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New York’s Crystal Palace opened in 1853 to great expectations. Within the decade, it would be a charred ruin. Its massive hall, designed by Georg J. B. Carstensen and Charles Gildemeister with a colossal cast-iron frame supporting thousands of glimmering glass panels, was packed for its July 14 debut. On view inside were the latest representatives of American innovation, from cut bowls by Brooklyn Flint Glass Company to a hollow-back violin created by painter William Sidney Mount. It was the country’s first world’s fair and its largest exhibition to date of painting and sculpture, crowned by Hiram Powers’s “The Greek Slave,” which had previously been shown at London’s Crystal Palace (and had become an abolitionist symbol in the pre–Civil War era).
Over a million people visited the fair, but it never achieved financial success. P. T. Barnum, the ambitious American showman, attempted to revive it near the end with cut-rate tickets and popular music acts. He eventually declared that “the dead could not be raised,” and the Crystal Palace closed on November 1, 1854, more than $300,000 in debt. After being taken over by the city and used for smaller events by groups like the Negro Odd Fellows and American Institute, it caught fire on October 5, 1858. The grand glass dome collapsed in minutes, fueled by the burning wooden floors. After scavengers picked it over for singed souvenirs, the memory of the palace began to fade. Bryant Park later sprawled over its former site, the fair’s artistic and manufactured wares long dispersed.
New York Crystal Palace 1853 at Bard Graduate Center (BGC) Gallery in Manhattan attempts to return visitors to the 15-month period of its existence. The compact exhibition was curated by BGC Professor and Head of New Media Research David Jaffee, who died on January 20, in collaboration with BGC students. It reunites objects presented beneath the palace dome (or similar to those that were on view), souvenirs adorned with images of the architecture, lithographs of the fair’s displays, and even a small ticket. An accompanying digital publication offers additional research and materials, building on Jaffee’s 2015 focus project Visualizing 19th-Century New York. The Crystal Palace show was also developed as a focus project, a collaborative initiative at BGC that involves research, teaching, and an exhibition.
The digital material includes a stroll through the Crystal Palace, based on Frederick J. Pilliner’s 1854 wood engraving. You can click on illustrated points of interest, such as a woman in a gazebo demonstrating a Singer sewing machine or a large display of Colt firearms, arranged in geometric patterns to draw spectators. There are three audio guides featuring the perspectives of the fictional Aunt Kitty (a visitor from the country) and Philip DeGrasse (a black man living in Seneca Village), as well as the real fair enthusiast Walt Whitman. An interactive guide lets you explore other New York entertainments that would have been accessible by rail or omnibus at the time (including Barnum’s American Museum and a daguerreotype portrait studio). I recommend exploring the thorough digital material before or after the exhibition; although it’s all accessible through in-gallery touch screens, it’s worth devoting your visit to the array of selected objects.
While they’re not as numerous as those in the 19th-century fair, the relics do show the diversity of items, and their position in the gallery represents the layout of the Crystal Palace. There are souvenirs, like a soda bottle from the saloon of the 315-foot-tall Latting Observatory (which burned down in 1856) and a window shade and shelf clock emblazoned with the image of the dome. A badge and nightstick used by chief of police George W. Matsell represent the law enforcement presence at the fair; it was New York City’s first appearance of uniformed officers. A hat with an ornate box references John N. Genin’s elaborate fashion display, and a “cascade” pitcher from C. W. Fenton’s United States Pottery was inspired by the torrents of Niagara Falls.
There is one object that’s not a marvel of human engineering: a chunk of fused glass salvaged from the fire. The brief life of the Crystal Palace may be mostly forgotten, but the exhibition shows a dynamic moment in New York’s history, when the city proclaimed itself a beacon of art and industry.
New York Crystal Palace 1853 continues at the Bard Graduate Center Gallery (18 W 86th Street, Upper West Side, Manhattan) through July 30.
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