The New York Crystal Palace Gave Americans A Building To Be Proud Of
On the site of the future Bryant Park on 42nd Street between Fifth and Sixth Avenues stood The New York Crystal Palace. It was only there for a little more than five years. Built of cast iron, timber and glass the building was unlike anything previously built in America.
Edwin G. Burrows book, “The Finest Building in America The New York Crystal Palace 1853-1858” Oxford; (2018), is a short, entertaining account of the impact the building and the wonders displayed inside, had on the city.
Burrows describes how the building came to be and its tribulations in attracting exhibitors and visitors. It was modeled after the 1851 London Crystal Palace, a successful undertaking which displayed the “Works of Industry of All Nations.” If the British could do it then Americans could do it and do it better. New York was the place to construct a better building and put on a better show. So they did. The Crystal Palace Exhibition was in effect the first World’s Fair held in the United States.
As with most grand projects there were some big problems along the way. The first problem was the approved plans were immediately and then continually changed during construction. Second, that the architects chosen by the board of directors did not get along with the board of directors or the builder. Third, the building’s original estimated cost went way over budget and the opening was delayed by months.
Even with such problems, the items displayed at the Crystal Palace, meant to highlight man’s progress, and was a success. At the exhibit most visitors saw inventions that they had never seen including “water closets” (toilets) and Elisha Otis’ safety elevator.
The United States did not have museums as we know them today. For many people seeing objects of beauty meant having the means to travel to Europe to see them in person. The common man was generally omitted from this equation. But at the Crystal Palace, art, paintings, sculptures and decorative items were on full display in dizzying numbers. There were over 4,300 exhibits from 23 countries and thousands of items to look at. Many visitors were overwhelmed by the sheer size of the Exhibition.
But the thing that attracted the crowds was the Crystal Palace itself. At night when fully lit the Palace was a sight to behold.
The building itself outlasted the Exhibition which closed in 1854. Four years later the Crystal Palace met a fiery end. Arson or accident, the cause of the fire was never officially discovered.
Time moves on and the Crystal Palace faded from memory, but was retained in contemporary prints which collectors still cherish today.
Burrows has done a fine job in reliving the excitement of a city and country looking to show itself off to the world. A very enlightening and quick read at 248 pages with numerous illustrations.