The Crystal Palace
“... beautiful beyond description” – Mark Twain
By the early 1850s New York had grown to sufficient size and prominence that the city decided to host a major exhibition similar to London’s Great Exhibition of 1851. The Exhibition of the Industry of All Nations – a world’s fair precursor – opened July 14, 1853 in a still sparsely developed part of the city. Fortieth and Forty-second Streets bounded the four-acre site immediately west of the Croton Distributing Reservoir, today’s Bryant Park.
To house the exhibition, Georg Carstensen, and Charles Gildemeister designed a remarkable iron-and-glass structure, much like an enormous greenhouse. The building was inspired by the one built in London for its exhibition two years earlier, also called the Crystal Palace.
The Crystal Palace was one of the largest and most sophisticated designs that had ever been built in America. Octagonal in plan, it was surmounted by a soaring 123-foot-high dome, and inspired American architects and builders with the possibilities of iron construction. The exhibition hall comprised fifteen thousand panels of glass.
Four thousand exhibitors filled the hall with the industrial wares, consumer goods, and art works of the nation. Elisha Graves Otis, a young inventor and entrepreneur, staged one of the most dramatic of the exhibits. Otis had been promoting his steam-powered elevators, but what, people wondered, would happen should the cable break? To allay such fears, he invented the automatic safety brake – but he had to demonstrate the invention.
Otis erected a high platform connected to one of his elevators. He himself got in the cab, and cut the cable. As the cab fell, his new spring-leaf safety brake was successfully activated.
A prominent New York merchant of china and glassware, who may have witnessed Otis’s demonstration at the fair, ordered and installed the invention in his new store at Broadway and Broome Street. The safety elevator in the Haughwout Building, completed in 1857 (and still standing), was the first in the world to be installed in a commercial building.
The exhibition set off one of the first major tourism booms in New York, and many hotels were built. One visitor was seventeen-year-old Samuel Langhorne Clemens of Hannibal, Missouri. Later, as Mark Twain, he wrote that the Crystal Place was “beautiful beyond description,” and marveled that the six thousand daily visitors to the exhibition were double the population of his hometown. Over one million people visited the Crystal Palace Exhibition before it closed on November 1, 1854. Despite its popularity, exhibition sponsors lost $300,000.
After the fair, the structure, believed to be fireproof, was leased for a variety of purposes. On October 5, 1858, in a spectacular blaze it burned to the ground. Remarkably, no lives were lost.