Above image: An illustration of the interior of P.T. Barnum's Grand Roman Hippodrome, Thursday, March 5, 1874.
The site where the New York Life Building currently stands—at 51 Madison Avenue—possessed great historical significance even before New York Life’s arrival.
From the 1850s–1871, the site was home to a passenger station for the New York, New Haven and Hartford Railroad. The Madison Avenue Station became unnecessary with the opening of Grand Central Terminal on 42nd Street in 1871, and the space was rented to P.T. Barnum, who converted it into his famous Hippodrome, which opened in 1874. Barnum was proprietor of a traveling circus (which would later be a constituent of Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus) and intended the site to house a permanent show separate from his road show that would feature circus acts, chariot races, and a menagerie.
The Hippodrome would prove short-lived, closing after the 1875 season, but it would establish the site as a New York entertainment hub. In 1879, the Hippodrome reopened as a live event venue under a new name, “Madison Square Garden.” That venue would be torn down and replaced by a better-known second Madison Square Garden in 1890. The second Madison Square Garden was an architectural marvel in its time. Designed by Stanford White, it featured an enclosed arena, theatre, restaurant, ballroom, and rooftop garden. Over more than 30 years, it hosted societal and political functions and popular amusements, including Buffalo Bill's Wild West Show, boxing bouts, concerts, Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus, and political conventions.
New York Life acquired the second Madison Square Garden at a 1916 foreclosure auction. It was the only bidder. The company leased the building out to a promoter until around 1924, when it began preparations to demolish the property and build its Home Office on the site. The second Garden was finally torn down to make way for the New York Life Building in 1925. (A third Garden was built that same year further uptown, and the current Madison Square Garden was built in 1968.)
The 40-story, Gothic Revival-style New York Life Building was designed by Cass Gilbert, who also designed New York’s Woolworth Building and the U.S. Supreme Court Building in Washington, D.C. The limestone “Cathedral of Insurance” opened for business in November 1928. It was added to the National Register of Historic Places as a National Historic Landmark in 1978 and designated a historic landmark by New York City’s Landmarks Preservation Commission in 2000. The building contains nearly 1 million square feet of working space, 38 elevators, 2,200 windows, and 72 gargoyles. The iconic pyramidical dome is made with gold-dipped ceramic tiles and was refurbished in 1995 to mark New York Life’s 150th anniversary.
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