The New York Crystal Palace: The Birth of a Building

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By Eric Chiu

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Essay on the Crystal Palace from the New York Exhibition of the Industry of All Nations (1853-1854) created as a final assignment in World's Fairs: Social and Architectural History, HONR 219F, Spring 2001

Essays on the Material Culture of the World's Fairs
Edited by: Patricia Kosco Cossard and Isabelle Gournay
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Electronic version encoded on February 16, 2006

Titles of texts, foreign words, and emphasized text have been encoded


  • Crystal Palace (New York, N.Y.)
  • New York Exhibition of the Industry of All Nations (1853-1854)
  • Exhibition buildings -- Design and construction
  • Exhibitions
  • Essay
  • 1901-2000
  • North America
  • United States
  • New York (city)
  • New York
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 Illustrated News (March 19, 1853).

An Ode for the Inauguration of the American Crystal Palace:

The nations meet, not in war, but in peace, beneath this dome. They meet to bring glory to God on high and goodwill to men. The Crystal Palace is a symbol of the might of Man. Look on, ye Nations, and vow eternal peace and justice.

-William R. Wallace (New York Times, July 14, 1853)

When the first major international exhibition of arts and industries was held in London in 1851, the London Crystal Palace epitomized the achievements of the entire world at a time when progress was racing forward at a speed never before known to mankind. The Great Exhibition marked the beginning of a tradition of world's fairs, which would be held in major cities all across the globe. Following the success of the London fair, it was inevitable that other nations would soon try their hand at organizing their own exhibitions. In fact, the next international fair was held only two years later, in 1853, in New York City. This fair would have its own Crystal Palace to symbolize not only the achievements of the world, but also the nationalistic pride of a relatively young nation and all that she stood for. Walt Whitman, the great American poet, wrote in "The Song of the Exposition":

... a Palace,Lofter, fairer, ampler than any yet,Earth's modern wonder, History's Seven out stripping,High rising tier on tier, with glass and iron facades,Gladdening the sun and sky - enhued in the cheerfulest hues,Bronze, lilac, robin's-egg, marine and crimsonOver whose golden roof shall flaunt, beneath thy banner, Freedom.

The plan for an American Crystal Palace originated with Edward Riddle, a Boston auctioneer and carriage-maker. He assembled a group of New York bankers who had either visited or heard marvelous stories about the London exhibition and were more than willing to invest in a similar project in the United States. Riddle tried but failed to interest the famed entrepreneur, P.T. Barnum, in the project. The group of investors soon petitioned the Board of Aldermen in New York City for use of Madison Square, located in lower Manhattan where Broadway and Fifth Avenue meet at 23rd Street, to build a "house of iron and steel for an Industrial Exhibition." Their petition was granted, and the required press releases were issued. However, when the community around Madison Square learned of the project, there were many complaints that it would ruin the aesthetics of the neighborhood, and present a headache of construction and traffic up to and during the exhibition. The case was tried before the Chief Justices of New York City who ruled against the use of Madison Square, but the Board of Aldermen granted the investors the use of Reservoir Square, which was on 42nd Street between Fifth Avenue and what is currently the Avenue of the Americas, in its stead. This square was once home to Reservoir Park, which still exists today as Bryant Park, renamed after abolitionist editor William Cullen Bryant. It is also the present-day location of the New York Public Library, inaugurated in 1911. Apparently, because Reservoir Square was on the outskirts of town at that time, the designation of that square for the Exhibition was not contested, and it became the actual site for the New York Crystal Palace.

Soon after the association was granted use of Reservoir Square, Edward Riddle sold his stake in the project to the other investors, who began to organize the exhibition. This commission was a private corporation, but its members themselves had many political connections. Through Daniel Webster, the Secretary of State at that time, the new President of the Commission, Theodore Sedgwick,had the future exhibition building declared a bonded warehouse. The architectural commission then held a design competition. Entrants included Joseph Paxton (1801-1865), the designer of the London Crystal Palace, and Leopold Eidlitz (1823-1908) who would later design the New York State Capitol in Albany. James Bogardus (1800-1874) and his assistant, Hamilton Hoppin (1821-1885), submitted what was likely the most exciting design. Bogardus, a native New Yorker and self-taught architect and engineer, was a tireless promoter of the use of cast iron. In 1849, he had erected the Edgar Laing Stores, the first structure with self-supporting, multi-storied exterior walls of iron. His proposed design for the New York World's Fair consisted of a 300-foot circular tower from which the roof was to be hung by chains. In the end, the prize went to George Carstensen (1812-1857), who had had laid out the Tivoli Gardens in Copenhagen, and Charles Gildemeister (1820-1869).

The New York Crystal Palace was in the shape of a Greek cross, with each of the arms being of equal length. The center of the building was surmounted by a large dome which was 100 feet in diameter. The selection of this design was a compromise between the Board of Directors and President Sedgwick. The Board had originally wanted an almost exact replica of the London Crystal Palace, which had a rectangular footprint and had come to symbolize the very idea of an international industrial exhibition. Sedgwick, on the other hand, was interested in creating something that New Yorkers could call their own, a new source of pride for both the city and the nation. Obviously, the Board got the better end of this compromise, but the building and the exhibition would still inspire pride in New Yorkers and Americans, notwithstanding its similarity to the London Crystal Palace. Underlying this conflict were the naive expectations that the American Crystal Palace would be able to cement the Union as the United States inched closer and closer towards the threat of a civil war. According to the New York Times,

Our advances in the study of Nature should stand forth in the niches of the temple and embody the progress of the American mind. Let the great West and the great South roll their voices along the Palace aisles, and tell the world what stuff they are made of and what strides they have taken in the arts of business of life... The impulse which this exhibition will give to the mechanical and artistic glories of this country is insignificant when compared with the moral power which it may exert over the fortunes of our happy Union.

This image of the construction site was published on page 185 of the March 19, 1853 edition of Illustrated News. The periodical measures 11 x 16 inches, but the image itself is only 11 x 8 inches. It was most likely drawn from the Croton Reservoir, built in 1842, which overlooked Reservoir Square. At this stage of the construction, one can clearly see the shape of the dome in the center of the building, and the iron frames for the four naves. Looking at the relative size of the workers in comparison to the building gives a true sense of the enormity of the structure, which would fill the entire park. In fact, it was probably harder to appreciate the size of the building when it was completed and the walls were closed, but at this stage of construction, with the open frame still transparent and the workers visible beneath, the scale is truly amazing. No wonder New Yorkers would stop and watch in awe as they passed by the construction site. One can only imagine how the excitement in the city must have built, as the full scale of the project became apparent through the various stages of construction. For New Yorkers, their Crystal Palace would become not only a symbol of America's achievements as a nation, but also a source of municipal civic pride. In addition, judging from the high-class apparel of the spectators, some of them probably had another reason for their interest in the construction. Local bankers whom Edward Riddle had convinced to invest in the project must have been anxious about the success of a serious financial venture. Whatever their reasons for watching the construction, the spectators must have had a view similar to that which the illustrator has depicted. With the frame rising out of the mist and the city's skyline fading away into the background, all one's attentions become focused on the tremendous structure being erected in that square.

Another point to be drawn from this picture is that the iron frame could be erected by merely placing and fastening pre-fabricated pieces together. Although this required the heavy machinery seen in the middle of the construction site, it also allowed for much easier and faster construction of a very large structure than with traditional masonry. In the original image, it is actually possible to see workmen carrying pieces of the iron structure into position. The engineers of the Palace were C.E. Detmold and Horatio Allen. They used castings supplied by twenty-eight different iron works, including James L. Jackson, Daniel D. Badger, and the Novelty Iron works of Stillman and Allen. The glass was manufactured in New York at the Jackson Glass Works. The London Crystal Palace had a horrible heat problem resulting from the use of clear glass, but this problem was avoided in New York by employing enameled glass. The enamel was laid on the 15,000 panes by brush and then vitrified in a kiln by a firm in Camptown, New Jersey. This image of the construction of the New York Crystal Palace exemplifies both the physical stature of the building as the first of its kind in the United States, and evokes the excitement that must have pervaded New York City as the first world's fair on American soil drew near. To find out more about the New York Crystal Palace and the 1853 New York Exhibition, please read the essays linked to the other images in this gallery.

Works Cited

Carstensen, George. New York Crystal Palace. Illustrated Description of the Building. New York: Riker, Thorne & Co., 1854.
Currier & Ives. Burning of the New York Crystal Palace. New York: Currier & Ives, 1858.
Findling, John E. Historical Dictionary of World's Fairs and Expositions, 1851-1988. Westport, Connecticut: Greenwood Press, 1990.
Greeley, Horace. Art and Industry as Represented in the Exhibition at the Crystal Palace, New York-1853-4. New York: Redfield, 1853.
How to See the New York Crystal Palace. New York: G.P. Putnam & Co., 1854.
Hyman, Linda. Crystal Palace / 42nd Street / 1853-54. New York: City University of New York, 1974.
Nagel & Weingartner. New York Crystal Palace for the Exhibition of the Industry of All Nations. New York: Goupil & Co., 1852.
Richards, William C. A Day in the New York Crystal Palace and how to make the most of it. New York: G.P.Putnam & Co., 1853.
Silliman, B. & C.R. Goodrich. The World of Science, Art, and Industry at the Crystal Palace. New York, NY.
Whitman, Walt. Great Buildings in New York. Brooklyn Daily Times. June 17, 1857.