Suzanne Hinman's The Grandest Madison Square Garden: Art, Scandal, & Architecture in Gilded Age New York

Reviewed by Paul Ranogajec

The Grandest Madison Square Garden: Art, Scandal, & Architecture in Gilded Age New York  By Suzanne Hinman Syracuse University Press, 2019 472 pages

The Grandest Madison Square Garden: Art, Scandal, & Architecture in Gilded Age New York
By Suzanne Hinman
Syracuse University Press, 2019
472 pages

Madison Square Garden was among the premier places to see and be seen in New York City at the turn of the twentieth century. As Suzanne Hinman amply documents in her new book, this palace of popular entertainment was truly a modern wonder of architecture and spectacle. Like the old Penn Station (another McKim, Mead and White building that sadly no longer graces the city’s streets) the Garden helped define the aesthetic and social landscapes of New York in the years around 1900.

Hinman devotes substantial space to documenting the design and construction process, the Garden’s numerous functions and social uses, and the surprisingly complex history of its tower-topping Diana sculpture. On these counts, hers is a typical building biography. But Hinman is equally interested in the personal lives of architect Stanford White and sculptor Augustus Saint-Gaudens. And by recounting details of their private (and often not-so-private) affairs in relation to the building and the sculpture, she constructs an engaging story centered in and around an important Gilded Age monument.

The book presents a wealth of facts and storylines on two tracks: the first an art-historical concern with designs, precedents, art production, and critical reception; the second a more journalistic account of the sometimes salacious doings of a group of privileged men. Scouring the personal papers of White held at the Avery Library at Columbia University and the New-York Historical Society and those of Saint-Gaudens at the Baker Library at Dartmouth College, in addition to substantial reliance on the contemporary press, Hinman gives an unusually detailed account of these men’s artistic and carnal passions. And Diana is there among it all, weaving in and out among the chapters on the artists’ social milieu, acting to cohere the disparate threads of art and social history into a fascinating story that swirls around the gilded figure.

Yet, in the quest to give a factual account rich with detail and presented in a satisfying narrative, the book sometimes misses opportunities to sketch a larger picture of the period and its cultural and social dynamics. Themes of public art, sexuality, women’s agency, and studio practice, among others, structure the story and suggest a broad scope. But in trying both to be accessible to a general audience — (Erik Larson’s wildly successful The Devil in the White City immediately comes to mind as a model for this book) — and to convey a wealth of research to fellow art historians, the book shies away from critical perspectives that might have deepened its examination of the building and the sculpture, their makers, and the society of which they were part. One result is that the book does not satisfactorily deal with the major scandal suggested by its subtitle: Stanford White’s rape of Evelyn Nesbit and his subsequent murder in the Garden itself.

The Madison Square Garden of Hinman’s book is the second of four buildings that have taken the name. The first was built hastily as the “Great Roman Hippodrome” in 1873-74 by P. T. Barnum on the site of the former Union Depot train station — its service replaced by Commodore Vanderbilt’s Grand Central Depot — at the northeast corner of Madison Square. Barnum’s arena was a long, low building consisting chiefly of a simple perimeter wall with small windows and a squat tower at its southwest corner. Only a year later, with Barnum’s attention increasingly focused elsewhere, ownership was taken by bandleader Patrick Gilmore, who renamed the venue Gilmore’s Concert Garden. This version of the venue closed three years later when he, in turn, also began to focus on other business opportunities.

Back in William H. Vanderbilt’s hands, the venue was transformed to host large-scale athletic events. This function, too, was short-lived. In March 1879, the collapse of a wooden gallery during a popular walking race prompted Vanderbilt to once again turn the arena into a pleasure garden under yet another name: Madison-Square Garden. Over the winter of 1879-80, it was extensively remodeled. Another structural collapse in April 1880 led to calls for its demolition, but Vanderbilt’s “money talked, and the crisis passed.” Hinman deftly sets up all of this prehistory as foreshadowing the fate of White’s Garden: his murder there in 1906 and its demolition in 1925 to make way for the Cass Gilbert-designed, golden pyramid-topped New York Life Building — a very different but equally spectacular addition to the skyline.

In 1887, a consortium of investors organized as the Madison Square Garden Company made public their plans to rebuild it. Stanford White won the commission for McKim, Mead and White. This second version of the Garden opened on June 16, 1890 (although its tower was not yet built and the interior was incomplete). As told by Hinman, the grand opening night festivities summed up that moment of Gilded Age culture when a mix of elite and popular entertainments converged at one place in the emerging world metropolis.

Although parts one and two of the book focus primarily on White and the design and construction of the Garden, Hinman early on introduces Saint-Gaudens and his plans for Diana. They take over in the third part of the book, while the shorter fourth part deals with White’s murder, the demise of the Garden, and the fate of the multiple versions of Diana. The Garden’s weathervane and icon, the sculpture itself is really the book’s main protagonist, even more than White and Saint-Gaudens. While Hinman effectively uses Diana to structure the book, its significance could have been highlighted further by more explicitly including critical discussions about the issues of gender and sexuality, public morality, and studio practice that she raises in connection with the sculpture.

The portraits Hinman draws of White and Saint-Gaudens are, on the whole, not flattering. The circle of artists, aesthetes, and rich playboys she documents, with their sense of entitlement and aggressive, sometimes exploitative sexuality, looks as unappealing today as is it must have seemed then to moralizers such as Anthony Comstock and his New York Society for the Suppression of Vice. Across several chapters, Hinman quotes the crass in-jokes and code words and sketches an offensive pattern of ravenous homosocial carousing by a group of artists who, in White’s words, could do as they “darn please.” In these passages, based on bits of private correspondence, the author generally prefers to let the reader connect the threads of evidence and draw conclusions. Were these men merely sexual libertines? Were most of them repressed bisexuals? Were some of them sexual criminals? A fuller interrogation of the documentary evidence combined with some judiciously deployed feminist and queer theory might have helped to unpack these questions. The book cites a few previous studies that have touched on some of these issues, but it does not venture beyond them.

An exception to the author’s reticence to draw strong conclusions is in chapter nine, “In the Office and Out,” which draws together snippets of cryptic correspondence to document the sexual adventurism of White, especially, but also Saint-Gaudens and others in their circle. Hinman cites, for instance, White’s secret “Sewer Club,” where members explored “physiological interests and investigations,” in the words of painter Thomas Dewing. She suggests, with perhaps too much generosity to her protagonists, that their (presumed) sharing of partners in turn “was almost like loving each other” and might be seen as an effort to “cement the bonds between them.”

It is difficult to say much with certainty about most of these exploits. The circumstantial evidence Hinman relays points equally to playful libertinism and darker, sometimes violent and even criminal sexual abuse. Hinman’s brief chapter on White’s murder is the ultimate scandal in the book, but it is curiously downplayed. For instance, the author avoids using the word rape when describing the 1901 incident at White’s Twenty-Fourth Street apartment. Yet, drawing from Nesbit’s own published recollections, Hinman writes that Nesbit passed out from drinking too much champagne and “awoke to find them both naked and blood on the sheets. He had taken her virginity without her knowledge or permission.” At the time, Nesbit was 16 years old and White was 47. The only appropriate word for this is rape.

Hinman briefly recounts the standard explanation of Thaw’s murder as an act of a jealous husband. But, in just under three pages, she suggests strongly that it might be “really about an intimate relationship between White and Thaw.” Unfortunately, we are not taken far into the details of their prior relationship; we are told that Nesbit’s encounters with White “served only to justify Thaw’s already simmering hatred.” Here the discussion is peppered with words such as “probably,” “seems,” and “apparently.” It was “likely jealousy rather than any sort of moral indignation” on Thaw’s part that led to his rage and, ultimately, to White’s murder. While this series of events — from White’s relationship with Nesbit to Thaw’s trial and later life — occupies a relatively small part of the book, it is much more climactic than the building’s demolition and needed a fuller treatment.

The Grandest Madison Square Garden will appeal to a wide audience. It tells an inherently fascinating story and does so with evident enthusiasm. However, its occasional reluctance to follow through on provocative lines of evidence and difficult issues of sexuality and sexual violence, make it a book to be recommended only with some caveats. Yet its account of the design and construction of the Garden and its crowning Diana will make it an obligatory reference for future work on White and Saint-Gaudens, and anyone interested in New York’s social and cultural history in the Gilded Age will find fascinating details and copious references.

Paul Ranogajec is an independent art historian in New York. He is currently completing the manuscript of his first book, Classicism and the Liberal Metropolis: Scenographic Architecture in New York around 1900.