there were a number of house rules for overnight guests, which included: “No more than five to sleep in one bed. No boots to be worn in bed. No dogs allowed upstairs.”

In 1852, Madison Cottage closed to accommodate the arrival of the amusement arena Franconi's Hippodrome in 1853, followed by the Fifth Avenue Hotel in 1909.

Photo Credit: Museum of the City of New York

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 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