Archive for September, 2013

Under the Dome

I received this recently as a re-tweet from the NYPL. What a beauty! It’s a rare daguerreotype of the interior of New York’s long-since-destroyed Crystal Palace. The “Palace” was a fabulously surreal structure erected as part of New York’s 1853 Exhibition of the Industry of All Nations. London had thrown its own Great Exhibition three years earlier. The hall of wonders was an enormous “Crystal Palace” gracing Hyde Park. The British fair’s impressive display of art and manufactured goods was so successful that the capitals of Europe and New York City followed suit. The city fathers of New York apparently wanted to erect their own palace, smaller and less expensive than the English model, but one that was nonetheless gasp-worthy. So on the site of what is now Bryant Park they installed a delicate confection of cast iron and glass. The palace dome, over sixty feet high, was supported by twenty-four iron columns set with over thirty enameled and finely-etched panes. The finished structure contained roughly 10,000 of these translucent panels.

When the building opened July 30, 1853, reviews were enthusiastic. Some commentators found the edifice mystical, a modern Xanadu. Walt Whitman hailed it in poetry as “a place loftier, fairer, ampler than any yet.” Even Mark Twain rhapsodized, “’Tis a perfect fairy palace – beautiful beyond description.”

Others were skeptical. George Templeton Strong recorded in his diary entry of June 18, 1854 that he had attended a “Musical Congress” at the Palace and the circus-like extravaganza, produced by P. T. Barnum, was “one of the grandest humbugs on record.”

The crowd was enormous. It is estimated at fifteen thousand by some and forty thousand by others. I’ve no opinion at all as to the accuracy of either estimate. But for some time after taking our seats, I was seriously exercised about the possibility of falling galleries and panic-stricken multitudes and was tempted to evacuate the building at once…

The Palace was, indeed, too fragile to support human traffic. Although its architects boasted that it was fire-proof, that proposition was laid to waste in October of 1858 when a blaze that began in a lumber room raced through the flimsy structure, causing the dome to explode in just twelve minutes. The entire Palace fell in twenty-one. (You can read Strong’s account of the disaster in his entry on page 325 of New York Diaries: 1609 to 2009.)

Miraculously, all 2,000 visitors inside got out alive.

The daguerreotype, owned by the New-York Historical Society, is identified only as having been taken by an unknown photographer during the mid-1850’s. This was most certainly l854 or thereafter since the statuary shown here was introduced during a “renovation” that year. The central figure is called the “Genius of America” inspired by a figure on the pediment of the U.S. Capitol building. Beyond her, you can see a full-length statue of George Washington, flanked on either side by Eve After the Fall, and Adam and Eve after the Fall.

The lithograph below shows the original rotunda when the fair opened in l853. Occupying the central position at that time was the equestrian statue of George Washington.

Thank you New York Public Library, New-York Historical Society, Wikipedia and Tumblr.