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Spring 1999
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  U rbanities

Another Chance for Columbus Circle
Henry Hope Reed
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Columbus Circle is an ugly duckling that promises every decade to change into a swan—or at least a duck. The latest promise comes from a group of real-estate developers who, as the Columbus Centre Partners, won the contract to buy the site of the New York Coliseum last year for some $345 million. Chief among the partners are Stephen M. Ross of the Related Companies, William L. Mack, and Boston developer Kenneth A. Himmel. They envision a megaproject of two 750-foot towers with clusters of lower buildings, all housing Time Warner's new headquarters and studios for its CNN and NY1 television operations, as well as a Mandarin Oriental Hotel, condominium apartments, a 12-screen movie theater, indoor parking, and a 1,000-seat concert hall for Jazz at Lincoln Center. To distinguish all this, the developers promise distinctive tops on their two towers—and they spell "centre" in toney British fashion. The transaction will close next year; should the partners withdraw for any reason, Time Warner has pledged to make the deal go through.

So visible a project would be important anywhere in the city, but as architecture it is even more important because it abuts Central Park. Glorious as Frederick Law Olmsted and Calvert Vaux's design for the park may be, what sets this urban jewel apart from all other great parks in the world is its unique, extraordinary setting. What other park has so magnificent a frame? To see what I mean, just look at Brooklyn's Prospect Park by the same designers and note the absence of a frame. Splendid, to be sure, but without the same cosmopolitan swagger. Of course, when Central Park was built, the most conspicuous objects on the horizon were several distant church steeples. It is today's frame that gives the park such drama.

In places, this frame is splendid of itself, nowhere more so than at Grand Army Plaza at the southeast corner, at Fifth Avenue and 59th Street, with its sumptuous Plaza hotel, its tiered Pulitzer Fountain, and its golden equestrian statue of William Tecumseh Sherman. To go a half-mile west to Columbus Circle is to journey from the sublime to the ridiculous. The traffic in the circle may be orderly, but the setting is chaotic. The proposed new development, though architecturally banal, provides an opportunity to do something better on this important site, and make Columbus Circle a complementary part of Central Park's frame rather than an eyesore.

The Circle had its origin in the 1860s, when the commissioners of Central Park transformed what had been known as the Bloomingdale Road, going from 59th to 155th Streets, into The Boulevard. The new thoroughfare's horsecar tracks circled at 59th Street to form a turnaround, and the Circle was born.

The neighborhood developed with small hotels, warehouses, several theaters, and especially riding academies, one of them among the world's largest. In the 1890s, the decade when civic design began to flourish, the Circle acquired its first monument—in the classical style, of course. Part of the city's great Columbus celebration of 1892 was the raising, at the Circle's center, of a statue of the explorer upon a rostral column (that is, a column decorated with the sculpted prows of ancient triremes). Two decades later, abutting the park, came the Maine Monument, given by William Randolph Hearst. If Joseph Pulitzer, his great rival in the newspaper wars, had claimed the Grand Army Plaza with his fountain, Hearst would have the Circle. Although Hearst bought property near the Circle with the thought of putting his offices there, he eventually settled on 57th Street and Eighth Avenue, where the Hearst Corporation headquarters remains today.

By this time, the frame of the park was taking shape. Apartment buildings rose, first on Central Park South, then on Central Park West, with the celebrated Dakota Apartments in place at 72nd Street by 1884. By the 1900s, with windows above the tree line, residents were complaining of the dark void of the park. The city installed lighting, not to make the park safe at night but to relieve the vast gloom for West Siders. By contrast, Fifth Avenue remained all mansions until its first apartment building, the stately McKim, Mead, & White palazzo at Number 998, was completed in 1911. Most of what we behold in the frame today belongs to the 1920s—not just the splendid classical east flank but also the west flank, where Art Deco towers replaced older apartment buildings as the twenties roared on.

The park's frame should be as much a stylistic guide to what we now do with Columbus Circle as the Columbus column and the Maine Monument. Not that this makes the solution to designing a unified architectural scheme any easier. The Circle is a study in restrictions, beginning with the diagonal crossing of Broadway and Eighth Avenue. Below the surface, the Broadway-Seventh Avenue and the Eighth Avenue subways cross each other, too, making it impossible to tunnel one of the crossing thoroughfares, as in one or two of Washington's many circles.

In the 1950s, the late John Barrington Bayley, designer of the new wing of the Frick Collection, came up with a design—never built, of course—that took its inspiration from the existing frame of the park and that can serve as a model for us today. Bayley always insisted that the backward glance was the beginning of wisdom. He designed a new opera house for a site adjoining the present New York Coliseum, and he conceived of the Circle as a giant forecourt. Placing a platform above street level and traffic, he has a circular arcade encompassing the Maine Monument and in the center of what is the pedestrian concourse stands the Columbus column. As at Saint Peter's Square in Rome, where Bernini placed a double colonnade to conceal the surrounding city, Bayley's arcade screens the exterior of the Circle. With such a design, it matters much less if the architecture of Columbus Centre's proposed new towers is uninspired, as indeed it at present appears to be.

In its way, such a scheme is reminiscent of the preserving of old house fronts and building new buildings behind them, as is admirably done on the south side of 79th Street, just west of Park Avenue. These old brownstone fronts serve to marry the modern high-rise at their back to the street. A classical arcade or colonnade of granite or limestone in front of the new Columbus Centre would have an even more pleasurable effect.

In Nancy, France, the Hemicycle de la Carrière, as it is called, displays a more modest scheme than Bayley's, though similar to it in that it is an arcade; it could also serve as a model for Columbus Circle. Other models might include the courts of the 1915 Panama- Pacific International Exposition in San Francisco or the Admiralty Arch in London and the great single bay arch of the General Staff Headquarters in Saint Petersburg, since an arch is the best solution for joining buildings on either side of a street, and the colonnade will have to break at intervals to allow the traffic to flow.

If such schemes are too ambitious, we can look to simpler answers. At the Place de la Concorde in Paris, a large square crossed by traffic, it is not just the fine buildings but the high-quality street embellishment that gives unity and harmony to the whole. The designers there used waist-high classical limestone balustrades instead of the customary concrete barriers to separate traffic from pedestrians. Special short lampposts in green and gold, with classical detail, even with rostral brackets, as on the Columbus column, offer a beautiful yet solemn note in their heavy solidity. Adapting this scene, in Columbus Circle we could reproduce the four existing truncated obelisks on the park side and carry them around the circle, linked by balustrades and decorated with sculptural friezes.

Any of these schemes could be carried out by private initiative rather than by the city, as happened early in this century, when private initiative roofed a railroad yard and train tracks to transform a semi-industrial area into one of the great residential avenues of modern times, Park Avenue. The builders of Park Avenue understood that ornament—and classical ornament, at that—was the key to creating a gracious and unified street-scape. That was understood until modernism diverted the mighty stream of Western art. Could we restore to Columbus Circle the classical, as embodied in the Columbus column and the Maine Monument, we would at last succeed in completing the grandly cosmopolitan frame of Central Park, one of urbanism's wonders.

 

 


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