Columbus Circle was originally known generically as "The Circle". An 1871 account of the park referred to the roundabout as a "grand circle". After the 1892 installation of the Columbus Column in the circle's center, it became known as "Columbus Circle",:287:124 although its other names were also used through the 1900s.
Subway construction under the Columbus monument in 1901
By 1901, construction on the first subway line of the Interborough Rapid Transit Company (now the IRT Broadway–Seventh Avenue Line, used by the 1, 2, and 3 trains) required the excavation of the circle, and the column and streetcar tracks through the area were put on temporary wooden stilts. As part of the subway line's construction, the 59th Street–Columbus Circle station was built underneath the circle.:288 During construction, traffic in the circle was so dangerous that the Municipal Art Society proposed redesigning the roundabout. By February 1904, the station underneath was largely complete, and service on the subway line began on October 27, 1904. The station only served local trains; express trains bypassed the station.:162–191 The platforms of the IRT subway station were lengthened in 1957–1959, requiring further excavations around Columbus Circle.
An additional subway line—the Independent Subway System (IND)'s Eighth Avenue Line, serving the present-day A, B, C, and D trains—was built starting in 1925. At Columbus Circle, workers had to be careful to not disrupt the existing IRT Broadway–Seventh Avenue Line or Columbus Circle overhead. The Columbus monument was shored up during construction, and obstructions to traffic were minimized. The line, which opened in 1932, contains a 4-track, 3-platform express station at 59th Street–Columbus Circle, underneath the original IRT station. The IND station were designed as a single transit hub under Columbus Circle.
Eno's traffic plan
The second of Eno's Columbus Circle plans, 1909
In November 1904, due to the high speeds of cars passing through the circle, the New York City Police Department added tightly spaced electric lights on the inner side of the circle, surrounding the column.
The current circle was redesigned in 1905 by William Phelps Eno, a businessman who pioneered many early innovations in road safety and traffic control. In a 1920 book, Eno writes that prior to the implementation of his plan, traffic went around the circle in both directions, causing accidents almost daily. The 1905 plan, which he regarded as temporary, created a counterclockwise traffic pattern with a "safety zone" in the center of the circle for cars stopping; however, the circle was too narrow for the normal flow of traffic. Eno also wrote of a permanent plan, with the safety zones on the outside as well as clearly delineated pedestrian crossings. The redesign marked the first true one-waytraffic circle to be constructed anywhere, implementing the ideas of Eugène Hénard. In this second scheme, the public space within the circle, around the monument, was almost as small as the monument's base.
The rotary traffic plan was not successful. A New York Times article in June 1929 stated that the "Christopher Columbus [monument] is safe and serene, but he's the only thing in the Circle that is." At the time, there were eight entrance and exit points to Columbus Circle: two each from 59th Street/Central Park South, to the west and east; Broadway, to the northwest and southeast; Eighth Avenue/Central Park West, to the south and north; and within Central Park to the northeast.[a] Moreover, streetcars on the former three streets did not go counterclockwise around the rotary, but rather, both tracks of all three streetcar routes went around one side of the monument, creating frequent conflicts between streetcars and automobiles using the rotary in opposite directions. The police officers patrolling the circle had to manage the 58,000 cars that entered Columbus Circle every 12 hours. As part of a plan to reorganize traffic in the "Columbus-Central Park Zone", Eno's circular-traffic plan was abolished in November 1929, and traffic was allowed to go around the circle in both directions. Central Park West, a one-way street that formerly carried southbound traffic into the circle, was now one-way northbound. The bidirectional entrance roads into Central Park, which fed into northbound and eastbound West Drive, were both changed to one-way streets because West Drive had been changed from bidirectional to one-way southbound and eastbound. Traffic going straight through Columbus Circle was forced to go around the left side of the monument, while any traffic making turns from the circle had to go counterclockwise around the rotary using the right side.
Mid-20th century configurations
Columbus Circle in 1939, looking east
The bidirectional traffic pattern through Columbus Circle failed to eliminate congestion. In 1941, engineers with the New York City Parks Department and the Manhattan Borough President's office formed a tentative agreement to redesign Columbus Circle yet again. "Local" and "express" lanes would segregate north-south traffic passing within the circle. Local north-south traffic and all east-west traffic would go around the circle's perimeter in a counterclockwise direction, along a 45-foot-long (14 m) roadway. Through north-south traffic on Broadway, Eighth Avenue, and Central Park West would use two 71-foot-wide (22 m) divided roadways with 5-foot-wide (1.5 m) landscaped medians, running in chords on either side of the Columbus monument. Traffic from southbound Broadway and northbound Eighth Avenue would use the western chord, and northbound Broadway and southbound Central Park West would use the eastern chord. The center of the circle would be refurbished with a tree-lined plaza, and pedestrian traffic from the north and south would be able to pass through the center of the circle. The exit into Columbus Circle from West Drive would be eliminated, and the entrance to West Drive would be relocated. In a related development, the 59th Street trolley route's tracks would be removed. This was crucial to the reorganization of the circle, as the trolley had already been discontinued.
The proposed reorganization of Columbus Circle was widely praised by civic groups and city officials. On the other hand, William Phelps Eno advocated for a return to his original 1905 proposal. However, the plan still had some issues, the largest of which was that traffic traveling on Broadway in either direction would be routed onto Eighth Avenue or Central Park West, and vice versa.
The reconfiguration of the circle was deferred due to World War II. The trolley routes that ran through Columbus Circle were discontinued in 1946, but the bus routes that replaced the trolley lines took the same convoluted paths through the circle. In June 1949, it was announced that the reconstruction of Columbus Circle would finally begin. Work on removing the abandoned trolley tracks commenced in August. In conjunction with Columbus Circle's rehabilitation, the New York City Department of Transportation designed a variable traffic light system for the circle. The project was originally set to be complete by November 1949 at a cost of $100,000. However, delays arose due to the need to maintain traffic flows through the circle during construction. The project was ultimately completed that December.
The entirety of Eighth Avenue south of Columbus Circle was converted to northbound-only traffic in 1950. In 1956, in preparation for the opening of the New York Coliseum on Columbus Circle's west side, traffic on Central Park West and Broadway was rearranged. Central Park West was made northbound-only for a short segment north of the circle, and two blocks of Broadway south of the circle were converted to southbound-only. A new northbound roadway was cut through the southern tip of the center traffic island that contained the statue, from Eighth Avenue to the eastern chord. At the same time, the eastern chord was converted to northbound-only.
1990s and 2000s renovation
By the late 20th century, it was regarded as one of the most inhospitable of the city's major intersections, as the interior circle was being used for motorcycle parking, and the circle as a whole was hard for pedestrians to cross. In 1979, noted architecture critic Paul Goldberger said that the intersection was "a chaotic jumble of streets that can be crossed in about 50 different ways—all of them wrong."
In 1987, the city awarded a $20 million contract to Olin Partnership and Vollmer Associates to create a new design for the circle. The circle was refurbished in 1991–1992 as part of the 500th-anniversary celebration of Columbus's arrival in the Americas.:288 In 1998, as a result of the study, the circular-traffic plan was reinstated, with all traffic going around the circle in a counterclockwise direction. The center of the circle was planned for further renovations, with a proposed park 200 feet (61 m) across.
The design for a full renovation of the circle was finalized in 2001. The project started in 2003, and was completed in 2005. It included a new water fountain by Water Entertainment Technologies, who also designed the Fountains of Bellagio; benches made of ipe wood; and plantings encircling the monument. The fountain, the main part of the reconstructed circle, contains 99 jets that periodically change in force and speed, with effects ranging between "swollen river, a rushing brook, a driving rain or a gentle shower". The inner circle is about 36,000 square feet (3,300 m2), while the outer circle is around 148,000 square feet (13,700 m2). The redesign was the recipient of the 2006 American Society of Landscape Architects’ General Design Award Of Honor. In 2007 Columbus Circle was awarded the Rudy Bruner Award for Urban Excellence silver medal.
The travel area for recipients of a C-2 visa, which is issued for the purpose of immediate and continuous transit to or from the headquarters of the United Nations, is limited to a 25-mile radius of Columbus Circle. The same circle coincidentally defines the city's "film zone" that local unions operate in, a counterpart to Los Angeles' studio zone. The New York City government employee handbook considers a trip beyond a 75-mile radius from Columbus Circle as long-distance travel.
History of soapbox orators
The circle became known as a center for soapbox orators in the early-mid 20th century, comparable to Speakers Corner in London. It became a home particularly for non-leftists in contrast to Union Square, and for a time in the late 1930s it became a home to a number of far right speakers. The area sometimes had a poor reputation for cranks and street preachers, the "lunatic fringe whose tub-thumping make a nightmare of Columbus Circle" condemned by a New York Court of Appeals ruling in a case related to elsewhere in the city, that prompted mid-20th century configurations, but was also sometimes showcased by the national government as a rambunctious symbol of American freedom of speech.
The five streets that radiate outward from Columbus Circle separate the immediate neighborhood around the circle into five distinct portions.
To the west of the circle is a superblock spanning two streets, bounded by Broadway, 60th Street, Ninth Avenue, 58th Street, and Eighth Avenue. The superblock was formerly two separate blocks.:914 From 1902 to 1954, the Majestic Theatre occupied the more southerly of the two blocks.
On the north side of Columbus Circle, bounded by Broadway, Central Park West, and 61st Street, is the Trump International Hotel and Tower, with its noted steel globe, which had been an office tower, the headquarters of the Gulf+Western conglomerate, which was stripped to its steel skeleton and reclad in a new facade. The Gulf and Western Building, a 44-story building completed in 1969:351 or 1970, filed for bankruptcy in 1991. In 1994, Donald Trump announced his plans to convert the building into a mixed-purpose hotel and condominium units, with hotel rooms below the 14th floor and condominiums above that floor. Renovations started in 1995 after Gulf and Western's lease lapsed and Trump took control of the building. That renovation was complete by 1997.:288
240 Central Park South, a balconied moderne apartment building across Broadway from the museum, is on the southeast side of the circle. Built in 1941, it is a city-designated landmark with a new addition, a green roof, atop its retail base.:128
3, 4, 5, and 6 Columbus Circle
U.S. Rubber Headquarters constructed at 1790 Broadway in 1912
3, 4, 5, and 6 Columbus Circle are the numbers given to four buildings on the south side of 58th Street. From east to west, the buildings are numbered 5, 3, 4, and 6 Columbus Circle.
5 Columbus Circle (also known by its address, 1790 Broadway), is a 286-foot (87 m), 20-story tower on the southeast corner of Broadway and 58th Street. It was originally built as the headquarters of the United States Rubber Company (U.S. Rubber) in 1912.:308 It was part of Broadway's "Automobile Row" during the early 20th century. U.S. Rubber moved to a new headquarters in 1940, and the building was sold several times before being acquired by the West Side Federal Savings and Loan Association. The First Nationwide Savings Bank, which acquired the West Side Federal Savings bank, sold the building in 1985 to 1790 Broadway Associates, its current owners. The lobby contains part of an under-construction flagship store for Nordstrom, which is planned to open in 2019; the 360,000-square-foot (33,000 m2) store itself would be located under three buildings on the block.
Between Eighth Avenue and Broadway on the south side of 58th Street is 3 Columbus Circle (also 1775 Broadway), a 310-foot (94 m), 26-story tower. It is occupied by Young & Rubicam, Bank of America, Chase Bank, and Gilder Gagnon Howe & Co. The tower sits atop a 3-story structure called the Colonnade Building. The first 3 stories were built in 1923 and the top 23 stories were added as part of a large expansion in 1927–1928.:307 During the expansion, the original building's three-story Ionic supports were kept. The new expansion, designed by Shreve & Lamb,:307 hosted General Motors' headquarters from 1927 to 1968. In 1969, Midtown Realty purchased the building's lease, and in 1980, acquired the land. Half of the building was leased by Bankers Trust until the late 1980s, and Newsweek leased a third of the building from 1994 until 2006. When the Moinian Group purchased the building in 2000, the building assumed its current name; a subsequent renovation refurbished the exterior and removed all remnants of the Colonnade Building. A neon sign for CNN was located on the roof of the building from the mid-2000s to 2015. An annex of Nordstrom for menswear has opened at the base of 3 Columbus Circle.
4 Columbus Circle, an eight-story low-rise located at 989 Eighth Avenue at the southwest corner of the intersection with 58th Street, was built in the late 1980s. Swanke Hayden Connell Architects designed the building, which houses the furniture company Steelcase on the upper floors and a Duane Reade and a Starbucks on the ground floor.Cerberus Capital Management bought the building in 2006 for $82.9 million. In 2011, it was sold to German real estate firm GLL Real Estate Partners for $96.5 million.
Directly to the west is 6 Columbus Circle, an 88-room, 12-floor boutique hotel called 6 Columbus. Acquired by the Pomeranc Group in 2007, the hotel was put on sale in December 2015. A 700-foot-tall (210 m) tower is planned for the site.
Columbus Circle was also featured in the 1954 romantic comedy film It Should Happen to You. In the film, Judy Holliday's character, Gladys Glover, began her quest for fame by renting a large billboard overlooking Columbus Circle, on which she had her name emblazoned.
Columbus Circle, and in particular the USS Maine Memorial, was featured in the 1976 movie Taxi Driver, where Robert De Niro's character was thwarted in an attempt to assassinate a presidential nominee.
^These directions are relative to Manhattan's street grid, which is rotated 29 degrees clockwise from geographic north. So for instance, Broadway really points north and south, while Eighth Avenue/Central Park West points south-southwest and north-northeast respectively.
^Henebery, Ann. "The Rules of the Road: Then Versus Now"Archived October 10, 2017, at the Wayback Machine, Eno Center for Transportation, October 6, 2015. Accessed October 9, 2017. "William P. Eno is internationally recognized as an original pioneer of traffic regulation and safety.... He was dubbed the 'Father of Traffic Safety' and many of the traffic-flow innovations that we now take for granted were a result of Eno’s hard work. He is credited with designing Columbus Circle in New York City and the traffic circle surrounding the Arc de Triomphe in Paris."