Madison Square Garden and the Westminster Kennel Club.
By Christi McDonald
Westminster Kennel Club is America’s second longest continuously held sporting event, after the Kentucky Derby. For all of its 135-year history, this classic event, now often referred to simply as “The Garden,” has been held in New York City, although not always at the same address.
The first dog show sponsored by the gentlemen who called themselves “the Westminster Kennel Club” was actually billed as the First Annual New York Bench Show of Dogs and was held in 1877 at the Hippodrome at Gilmore’s Garden, on Fourth Avenue between 26th and 27th streets. For many years, the Harlem Railroad had operated an office at that address, and the New York, New Haven and Hartford Railroad had a passenger station there until 1871, when Grand Central Station was completed at 42nd Street.
That year, P.T. Barnum leased the building and created “a place of amusement,” where events of all kinds were held, including circuses, religious revivals, concerts and horse shows.
The first structure was little more than an open-air shell, but shortly thereafter a new building was erected that occupied the entire block from Fourth to Madison Avenue and 26th to 27th streets. The name of the facility was changed to Madison Square Garden in May of 1879, owing to the fact that it was located adjacent to Madison Square Park, an actual park the likes of which were often found in cities of the era.
When the old edifice was torn down in 1889, the new building that went up at Fifth and Madison avenues and became Madison Square Garden II was a beautiful structure with tiered boxed seating, a sliding skylight, a theater and several restaurants. The dog show moved to MSG II in 1891. Many dog fanciers felt that, with the new building, the show was finally being held in the quality surroundings it deserved. With the exception of four shows, Westminster was held there through 1925.
Madison Square Garden III was built in 1926 at Eighth Avenue between 49th and 50th. Although no longer anywhere near Madison Square Park, the sports amphitheater took the name to its new location.
The new building was on two levels, with benching in the basement and judging in the arena at street level. To help make sure dogs got from the lower level to the rings on time, a telephone system connected ring stewards with the benching area. It may have been a “strictly functional” and “simple box” of a building, but this was the Garden that many of the beloved icons of our sport, including Anne Rogers Clark, spoke of so fondly after the show moved to its current location in 1968.
As it happened, the very last event held at Madison Square Garden III was the 1968 Westminster dog show. Just before the Best In Show lineup entered the ring, the president of Madison Square Garden presented engraved silver trays commemorating the closing to Westminster officers and the two charter members of the newly established Hall of Fame – Percy Roberts and Anne Rogers Clark. Percy Roberts had won four Best in Shows there and Anne Clark had won three. It’s no wonder she talked about the old building with such fondness.
And then the famed dog show moved to its new location, at Seventh Avenue between 31st and 33rd atop Penn Station. Many legendary sporting events have taken place at this location over the past 44 years, from concerts by Elvis, the Beatles, the Rolling Stones and Michael Jackson to Democratic and Republican National Conventions, NBA Championship basketball games and the legendary boxing match between Joe Frazier and Muhammad Ali.
Despite its drawbacks, dog fanciers always most fondly think of the Garden as the location of our favorite show. Westminster has long been the show everyone aspires to win, and stories of the dogs and people who have prevailed there could fill volumes. There will no doubt be many more stories written of those who’ve won, and those whose hopes were forever dashed, at Madison Square Garden.
For now, remember your favorites from years past, and watch carefully this year for the new stars that will become the future Garden legends.