The Finest Building in America: The New York Crystal Palace, 1853-1858, by Edwin G. Burrows (Oxford University Press, 264 pp., $19.95)

World’s Fairs fascinate us, to judge by the number of books on them. Erik Larson’s 2003 The Devil in the White City, a true-crime story set against a highly elaborated backdrop of Chicago’s 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition, was a bestseller (and a very good book). Many New Yorkers can’t get enough of the two fairs Robert Moses staged in 1939 and 1964, in Flushing Meadow. David Gelernter wrote the outstanding book on the earlier event, 1939: The Lost World of the Fair, which he describes as a novel, though it is also an excellent history of the fair and what it said about New York and the world at a critical time in the history of both. E. L. Doctorow’s novel World’s Fair is another fine example of the genre. Londoners, similarly, remain deeply interested in the Great Exhibition of 1851, the first modern World’s Fair and the apogee of the career of Prince Albert, its highly involved sponsor. Though by their nature transient events, the fairs leave lasting landmarks. Robert Moses created Flushing Meadows-Corona Park out of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s Valley of Ashes. The Unisphere, left over from the fair of 1964-65, stands even today as a symbol of Queens. In Paris, the Eiffel Tower remains from the Exposition Universelle of 1889.

In his superb new book, the renowned New York historian Edwin G. Burrows—who, sadly, died on May 4—takes us back to New York’s first World’s Fair, the Exhibition of the Industry of All Nations, held at Reservoir Square in Manhattan in 1853. New Yorkers, not least among them Horace Greeley, the legendary editor of the New York Tribune, felt inspired by the spectacular success of London’s Great Exhibition to proclaim their city’s status as what the Times of London called the “London of the New World.” Inspiration led to imitation: as Joseph Paxton’s spectacular Crystal Palace had housed London’s fair, so would our own Crystal Palace house New York’s. (World’s fairs set out in a campus of buildings were still in the future.) The New York Crystal Palace was designed by a Dane, Georg Carstensen, who had developed Copenhagen’s famed Tivoli Gardens (1843), and a German, Charles (or Karl) Gildemeister, who had been trained at Schinkel’s Bauakademie, in Berlin before emigrating to New York in 1848. That the New York Crystal Palace owed its existence in part to a German immigrant was highly fitting. In 1853, the first of the tidal waves of immigration had recently engulfed the city. The 1855 Census showed that more than a quarter of the city’s residents came from Ireland and a fifth from the German states.

New York stood at a unique precipice in its history. A steady stream of technological advancements induced wonder as well as whiplash. In his diary, onetime New York City mayor Philip Hone wrote in 1844 that “this world is going on too fast. Improvements, Politics, Reform, Religion—all fly. Railroads, steamers, packets, race against time and beat it hollow. Flying is dangerous. By and by we shall have balloons and pass over to Europe between sun and sun. Oh, for the good old days of heavy post-coaches and speed at the rate of six miles an hour!” Some claim this as the origin of the phrase “the good old days.” The 1840s and 1850s saw the rise of railroads, telegraphy (the “Victorian Internet,” Tom Standage aptly calls it), a modern water supply and sewer system for New York, gaslight, the modern metropolitan press, photography, the department store, and household improvements too numerous to mention. (Many of these marvels took until the turn of the century or afterward to reach the poor.) New York was at the forefront of these changes—horse-drawn street railways, an urban innovation of the highest order, originated in the city—and felt like showing off. World’s fairs are all about showing off.

What New York signally lacked, however, was the beauty, or at least the urban character, of Old World cities. Even London, a mess of poverty and miasma, as we know from Dickens’s contemporaneous novels—Bleak House, with its unexcelled urban descriptions, was published in the same year as the New York fair—at least could claim its medieval monuments, its Christopher Wren churches, its National Gallery, and great parks and layered history that drew countless eager visitors from the provinces and abroad. New York, as Burrows adroitly notes, drew no one who did not have sound economic reasons for being there. The fair changed that: it turned New York into a tourist town. People from around the country came to the city, at a time when such a journey involved practical hardships that should make the traveler of today think twice before cursing the airlines. This tourist influx into the city that Thomas Jefferson called “a cloacina of all the depravities of human nature” was no small thing in resetting the nation’s image of New York, and the city’s own image of itself, as a great metropolis. Few, to be sure, reveled as did Walt Whitman in the New York he would term “city of orgies, walks and joys.” But both Whitman and the teeming provincials were drawn to the fair: the poet attended so often that security guards, thinking he might be up to no good, kept a close watch on him. Seventeen-year-old Samuel Clemens came from Hannibal, Missouri, to see the fair as well.

Burrows is excellent on the tourism, on the new guidebook industry, and on the explosion of prints—and photographs—of the self-conscious and self-infatuated city. Many images show views from atop the Latting Observatory, the 315-foot-high wooden tower erected by entrepreneur Waring Latting on 42nd Street between Fifth and Sixth Avenues, across the street from the Crystal Palace. The tower, acknowledged by Gustave Eiffel as one of his inspirations, was not officially part of the fair but was one of countless means and schemes by which New Yorkers sought to cash in on it. Latting’s tower far surpassed the 281-foot steeple of Trinity Church, then the city’s tallest structure. No one had ever viewed New York and its waters and surrounding region from such a vantage. Some of the most arresting images of New York from this era come from these bird’s-eye views, and some of these appear among the extensive (and extensively captioned) illustrations that are not the least of the book’s attractions.

What of “the finest building in America” itself? Burrows details the construction problems, the cost overruns (some things never change), the design compromises, and the delays. In the end, the Crystal Palace stood proudly beside the mammoth Croton Distributing Reservoir that half a century later yielded its site to the New York Public Library (itself one of the finest buildings in America). Reservoir Square, site of the Crystal Palace, became Bryant Park. New York had nothing else like the Crystal Palace, a gem of engineering and ornamentation that, if not quite Paxton’s London masterpiece, nonetheless ranked as one of the major American buildings of the era. It’s easy to forget that at this time, New York had no Central Park, no St. Patrick’s Cathedral, no Brooklyn Bridge, and no skyscrapers.

The Latting Observatory burned down in August 1856. New York’s Crystal Palace also burned down, on October 5, 1858, only five years after the fair. Burrows begins his book with a vivid description of the fire. Might New York’s Crystal Palace have been preserved, had it not met this fate? It seems unlikely. It lives on instead in this book by a master of urban history.

Photo: nicoolay/iStock


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