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IRON, GLASS, AND NATIONALISM

THE MAKING OF AN AMERICAN CRYSTAL PALACE

The New York Crystal Palace from an engraving in the Scientific American, October 23, 1852

Edward G. FitzGerald

Prof. Mary Woods ARCH 390 11/28/06

It is due to the sober economy of language that I call the sight of it incomparable, fairylike. It is a piece of summer night dream in the midday sun. Lothar Bucher, on Joseph Paxton‟s Crystal Palace, 18511

The Great Exhibition held in Hyde Park, London in the summer of 1851 marked the beginning of a long era of international industrial and commercial celebrations. The exhibition‟s Crystal Palace, designed by Joseph Paxton, offered an impressive backdrop to display the industrial achievements of Imperial Britain and the Western world. The building was a hitherto unimaginable greenhouse-like structure constructed innovatively from cast-iron and glass in a way that gave the world a new sense of the possibilities of those materials in architecture. (see FIGURE 1.) Its halls, flooded with light, presented spectators with a glimpse of the locomotives and steam pumps representative of progress and the dawn of the mechanical age juxtaposed next to another world of Greek statuary and Austrian furniture. Understandably, the crystalline brilliance of the London palace inspired more than a few visitors, one of whom, Edward Riddle, resolved to recreate the awe-inspiring spectacle on the other side of the Atlantic. Americans, too, would have a glass monument to progress and the labor of man. The details of the American encore to the British exhibition reveal more than simple replication Through a brief analysis of the New York Crystal Palace, one can see that it provided an object which the burgeoning country could adopt and instill with its own nationalistic sentiments. Publicity heralding the advanced construction and fantastic treasures of the London palace caught the attention of the American public while, news of the venture‟s lucrative success appealed to entrepreneurs like, the Boston auctioneer and carriage

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maker, Edward Riddle. Riddle had conceived of plans for a second exhibition while serving as the American Commissioner at the Crystal Palace in 1851. At its close, the international gang of exhibitors was anxious to sell their products overseas. In December 1851, The North American Miscellany and Dollar Magazine reported that Riddle had already received nearly a thousand applications for display space in his proposed American exhibition, “some from Prince Albert.” The prospects for an American fair seemed good. Upon his return, Riddle quickly set about the task of assembling a group of financiers.2 Newspaper accounts indicated that famed promoter P.T. Barnum, who had just closed a show featuring the Bateman Sisters, a popular musical ensemble of the time, might be willing to back the scheme. When Barnum declined, Riddle instead marshaled a group of New York bankers and merchants, including August Belmont, Watts Sherman, and Francis W. Edmond, who were willing to invest in the venture. In need of a venue for their project, Riddle and his backers petitioned the New York City Common Council for use of Madison Square, a six acre public park in the borough of Manhattan. Their request was granted with the stipulation that admission not exceed fifty cents per person and that the exhibit hall be constructed of iron and glass like that in London among. When the affluent community around the square learned of the plan, however, they complained that it would ruin the aesthetics of the neighborhood and add to traffic congestion. After a judge ruled against the use of Madison Square, the council granted the investors the use of Reservoir Square, a 9.6 acre plot in midtown Manhattan, in its stead.3 In 1884, Reservoir Square was renamed Bryant Park, as it is today, to honor the recently deceased poet, editor, and civil reformer, William Cullen Bryant. The park had

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had a long history of uses up to that point: as far back as 1686, New York‟s colonial governor Thomas Dongan had designated the land as public property; in the early nineteenth century it served as a potter‟s field; and in 1847, the Croton Distributing Reservoir, a massive man-made lake with twenty-five-foot-thick, fifty-foot-high granite walls, occupied the easternmost four acres. In the 1850s, Reservoir Square, named, of course, after the behemoth granite water basin that dominated the surrounding landscape, was a simple Victorian greensward just to the north of the populous city. This relatively uninhabited site was chosen, apparently without contest, and the Council agreed to lease the land to Riddle and his associates for a period of five years at one dollar annual rent.4 It seemed clear all along that New York City was the optimal locale for an American exhibition. As early as October 24, 1851, mention had been made of transferring “the most attractive portions of the marvels of the Crystal Palace to New York.” In their unofficial 1854 catalog of the exhibition in New York, The World of Science, Art, and Industry at the Crystal Palace, Professor B. Silliman and C.R. Goodrich reasoned that, “New York was selected as the locality of the Exhibition because of its great advantages as a commercial centre [sic], and as the chief entrepôt of European goods.” Further, they noted that, “had it been proposed to limit the Exhibition to the products of American industry, some place more central, as Washington, Philadelphia, or Cincinnati, might have been justly preferred…” Silliman and Goodrich had accurately assessed New York‟s economic centrality. The Erie Canal, completed in 1825, and the railroad lines constructed along its towpaths in the 1830s connected interior manufacturing centers to the sea and transformed New York State into the most prosperous east/west commercial corridor in the nineteenth century. New York City, the

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financial capital of the nation, was the prosperous heart feeding this artery, drawing in commodities, people, and culture from all parts of the globe and pumping out America‟s abundant agricultural produce. So in view of the international nature of the proposed exposition, New York seemed like the only place at all suited for the purpose.5 Soon after the venture was granted use of Reservoir Square, Edward Riddle sold his stake to the other investors for a reputed $10, 000 and disassociated himself from the affair. Riddle‟s seemingly avaricious enterprising cast an unfavorable light over the undertaking and led some to defame it merely as, “Riddle‟s Fair”. One editorial in the Scientific American quipped, “Our New York Exhibition Managers have the glorious object in view of making a patriotic pocketful out of their own countrymen.” Despite this, the remaining associates continued to move forward with their plans and on March 11, 1852, they were granted a charter by the New York Legislature incorporating “The Association for the Exhibition of the Industry of All Nations” for a period of five years.6 With their charter as a license to proceed, the association tackled the greatest task at hand, the selection and construction of a building. Here they clearly aspired to produce something that, at the very least, could compete on par with its London antecedent. The daunting technical challenges were exacerbated by the fact that the land allotted to them in Reservoir Square was less than a fifth of that consumed by the palace in Hyde Park, and that the association‟s charter restricted the cost of the building to $200,000. American pride was at stake when the call went out for design proposals.7 In August, 1852 a committee of architects and engineers met to consider the submissions. Among the entrants was the famed Joseph Paxton, designer of the London Crystal Palace. Paxton‟s plan called for an elongated rectilinear building measuring six-

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hundred and fifty-three feet in length by one-hundred and nine feet wide, with a framework, “like that of its great prototype,” composed of iron and glass but, with a slate roof to accommodate a heavy snow fall. (see FIGURE 2.) At either end, enormous fanlights, flanked on either side by a stone tower, surmounted the entrances and echoed the arch of the roof trusses. Inside, a great open gallery spanned the entire length of the building with further exhibit space in balconies that ran along the walls on a second level. (see FIGURE 3.)8 Andrew Jackson Downing, a prominent American landscape designer and Gothic Revivalist, also submitted a design for the exhibition. Downing‟s plan took the shape of a huge rotunda surmounted by a colossal dome, constructed of wood and canvass, with supporting columns of cast iron. (see FIGURE 4.) The dome was to be built with thin curved ribs whose downward and lateral thrust would be kept in tension by ties made from two-inch-thick planks. A membrane of canvass would line the interior while a casing of tin and glass would give the outer shell of the dome a silvery appearance. Along the base of the dome, the rotunda corbelled out to form a two-story ring similar to the Globe Theatre in London.9 Perhaps the most daring design was proposed by James Bogardus and his assistant, Hamilton Hoppin. Bogardus, a native New Yorker and self-taught architect, was a tireless promoter of the use of cast iron as a building material and an innovator in prefabricated construction. In May of 1849, he had erected the first structure with selfsupporting, multi-storied exterior walls of iron for real estate entrepreneur and coal merchant, Edgar H. Laing. In August, 1851 he engineered yet another feat of cast iron design with the construction of his one-hundred-foot-tall fire watch tower for the New

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York City Fire Department. His interest in building iron towers is seen in the design he proposed for the exhibition. At its center soared a 300-foot circular tower from which, a sheet iron roof was suspended by chains. (see FIGURE 5.) The tower rose above a sixtyfoot-tall, coliseum-like amphitheater, “1,200 feet in circumference, and designed to cover the whole ground.” A steam powered hoist would operate inside the tower to carry spectators to the grand observatory at the top.10 The design by Bogardus and Hoppin received widespread praise for its innovativeness and unique silhouette. The Scientific American gave it a hearty endorsement in January, 1852: We have seen the model of a Crystal Palace, by Mr. Bogardus… the well known American inventor, whose fame is world-wide, and whose iron buildings are unrivalled for strength, simplicity, and beauty. The design, we hope, will not be first applied to the dwarf Museum of Riddle, but to a World‟s Fair, to be held in our country not many years hence. The design is superior in all its details to the London Crystal Palace…. The roof is entirely new in principle and plan… and to show how much prudent utility and calculating forethought there is in the plan, after it has served for a crystal palace, it can be taken down and made into a number of iron buildings without alteration, one of which may be put up in every State of the Union. Praise for Bogardus and the other American entrants was as much an expression of patriotic sentiment as it was a critique of Paxton‟s design: “While we have coals in this country, it would be foolish to send to New Castle for them…. The American who would import a Crystal Palace should be transported,” noted the same newspaper column. 11 Though deemed “worthy of all praise,” Paxton‟s design was ultimately rejected by the committee. So too were those of Downing and Bogardus and Hoppin. Paxton‟s proposal, it seems, did not make efficient enough use of the limited space allocated by the Association. Silliman and Goodrich noted that, “the galleries were not designed for the

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display of goods, but for promenades.” The building, which was to be surrounded by an esplanade, provided only 89,448 square feet, far short of the 150,000 square feet desired by the committee. A.J. Downing‟s proposal was excluded on the basis that it “contemplated the large use of wood and canvas… while by terms of the charter of the Association, iron and glass were to be principally employed.” The exciting design submitted by Bogardus and Hoppin, while certainly meeting the spatial requirements, was, perhaps, a bit too experimental for the conservative bankers who were to finance its construction. Among the other rejected designs was one prepared by Leopold Eidlitz, a man who would later design the New York State Capitol building in Albany. 12 In the end, the prize was awarded to two little-known architects from New York: George Carstensen, who had been responsible for the plan of the Tivoli Gardens in Copenhagen, and Charles Gildemeister. Carstensen, a Dane by birth, and Gildemeister, a German, had established a small practice in the city years before the exhibition was proposed. Of all the designs submitted, theirs offered the strongest compromise between an originative recognition of its forerunner in Hyde Park, and an effective use of the limited site. Historian Charles Hirshfield posits that the selection committee, burdened by the influence of the Association‟s conservative Board of Directors, sought the building most closely styled after the successful London palace and may have been more apt to select a design by Paxton had a more appropriate or capacious submission been made. Indeed, the harshest critics of Carstensen and Gildemeister‟s design, both historical and contemporary, accused it of being an “uninventive replica” of the Crystal Palace built in London. While undoubtedly influenced to some degree by Paxton‟s precedent, it may be that the committee, a group of architects and engineers from a generation trained in

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classical construction techniques, aired on “the side of safety”, choosing a building “…well supported and bound together by the requisite number of braces and ties…” even though, as an editorial in the Scientific American suggested, this excess may have represented “…an error in the amount of material used….”13 The New York Crystal Palace, as designed by Carstensen and Gildemeister, took the form of a Greek cross, with arms of equal length measuring, three hundred and sixtyfive feet across. (see FIGURE 6.) The exterior angles of the cross were filled in with triangular additions on the ground floor giving the building its octagonal shape. At each point of the octagon, towers sprung up like the pinnacles of a church steeple. At the center of the building there was an enormous dome, measuring one hundred feet in diameter and one hundred and forty-eight feet from the floor to the height of the lantern at its peak. (see FIGURE 7.) The iron elements of the building, both cast and wrought, weighed approximately 1,500 tons. 45,000 square feet of glass encased 173,000 square feet of exhibition space. On the side that ran along the Croton Reservoir, a rectangular addition intended solely to house machinery, increased the size of the original plan by nearly one quarter for an area of over 200,000 square feet. 14 While an impressive design, the selection of Carstensen and Gildemeister‟s building, reminiscent of the London palace, represented the dichotomy in the intentions of the exhibition. For some, the fair held nationalistic importance though others saw it simply as, as the New York Daily-Times stated, a “renewed exhibition of the [London] Crystal Palace in New York,”. The New York exhibition‟s unmistakable link to its antecedent was formed even before the London event had closed. American newspaper accounts of the time, though publishing second hand information from the London

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papers, paint a picture of Edward Riddle scheming with the delegates of other countries to ship “the most attractive and valuable portion of the articles which have been exhibited” back to the United States. Long before a site had been chosen or a building designed and before the necessary funds had been procured, Riddle had determined to transplant the fruitful English exhibition, like a traveling carnival, back to American soil.15 Riddle‟s zealous efforts to promote an exhibition in the United States, though not lacking originality, had a redeeming patriotic significance. The American showing at the London exhibition was in the eyes of some, a poor representation of the country‟s actual mechanical and commercial ingenuity. An article in the Christian Observer dated October 25, 1851 noted, “The English papers crowed over the paucity of our articles; the Superintendent, Mr. Riddle wrote home for more; and American travelers hung their heads when they saw how completely the fancy artisans of Belgium and Austria beat the Yankees.” Yet, in the areas where the country had exhibited, its reputation was unapproachable. Medals awarded for locks, sewing machines, reapers, revolvers, and even a schooner, celebrated the manufactures in which American progress excelled. Even still, as Riddle relinquished his post as American Commissioner to the Great Exhibition, he expressed regret that his countrymen had not taken interest in the exhibition sooner and hypothesized, “What might we not have accomplished had every branch of labor, and every interest over our widespread country, been fitly represented?” The New York exhibition could provide the opportunity for the burgeoning country to display for the world the true character of the Yankee and his wares.16

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From some circles, a pronounced effort was made to shed a uniquely American light on the affair. In October, 1852, the Scientific American took a patriotic, though distinctly anti-monarchical tone: We have named this building the American Crystal Palace, not after the European fashion which gives that name to royal residences and those which have been honored with royalty sleeping in them, but because it will be taken possession of by a whole army of old and young American kings and queens… We do not expect to see them carried to it in carriages drawn by cream colored Arabian horses, but in the royal cars of the sixth avenue railroad which will take as many passengers as will chose to go... for only one five-cent piece each. In this tune, the “American Palace” would stand as a response from the New World to the Old, affirming the success of democratic principles by showing that its juvenile industrial force could compare with European products technology. Only forty years earlier had the United States fought to confirm its independence from Great Britain in the War of 1812 and just four years earlier, the European continent had been embroiled in revolution. The rivalry symbolized by this palace, devoted to the art of industry and the labor of man, was not one answered by cannon balls but, through commodities.17 As a manifestation of their labor and the nation‟s industrial ability, Americans touted the superior aspects of their palace. Horace Greeley, the author of Art and Industry as Represented in the Exhibition at the Crystal Palace, New York-1853-4, published in 1853 noted, that the “lofty, magnificent Dome of the American Palace has no parallel in the British, and probably has none in the world, unless it be that of St. Peter‟s at Rome.” Greeley also claimed that the interior decorations were far improved over the “Quakerlike plainness of its London exemplar.” Even though the building in Hyde Park was four times its size, nothing quite like the New York Crystal Palace in shape or effect had ever been seen in the United States. The structure was a great achievement for the country in

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1853 and Americans had reason to be proud of it. As Greely put it, “To us on this side of the water it is original.”18 The palace had been ornamented in a lively color scheme with its bright interior spaces, decorated in a rich cream color, relieved by red, blue, and yellow. With its dome tinted bronze and its walls enclosed by iron and glass, it was truly …a Palace, Loftier, 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 cheerfulest hues, Bronze, lilac, robin‟s-egg, marine and crimson, Over whose golden roof shall flaunt, beneath thy banner, Freedom. (choral lyrics from the opening ceremony). If the effusions of the articulate few are any indication, the ordinary Americans who visited the building must have experienced both pride and awe. When the Exhibition of the Industry of All Nations finally opened (after some delay) on July 14, 1853, visitors to the scene rhapsodized: “what a blaze of light and beauty flashes on the dazzled eye! What exquisite proportion in the unique dome! What admirable harmony of coloring…. How airy and graceful the delicate tracery of arch and column!”19 Though the roof leaked badly for a time and the entire structure seemed dwarfed by the behemoth walls of the Croton Reservoir, Americans were proud of their palace. The exhibition set off one of the first major tourism booms in New York. Over one million people visited the Exhibition of the Industry of All Nations, which closed in 1854. In spite of its popularity, the exhibition‟s sponsors reportedly lost $300,000 on the venture. The structure remained standing after the fair, and was leased for a variety of purposes until, in 1858, it was destroyed by accidental fire. Firemen stood helplessly by while, in little more than twenty minutes, the whole thing toppled to the ground.20

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The sad, anti-climactic demise of the New York Crystal Palace does not overshadow its importance as a symbol of American progress. While the ideas behind the exhibition‟s design may not have been entirely original, the iron and glass of the American Palace were invested with a nationalistic pride that was uniquely democratic. It was a monument to workers of all kinds, merchants and mechanics, laborers and scientists, artists and inventors—a “People‟s Palace”. When the last display had been packed away or, when the palace doors had been latched closed on the final day, the issue of originality may not have mattered much. The fair had served its purpose well, American pride had been bolstered, not only by the architecture, but by the plethora of agricultural accoutrements and industrial achievements on display. As Greeley put it, “Yankee clocks and cotton gins [made] very effective Democratic speeches.” So too did iron and glass.21

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FIGURE 1. Paxton‟s Crystal Palace at the Great Exhibition in London, 1851. Courtesy of the University of Maralynd.

2. Side view of Paxton‟s proposed building for the New York Exhibition. B. Silliman & C.R. Goodrich, eds., The World of Science, Art, and Industry at the Crystal Palace (New York: G.P. Putnam & Co., 1854),
FIGURE

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FIGURE

3. Interrior view of Paxton‟s plan . B. Silliman & C.R. Goodrich.

FIGURE

4. The plan by A.J. Downing. B. Silliman & C.R. Goodrich.

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FIGURE

5. The Bogardus submission. B. Silliman & C.R. Goodrich.

6. Floor plans for the design by Carstensen & Gildemeister. B. Silliman & C.R. Goodrich.
FIGURE

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FIGURE

7. A cross section of the dome. B. Silliman & C.R. Goodrich.

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NOTES
Lothar Bucher, Cultural Historical Sketches from the Great Exhibition of the Works of Industry of All Nations (Frankfurt, 1851). 2 “England,” New York Daily-Times (12 November 1851), 1; “Chronicle of Passing Events,” The North American Miscellany and Dollar Magazine (4 December 1851), 274. 3 Scientific American, “A World's Fair and Crystal Palace at New York,” Vol. VII. No. 16 (3 January 1852)125; “The Crystal Palace in New York,” New York Daily Time, (31 January 1852), 7; New York Daily Times (14 January 1852) 2; Eric Chiu, “The New York Palace: Birth of a Building,” available online: http://www.lib.umd.edu/ARCH/honr219f/1853nyci.html, (20 November 2006). 4 Ibid.; Elizabeth Huntting Heekin, “The Evolution of an Urban Park,” thesis (Cornell: 1978) 67-69; Charles Hirschfield, “America on Exhibition: The New York Crystal Palace,” American Quarterly, Vol. 9 No. 2 Part 1 (Summer 1957) 2-3. 5 B. Silliman & C.R. Goodrich, eds., The World of Science, Art, and Industry at the Crystal Palace (New York: G.P. Putnam & Co., 1854), 5; Milton M. Klein, ed., The Empire State: A History of New York, (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 200). 6 New York Crystal Palace, German Reformed Messenger (7 January 1852), 17, 18; “The New York Crystal Palace,” Scientific American Vol. VII., No. 41.; (26 June 1852), 324; Silliman & Goodrich, The World of Science, 5. 7 Hirschfield, America, 105 8 Silliman & Goodrich, The World of Science, 1-2. 9 Ibid., 2. 10 Margot and Carol Gayle, Cast-Iron Architecture in America: the Significance of James Bogardus (New York: W.W. Norton & Co., Inc., 1998), 81-83, 110-117; Silliman & Goodrich, The World of Science, 1-2. 11 “Design for the Great Exhibition Building at New York,” Scientific American Vol. VII, No. 18 (17 January 1852) 141. 12 It is also worth noting that Paxton had developed his design before the Reservoir Square site had been chosen, partially accounting for its lack of compatibility with the site and inadequate use of space. Silliman & Goodrich, The World of Science, 2-6; Chiu, “New York Palace”. 13 Horace Greeley, Art and Industry as Represented in the Exhibition at the Crystal Palace, New York1853-4 (New York, NY: Redfield, 1853), 13-16; “„Crystal Palace‟ Exhibitions,” Scientific American, Vol. VIII, No. 43 (9 July 1853), 338. 14 Greeley, Art and Industry, 13-16; Silliman & Goodrich, The World of Science, 3-4. 15 No Title, New York Daily Times (14 January 1852), 2; “Foreign Items,” Home Journa,l 45, 300 (8 November 1851), 3. 16 “Americans at the Great Exhibition,” Christian Observer, 30, 43 (25 October 1851), 172; “American Awards at the World‟s Industrial Exhibition in London,” Southern Cultivator, 9, 11 (November 1851), 166. 17 “New York Crystal Palace for the Exhibition of Industrial Products,” Scientific American Vol. VIII., No. 6 (23 October 1852), 41; “Moral of the Crystal Palace,” Gleason's Pictorial Drawing - Room Companion, 5, 15 (8 October 1853) 237. 18 Greeley, Art and Industry, xii, 15. 19 “The Crystal Palace,” New York Daily Times (15 July 1853), 1; “Letter from New York,” Southern Literary Magazine, XIX (1853) 511-12. 20 Hirschfield, America, 114-116; Chiu, “New York Palace”. 21 Greeley, Art and Industry, 60.
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