With its exhibition New York Crystal Palace 1853, the Bard Graduate Center gallery is offering an exquisite experience of one of the 19th century marvels of New York – the enigmatic 1,500-paned glass structure that rose on what is now Bryant Park.
In 1853, New York was trying to claim its place as a culture capital. Two years prior, London had mounted its world-class exhibition in its beautiful Crystal Palace, and New York wanted to do Europe one better.
By this time, New York was dominating in global trade, so the City thought it could elevate American taste (and spur consumer appetite for luxury goods) by assembling technology innovations, art, and manufactured items all under one big domed glass roof.
Why not build the world’s largest cast iron and glass exhibition hall on the edge of the city at 42nd Street next to the Croton Reservoir? For 50 cents, visitors could spend the day inside and people watch to their heart’s content.
It would be the largest building that anyone had ever experienced – so big that it had its own police force and you had to buy a guidebook.
The exhibition selects some choice items from New York collections – many which were indeed exhibited under the dome in 1853 – to tell the story of the endeavor, give a feeling of what a wonder it was, and bring you back to a time in New York when parlor furniture was the rage, ladies were just venturing out for ice cream on their own, and oysters were still so plentiful in the harbor that they reigned as the best quick snack for lunch.
Although the physical exhibition ends July 30, the Bard team offers a through-the-looking glass digital site, where you can actually stroll through the interior and examine different items along the way. The journey takes you by evocative sculptures, beautifully crafted musical instruments, spectacular parlor furniture, and vitrines filled with over-the-top ladies’ hats.
The technology section features the latest in fire engines, Eli Whitney’s original model of his 1794 cotton gin, Colt’s revolvers, a pyramid made of innovative cotton rope, and the revolutionary iron sewing machine. To show how it worked for industry and the home, Singer had women demonstrate this new labor-saving device.
The scope of the exhibition was so massive – the footprint of Bryant Park between 40th and 42nd Streets – that publishers offered guide books so that visitors wouldn’t miss a thing.
Helpfully, Bard provides you with digital access to the free July 23, 1853 Crystal Palace supplement from the Illustrated News, modeled upon a period newspaper.
For a thrilling view, you can go up to the 270-foot tall, 8-foot wide platform of the Latting Observatory (New York’s first authentic skyscraper) and get a bird’s eye view of the city all the way out to Jamaica Bay. Or duck into the saloon below for smash, the cocktail of the day, a shaken-not-stirred icy mix of brandy, lemon, mint, and sugar. (And consult the guidebook to find out which saloons allow ladies to sip alcohol.)
There’s also a digital guide to other 1853 attractions, including how to take an omnibus over to the Hippodrome and where to find Matthew Brady’s studio.
It’s all so lively, that it’s sad to learn that the entire edifice came crashing down in a dramatic fire in 1858, which likely adds to the mystery. The curators have found a tiny, insignificant piece of its melted glass from the Museum of the City of New York’s collection. Treasure it.
If you have three hours, watch Bard’s symposium on how it all came together – the palace, the exhibition, and the digital experience that will provide everyone with hours of 19th century summer fun in the City: