Madison Square Park

A Park for the People

Madison Square Park today is a public space with food concessions and a venue for special planned events. It is a place to stroll, relax, and perhaps enjoy an escape at lunch hour from the concrete landscape which surrounds the park. The concept of Madison Square Park as a public space is not a new idea. The area first received this designation from the Royal Governor of New York in 1686. In 1807 a triangular piece of the property was ceded to the United States government for a military arsenal. During the War of 1812, military organizations practiced their drills in the event of a British attack. The arsenal encompassed the 44 square blocks bounded by 23rd and 34th Streets between 3rd and 7th Avenues. Known as the Parade Ground, it was built on land which had been a potter’s field; it was originally established in 1797. It was reduced in size in 1814, when it was named Madison Square, after President James Madison. The arsenal took on a new life as the House of Refuge for the reformation of delinquent boys and girls. A fire broke out in 1839, and the building was destroyed. In 1845, Madison Square took on its present size, extending from 23rd to 26th Streets between Fifth and Madison Avenues (Berman, 9-12).

After the park’s opening in 1847, the surrounding blocks became exclusive addresses for an elite class of homeowners who occupied the newly built brownstones. Women and children strolled the paths of Madison Square Park. It became a popular retreat for neighborhood residents and travelers from afar. “Happily for our dear Madison Square Park, if the day is any degree favoring, it is so beautiful and begemmed by swarms of children that it always wears a sweet, fresh face” (Hilaris, 1879, 539). The Worth Monument was the first of several statutes which would make their home in the park. Erected in 1857, it honored Major General William Jenkins Worth, who served in the War of 1812, and was a hero of the Mexican War. At the time of the Major General’s death, in 1857, the park took on an important function of squares–to serve as a public gathering place. Thousands watched as a military procession carried his coffin from City Hall to Madison Square, where he was buried (Berman, 15-16).

Burying the Free Academy

This was not the only coffin which passed Madison Square Park during these early years. On May 1, 1866, the name of our college was changed by an act of the Legislature from the New-York Free Academy to The College of the City of New York. To celebrate the event, students organized a funeral procession the night before, marching from Reservoir Park (now Bryant Park) to the college in order to ceremonially bury the old Free Academy (New York Times, May 1, 1866, p.2).