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Friday, October 5, 2012

In New Madison Square Garden Exhibit, It\'s All About the Presidents


New Yorkers might be forgiven for feeling left out of the presidential campaign. With the state considered firmly in President Obama's column, the candidates have spent little time campaigning in the city, other than attending the occasional fund-raiser or making a speech at the United Nations.

But there was a day when New York was very much at the center of presidential politics because of the state's relatively large population and the city's outsize role in the economy. New York produced presidents, too, like Theodore and Franklin Delano Roosevelt, as well as presidential candidates including Alfred E. Smith and Thomas Dewey.

Over the years, Madison Square Garden has been where most presidents and aspiring presidents have spoken because the arena was large and centrally located. In addition to hosting political conventions in 1924, 1976, 1980, 1992 and 2004, the Garden has been the stage for presidential speeches and e ven birthday celebrations, the most famous of which came in 1962, when John F. Kennedy held a fund-raiser that featured Marilyn Monroe singing “Happy Birthday to You” to him.

The Madison Square Garden Company, which runs the building, will honor these presidential visits as part of its continuing renovation of the arena. Next week, the first of the building's 20 “Defining Moments” will be unveiled, complete with special exhibits on the sixth-floor concourse. Two of the first 10 moments include Monroe's salute to J.F.K. and Bill Clinton's presidential nomination in 1992.

The Garden will also install 366 smaller displays commemorating a special event from each day of the year chosen from among the 132 years of events since the first Garden opened.

“This phase of the transformation will preserve and celebrate the great history that has made the Garden such a special place for the more than four million people who walk thr ough our doors annually,” said Hank Ratner, chief executive of the Madison Square Garden Company.

There were plenty of other big moments, including in 1924, when the Democrats held a 16-day convention, the longest ever, that ended with the nomination of John W. Davis. Days before the election in 1936, President Franklin D. Roosevelt held a rally at the Garden, which was then on Eighth Avenue between 49th and 50th Streets. In 1940, Mayor Fiorello La Guardia endorsed Roosevelt for a third term at the Garden.

Wendell Wilkie, who lost to Roosevelt in 1940, held a civil rights rally at the Garden in 1943. Five years later, President Harry S. Truman spoke there days before upsetting Thomas E. Dewey, who was then the governor of New York. In 1976 and 1980, Jimmy Carter won the Democratic nomination at the Garden, where he fended off challenges from Ted Kennedy and others.

In 2004, the Republicans held their first and only convention in New York, where the city w as chosen partly to remind voters of George W. Bush's response to the terrorist attacks three years before.

Alas, presidential visits to the Garden are more intermittent these days. The electoral landscape has changed and New York is rarely up for grabs, at least in presidential elections. Still, the Garden's place in presidential history remains firm.

“It was a different time, when New York mattered on the political stage,” said Nick Ragone, who has written several books about presidents. “Now, it's simply about what media market you need to saturate to win. The conventions are less about the venue and more about the state.”