The History of Columbus Circle: A Century of Controversy

Columbus Circle, a center of media and shopping at the entrance to Central Park, has a history that, well, runs against the grain. Counter-clockwise, if you will.

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When the park was completed in the mid 19th century, a ‘Grand Circle’ was planned for a busy thoroughfare of horse-drawn carriages. A monument to the Italian explorer Christopher Columbus was placed at its center in 1892, bought and paid for by New York’s new Italian community.

But the circle had awkwardly adjusted to modern development, and architecture which has graced its perimeter had been uniquely scorned — from the ‘confusing’ Maine Monument’ to Robert Moses’ Coliseum, a dated convention center which eliminated a street from the city’s grid.

Join us for a look at this unusual section of New York City, a place of both music history and real estate headaches. And what should the city do about that Columbus statute, embroiled in a modern controversy?

STARRING: William Phelps Enos, Donald Trump, Sophie Tucker and a man with the extraordinary name of Teunis Somerindyke.

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The Teunis Somerindyke farm. From this print, you can see Broadway (Bloomingdales Road) to the left and Eighth Avenue to the right, with a young Central Park on the far right side.

A model made of the Columbus Circle monument by its sculptor Gaetano Russo.

MCNY

The monument in 1895, a few years after its prominent debut at this pivotal intersection.

MCNY

On the southwest side of the circle in 1903, one could find both the Majestic Theatre and the Pabst Grand Circle Hotel

MCNY

 

The Circle in 1905 and 1913, before and after the Maine Monument is installed. These images gives perfect illustration to the chaotic scene around the circle. People could just go wherever they liked!

Library of Congress/George Hall

 

MCNY/Irving Underhill

Images of the unveiling of the Maine Monument in May 1913 (courtesy Library of Congress/Bain Collection)

The entrance to Reisenweber’s in 1910. The place was packed through most of the decade with diners and cabaret lovers.

MCNY

The staff and musicians of Reisenweber’s (dated 1905):

 

From the roof of the Century Apartments, early 1930s. Only the Columbus statue and the Maine Monument stand here today.

MCNY/Samuel H. Gottscho

 

Looking north from Columbus Circle from the top of the General Motors building, circa 1936. The triangular building sits on the site of the old Somerindyke farm.  (Image courtesy Shorpy. Click into their site to zoom in to some amazing detail.)

 

The New York Coliseum in the 1970s, a rather dour and uninspired component of Columbus Circle.

MCNY/Edmund Vincent Gillon

Behold — the Edward Durrell Stone-designed home of the Gallery of Modern Art

The newly redesigned 2 Columbus Circle — home of the Museum of Arts and Design — presents a more pleasant face to the intersection. In the background, the area is dwarfed by the super-tall skyscrapers of 57th Street.

The Columbus statue has no contextual marker explaining its importance to the Italian-American community; only text on two sides of the monument give it meaningful explanation.

Columbus next to the Time Warner Center:

 

  • John M. Davis

    Wasn’t the Time Warner Center originally called the AOL Time Warner Center for about five minutes? I remember hearing a story about a security guard being assigned to stand in front of the “AOL” part of the street level sign until they could remove it.

  • Dianne Durante

    In the photo of Columbus Circle ca. 1905-1913, you can see the Ladies’ Pavilion at the lower right, where the Maine Monument now stands. The wrought-iron pavilion was designed by Jacob Wrey Mould as a place for women to wait for the trolley; now it’s at the west end of the Lake in Central Park, around 75th St. And on the photo of the Coliseum, you can see the reliefs by Paul Manship (sculptor of Prometheus at Rockefeller Center) – these are now mounted on the front of the Brooklyn-Battery Tunnel ventilation shaft on Battery Place, which we all know better as the HQ of the Men in Black. Pics here: https://www.forgottendelights.com/coliseumreliefs.html