Music and magic at the city’s first roof gardens

After the Casino Theater on Broadway and 39th Street opened its spectacular roof garden (below) in the 1880s, a rooftop entertainment craze swept the city through the early 20th century.


Now, the “stay-at-homes,” as New Yorkers who couldn’t retreat to the seashore or mountains during the sweltering months were called, had a way to stay cool while socializing.


“[W]ithin the last few years skyline theatres and skyline restaurants have sprung up here and there,” wrote Leslie’s Illustrated Weekly Newspaper in 1904.

Roofgardenamericantheater“[T]heir owners have grown rich with the money which tired, heat-tortured mortals have gladly given in return for the cool breezes and a dainty mid-air supper served on the top of a lofty building.”

[Right: American Theater roof garden, overlooking Eighth Avenue and 42nd Street, 1898]

Since this was the Gilded Age, no gaudy expense was spared to draw the rich and powerful (or money-spending tourist) and blow away the competition.

The Casino roof top was actually partially covered with a sliding glass top to keep the party going even when it rained.


The Madison Square Garden rooftop theater (second photo) had 300 tables, multicolored electric lanterns, and the best views in the city, thanks to the Garden’s 300-foot tower.

The New York Theatre, on Broadway and 44th Street, hauled in cherry trees under a glassed-in roof and called the rooftop theater “Cherry Blossom Grove” (above).


Willie Hammerstein’s Paradise roof garden (above) incorporated the roofs of two separate theater buildings on 42nd Street.

RooftopgardenhotelastormcnyTrue to its name, it had kind of a Coney Island Dreamland magic to it.

Theater roof gardens were soon joined by hotel roof gardens, turning the high-in-the-sky view of the twinkling lights of an electrified city into kind of an entertainment of its own. Perhaps the most famous was the Hotel Astor’s roof garden, above in the early 1900s.


The hotel, on Broadway and 45th Street, was built in 1904 and its roof was instantly popular—remaining an A-list place to dance, dine, and enjoy the magic of summer night through the Jazz Age.

[Photos: MCNY Digital Collection; second photo of Madison Square Garden from Lost New York via Untapped Cities]

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