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The Gilded Age Origins of New York City's Rooftop Gardens

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At Madison Square Garden. Byron Company (New York, N.Y.) / Museum of the City of New York.

We're seemingly in a golden age of the rooftop, thanks to the likes of Brooklyn Grange and Rooftop Films. But one look through the archives and it's clear that our Gilded Age predecessors had us beat. On city rooftops a century ago, you'd find acrobats, grottoes, Russian swans, monkeys, cows, waterfalls, duck ponds, lobster Newburg, vine-wrapped arches, pagodas, and Herr Techow and his performing cats. There was even, yes, an actual rooftop farm—with fresh eggs delivered to tenants—at the Ansonia Hotel.

Rudolph Aronson, a composer and producer, came up with the idea of urban rooftop terraces. He wanted to replicate the garden theaters he'd seen in Europe but knew there was no space for them in Manhattan. While in Paris, an image came to him: the Ambassadeurs cafe-concert on the Champs-Elysees transported to a New York rooftop, adorned with shrubbery and fountains. He was already building the Casino Theater at 39th and Broadway, so he put a roof garden on top of it. It opened in 1883.

[Byron Company (New York, N.Y.) / Museum of the City of New York.]

The marriage of theater rooftop and garden, as any developer would acknowledge, was genius. Theaters sat on valuable real estate, yet in the days before air-conditioning they went unused in the summer. With a stage and café on the roof, revenues kept coming in. Immediately popular, rooftop gardens shook up the summer scene. They created a stylish diversion for those still in town, especially appealing to the growing middle class without second homes. Why trek to Coney Island when you could catch the harbor breeze from a Broadway rooftop?

Partially covered with a sliding glass ceiling, the Casino had a promenade, planted flowerbeds with winding pathways, colored lights, and refreshments. It hosted concerts and operettas and proved the roof's commercial potential, drawing artists, writers, professionals, businessmen, and comely social climbers. It was a new-money and bohemian crowd; elite scions like Edith Wharton would not have visited. The Casino rooftop "has become a great resort for society people who dare to be seen there, even if they are 'out of town,'" the Daily Graphic wrote in 1889. "There is a good deal of flirting going on in this 'castle in the air,' for the surroundings seem conducive to love-making."

Recent advances in engineering made this all possible: strong foundations, steel, and the invention of the elevator. Over the next 20 years, several extravagant rooftop theaters followed, totaling nine at their peak. As early as 1893, the Times wrote that "New York is fast becoming a city of roof gardens." With their lights blinking just within view of the sidewalk, they shone like a parallel fairytale city, all lanterns and laughter and lemonade.

The rooftop theater at Madison Square Garden, then on 23rd Street, is the one with enduring notoriety. Designed by Stanford White in a Parisian style, it had café tables, multicolored electric lamps hung from iron arches, and lush foliage. When it opened in 1892, Harper's reported, the city went "roof-garden daft." Visitors could climb the theater's lighted 300-foot tower for the best view in the city. At little round tables, women in bright dresses sipped lemonade or beer, men smoked cigars, and white-aproned waiters darted among them. When skirt-dancers came on, everyone stood on chairs or climbed up the arches to see them. "The audience is nothing at all if not hilarious and convivial," Harper's observed. "One and all have come there to be amused, too ready, perhaps, to think of discriminating."

Madison Square Garden's rooftop was also the site of one of the most sensational crimes in the city's history. It was here where Harry Thaw murdered White, the sometime lover of Thaw's wife, Evelyn Nesbit. On June 25, 1906, during the opening performance of a musical comedy called "Mamzelle Champagne," Thaw stood up from his seat, walked over to White's table, and shot him in the head, in full view of the actors and patrons. Suddenly the mediocre show was a hot ticket, especially the very table where White had sat.

Oscar Hammerstein I's roof gardens were the most opulent. At 44th and Broadway, his Olympia Theatre took up an entire city block and was covered with a 65-foot high frosted-glass roof lit with 3,000 electric lights. Water ran over it to keep it cool, pumped up from a refrigerated tank in the basement. It had a rustic alpine design, with rock crags and a stream that flowed into a 40-foot-long lake. There were live swans imported from Russia, South American monkeys, a duck pond, little cabins, gardens, and a wooden bridge. A promenade wound around the building, with views to New Jersey and beyond Central Park. It opened in 1896 to rapturous reviews, like this one from the Herald:

'What do you think of it?' 'Fairyland!' Not once but scores of times did the comment meet my ears last night. Need it be said the reference was to Oscar Hammerstein's Olympia Roof Garden? Surely not to any one of the good three thousand who crowded this aerial palace of delight upon its opening.

Hammerstein's adjacent Victoria and Republic Theaters shared a large rooftop, called the Paradise Roof Garden, at 42nd Street and Seventh Avenue. A portion of it was designed like a Dutch farm, which opened in 1901. Advertised as a country escape in the city, it had a stable with two live cows, a miller's cottage with a stork's nest in the chimney, and a lighted windmill that spun colors into the sky. Stairs led to an upper level where refreshments were served. The wall facing 42nd Street was made to look like a ruined castle. None of this actually looked authentic—imagine a budget Epcot Center—but Hammerstein won points for ingenuity.

[At the Victoria Theater. Byron Company (New York, N.Y.) / Museum of the City of New York.]

On view at these and other rooftop theaters were variety shows, which became popular in the 1890s. Madison Square Garden first promoted them, bringing out the likes of exotic dancers, mandolins, whistlers, and acrobats. The Casino soon ditched operetta to follow suit. The Olympia, for instance, featured the quick-change performer Fregoli, who played several different roles in swift succession, with other acts mixed in. A typical program included Fregoli, a toe-dancer named Titenia, acrobats, a juggler, a satiric sketch of Faust, a French chanteuse, a Cuban contortionist, and Herr Techow's performing cats.

Such programming was the only aspect of the roof gardens that was ever really criticized. The setting was lovely, some said, but the shows were tawdry. Variety was increasingly socially acceptable, thanks largely to the roof gardens, but still had its detractors. After seeing some bare-legged dancers, one killjoy at local weekly the Spirit of the Times in 1895 asked: "Isn't it possible to run the Casino roof-garden both decently and profitably?" The gardens were never a place for high art. A writer for Harper's in 1902 bemoaned the lack of quality productions, such as ballet. He saw the roof garden as a successor to the music hall, with its attendant baseness and vulgarity: "The unnecessary profanity of certain comedians on one side of Broadway is as unpleasant to listen to as the ungraceful and clownish whirling-twirling of certain imported dancers on the other side of Seventh Avenue are disagreeable to look upon."

[On the roof at the Hotel Astor. Byron Company (New York, N.Y.) / Museum of the City of New York.]

But variety entertainment fell out of fashion around World War I, and the rooftop theaters followed. The invention of the cinema was a blow. Some theaters extended their life by hosting cabarets and movies, but none remain today. The general concept caught on, though, and rooftop gardens spread to hotels, restaurants, offices, and apartment buildings, which incorporated them into their designs. They became a trademark of New York life, the response to a new urban instinct to get as far above the sidewalk as possible. As the Times reported in 1920: "Every New Yorker and every stranger in New York who can possibly make it is trying to get on some roof somewhere, somehow."

Rooftops grew to signify more than just a breezy escape. A principal part of the allure was their aloofness, the chance to be literally above the riffraff. "Gazing downward," a reporter noted in 1905, "the complacent roof garden patron sees things bearing an odd resemblance to beetles and ants. The beetles may be cabs, the ants human beings—human, but of an inferior sort to his or her roof garden self. Perspiring on the microbic pavements, the rest of the world seems strangely primitive, full of soap-bubble loves and hates, of ephemeral envies, hurrying grotesquely over the most expensive square mile on earth…All of which seems far removed from the coolest places in town—the roof gardens." Hotels gladly proffered such elevated sensations.

The adjoining Waldorf and Astoria Hotels, opened in the 1890s on 34th Street, built a roof garden scattered with wicker furniture and centered on an orchestra in a screened-in pagoda. Flowers alone ran up a $50,000 annual bill. Light snacks were served from an ice-trimmed table. In 1910, teetotalers sipped the popular "Waldorf Fizz," a mix of orange and lemon juice plus an egg, shaken and poured over chipped ice. The alcoholic drink of choice was the "Automobile," gin and ginger ale served with mint. (The name was appropriate, since the car further heightened roof gardens' popularity. People could now stay in town for dinner or a show before driving out to Long Island for the weekend. Or they could come in from the country just for an evening.)

The Hotel Astor in Times Square, an elaborate Beaux-Arts palace opened in 1905, had an especially lush rooftop. Its formal Italianate garden covered seventy city lots and could hold thousands of people. Geraniums grew on metal cupolas, vines wound around pergolas, and palm trees lined the quarter-mile-long promenades. There were waterfalls and grottoes, plus thousands of fragrant flowers, all lit enchantingly like a stage set. At its Belvedere Restaurant, diners sat under trellises to eat lobster aspic, sweetbreads, crab salad, beef filets, and ice cream. Cold dishes were arranged on a nine-ton block of ice.

Rooftop gardens were also incorporated into new apartment buildings, which sprouted around Central Park in the first quarter of the 20th century. When copper heir William Earle Dodge Stokes opened the Ansonia Hotel at 73rd and Broadway in 1904, he installed a farm on the roof. Stokes wrote later that it had "about 500 chickens, many ducks, about six goats and a small bear." His son also kept a pet pig, Nanki-poo, that he had bottle-fed since it was little. A bellhop delivered fresh eggs to tenants each morning. But this urban utopia didn't quite charm the health department, which shut it down in 1907.

[On the roof at Ellis Island. Jacob A. Riis / Museum of the City of New York.]

Then as now, it wasn't just the rich who went up on the roof. Given the tight quarters and the lack of green space downtown, a rooftop escape was even more of a necessity for the poor. Some were said to actually live on rooftops, driven there by high rents and unsanitary conditions below. "The congestion which led years ago to the construction of sky-scrapers is now so intensified that people have been forced out of the tops of high buildings and compelled to live on the roofs," wrote Harper's in 1903. "There are the high and the lowly, the well-to-do and the poverty-stricken, those who live thus from choice and those who do so from compulsion…the movement upward is growing more and more pronounced." Workers moved sewing machines to the roof; building superintendents planted greenery. The introduction of rooftop gardens came as the city was just addressing overcrowding and the need for parks. Putting facilities on the roof gave the working class fresh air and leisure in a space-starved area. Downtown schools installed playgrounds and gyms on the roof. Hospitals built decks and libraries had plein-air reading rooms.

In 1894, the Times described two Lower East Side organizations that had opened roof gardens, "where cool breezes are found in crowded districts." On East Broadway and Jefferson Street, the Hebrew Institute set up an awning on the roof and invited mothers and babies there to keep cool. The Young Men's Institute of the YMCA, on the Bowery, was the tallest building in the neighborhood, and from the roof you could see the harbor and Brooklyn Bridge. In the summer boys climbed six flights of stairs to read, play chess, and smoke, hosting regular parties with girls and ice cream.

[Graphics by Suze Myers.]

The symbolism was not lost on social reformer Jacob A. Riis. In Neighbors, his collection of ostensibly factual stories, is a piece called "Our Roof Garden Among the Tenements." A local tells of a roof garden built on top of a gymnasium in a particularly bleak year: "To the blackest cloud there is somewhere a silver lining if you look long enough and hard enough for it, and ours has been that roof garden. It is not a very great affair—some of you readers would smile at it, I suppose. There are no palm trees and no "pergola," just a plain roof down in a kind of well with tall tenements all about. Two big barrels…once held whisky and trouble and deviltry; now they are filled with fresh, sweet earth, and beautiful Japanese ivy grows out of them and clings lovingly to the wall of our house, spreading its soft, green tendrils farther and farther each season, undismayed by the winter's cold."

Riis also photographed a rooftop scene at Ellis Island, of children of waiting or detained immigrants playing with American flags. Families could be cooped up on the island for weeks or months, but there was no space to play. So in 1904 the island's commissioners installed a playground on top of the main building. The Tribune reported that now immigrant children "could enjoy the sea breezes of New York Harbor, precisely the sort of tonic needed after their passage." Here "the future young Americans recover from the effects of their voyage and learn their first lessons in liberty."

· Curbed Features archive [Curbed]