Three locations, four buildings and a distinct roof history liven up the history of New York’s Madison Square Garden.
The first iteration of Madison Square Garden opened its doors in 1879 at a renovated railroad station on East 26th Street and Madison Avenue at the cleverly named Madison Square.
The first building was roofless, which proved somewhat unfortunate and was the down side to the roof history of the building, so the first venue—used mainly for the circus—with 28-foot-tall walls was torn down.
The second version appeared 11 years after the first, opening on the same site. Designed by architect Stanford White in a Spanish Renaissance style, the 8,000-seat main hall was the largest in the world at the time. And with a 32-story tower, MSG II was the second-tallest building in New York City when it opened.
Along with a restaurant and 1,200-seat theater, the second Madison Square Garden included a roof garden, quite the unique roof-related history. But even with all of this, it wasn’t enough to make the arena ample money to keep creditors happy, leading to the New York Life Insurance Company tearing it down and building its headquarters on the site.
But then things start moving around, as Madison Square Garden III opened on Eighth Avenue between 49th and 50th streets, further uptown, in 1925. Theater architect Thomas Lamb designed a 200-foot-tall, three-level building that could hold nearly 18,500 fans, largely for boxing.
As the third version aged, plans crept along for the fourth version. The Westminster Dog Show closed down MSG III in February 1968, after which the third version was demolished and turned into a parking lot. In 1989 the Worldwide Plaza opened with offices and apartments.
The fourth Madison Square Garden—MSG IV—opened between 31st and 33rd streets from Seventh to Eighth avenues, the third location and fourth building in the arena’s history.
The current version of the arena came about after Irving Felt purchased the air rights atop the Pennsylvania Railroad, cleared some original buildings and then led the construction of the fourth Garden version over the railway—an engineering feat in its own—which started with a ground breaking in 1964 and an opening on Feb. 11, 1968.
Now the oldest sporting facility in Manhattan, oldest arena in the NHL and second-oldest in the NBA, the Charles Luckman-designed version enjoyed one key upgrade after 1968 before a $1 billion second renovation—led by Brisbin Brook Beynon Architects—that wrapped in 2013. Phased over three years, the renovation modernized entrances, concourses, lighting, seating, operations, player amenities, premium spaces and the addition of a suspended area over top the playing surface. Designed in the style of New York’s suspension bridges, these over-field “bridges” come in at 223 feet long and 22 feet wide.
And those bridges bring fans a bit closer to the wooden roof of MSG, the only concave—not convex—arena ceiling in the world, a style that has made it a popular concert stop ever since opening. The ceiling also serves an engineering purpose, with 48 steel cables running from the center of the ceiling to eliminate the need for support beams that would obstruct views.
The 1968 design has also led to one more small quirk, as the Garden’s floor space is slightly smaller than that of a typical NBA arena, which means the floor’s apron is smaller than every other arena in the NBA.
There was once concern that a fifth Madison Square Garden was in the future as city officials had plans to expand Penn Station into the space occupied by the “world’s most famous arena.” While technically operating only in a 10-year permit, granted in June 2013, a 2016-redevelopment plan for Penn Station now includes the removal of MSG’s theater, but not the arena.
With four versions in three locations, Madison Square Garden has a history unlike any arena in the world.