Learn about Suzanne Hinman’s latest book in our interview where we discuss art, architecture, and scandal in 1890’s New York City.
The Grandest Madison Square Garden tells the story behind the 1890 construction of Madison Square Garden and the eighteen–foot nude sculpture of Diana, the Roman Virgin Goddess of the Hunt, that crowned it. Author Suzanne Hinman delves into the fascinating private lives of the era’s most prominent architect and sculptor, revealing the nature of their intimate relationship. She shows how both men created a new era of art which meshed European styles with American vitality. The Grandest Madison Square Garden tells the tale of architecture, art, and spectacle amid the elegant yet scandal-ridden culture of Gotham’s decadent era.
Suzanne Hinman holds a PhD in American art history and has been a curator, gallerist, museum director, and professor. She served as the director of galleries at the Savannah College of Art and Design and was the associate director of the Hood Museum of Art at Dartmouth. We interviewed Hinman about her experience writing The Grandest Madison Square Garden to better understand the ins and outs of this time in history.
What inspired you to write about the lives and achievements of architect Stanford White and sculptor Augustus Saint-Gaudens?
It is so difficult to recall exactly, as I began more than 12 years ago, largely inspired, I would have to say, by the beauty of their creations, separately, and then even more so together. I had always loved the Italian-inspired architecture of McKim, Mead, and White, whether in New York, Boston, Washington, D.C. or anywhere else I could find it. I was also intrigued by the life of Stanford White, the most exuberant, amazing, creative of the three partners. When I first moved to New Hampshire, I visited the town of Cornish and discovered the incredibly beautiful work of Augustus Saint-Gaudens, set at Aspet, his home that sparked the beginning of the Cornish Art Colony and is now a National Historic Site. And when I discovered that these two men not just knew each other but were dearest friends who often collaborated together, it was even better.
I probably first discovered the Diana sculpture that topped the tower of Madison Square Garden while visiting the Metropolitan Museum in New York, where in a half-size version she welcomes visitors to the grand courtyard of the American Wing. It took a few years before I was able to see the actual surviving 1893 version Diana, reigning over the Great Stair Balcony at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, and that was an amazing moment.
Which part of researching for the Grandest Madison Square Garden was the most personally interesting to you?
I truly loved it all. Of course, visiting archives that held the letters and notes actually written by my two key players, architect Stanford White and sculptor Augustus Saint-Gaudens, was definitely an incredible experience–touching (in gloves) the pieces of paper, holding them in my hands, studying the signatures, the extra bits written in the margins, and all the wonderful information they revealed. Among the most important collections were the Avery Architectural and Fine Art Library at Columbia and the New York Historical Society for the papers of Stanford White and the McKim, Mead & White firm. For Augustus Saint-Gaudens, it was the Saint-Gaudens Papers at Rauner Special Collections, Baker Library, at Dartmouth College.
The second major source of research information was the newspapers of the day, and that was quite exciting also, finding contemporary accounts written the very day, filled with so much information, much of which had not been seen or noted for more than a hundred years. I loved the detective work, stumbling on amazing new bits as I searched newspapers archives now so accessible online. The discoveries I made, including a long-forgotten scandal regarding Saint-Gaudens and his nude models and a new theory regarding the crime-of-the-century murder of White at the Garden were quite exciting!
Do you think your background in art history has influenced your writing style? If so, how?
I think it was an interwoven process, that my writing style derives from wanting to tell a good story and that led me to the field of art history. I fell in love with art and art history while still a teenager, when I wanted to know the stories behind the artists and their work. My background as an art historian has allowed me to know the sources and dive deeply into the research, but still, my goal remains telling a good story, not simply for an academic audience but for a general audience with an interest in art, architecture, history, life in the Gilded Age, and so forth. I should add that the book also examines significant elements of LGBTQ history, as well as the history of sports in America, so much of which occurred at Madison Square Garden.
What was the most difficult aspect of your twelve-year research and writing process?
There was no difficult aspect to the research and writing process. I absolutely loved it: from the excitement of discovery to putting the bits and pieces together into a good story that I could see unfolding inside my head. There was nothing I would rather do than sit at my computer in my messy little home office, spinning my straw into gold.
The difficult part came towards the end, finding just the right publisher who would realize the market for the book, that it was not written just for academics but for the general public and that there was a real audience for the subject. Luckily Syracuse University Press was that publisher, and the book fit neatly within their existing series on the history of New York state.
Why read The Grandest Madison Square Garden? (in 50 words or less)
To start with a couple of kind reviews, “it’s a splendid story,” as “vivid and enthralling as a novel,” revealing the fascinating private lives of the era’s most prominent architect and sculptor while telling the remarkable and sometimes scandal–ridden story behind the design and construction of the fabulous 1890 Madison Square Garden and the nude sculpture that crowned it.
Read more about The Grandest Madison Square Garden and purchase the text on the Syracuse University Press website today!