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Columbus Circle, 1901 (notice the canopy of trees going up both sides of Broadway)

Ever since Columbus Circle was redesigned in conjunction with the Time Warner Center, the area around the traffic island has transformed into a commercial destination. But like much of the city, the area had humble origins: it was once farmland owned by John Somerindyck, which only became accessible to the general public after the 9th Avenue train was built. Even then, though, the virgin lands weren’t ideal for a residential neighborhood. Instead of housing, rows upon rows of warehouses were erected around the 59th Street area.

Things took a turn when, in the 19th century, William Eno designed Columbus Circle as part of Frederick Olmstead’s plans for Central Park with the monument at the center completed separately, in 1842–400 years after Columbus’ first landing in the Americas. The monument, a 13-feet tall statue of of the Italian explorer created by sculptor Gaetano Russo, was featured in Tatzu Nishi’s Discovering Columbus last year, an art installation turned the statue into the centerpiece of an intimate living room.

Though the circle was completed in 1905, it’s been redesigned numerous times since its completion. While we’ve all seen modern-day Columbus Circle, we thought we’d share some photos that document the area’s evolution since its completion in the early 1900s.

1902_Columbus-Circle_Byron-Company_Untapped CitiesView of the Pabst Grand Circle Hotel and the Majestic Theatre at Columbus Circle in 1903. The sign above advertises Majestic Theatre’s production of “Babes in Toyland.” Image via Museum of the City of NY blog.

1905_Columbus-Circle_Untapped Cities Columbus Circle, 1905. Image via fineprintnyc.

1907_Columbus_Circle_New_York_Panorama_Untapped Cities Panorama of Columbus Circle, 1907.

Columbus Circle, 1912. Trolleys used to run on tracks that were built during the late 1800s.

1910s_Columbus-Circle_New-York-City_Untapped Cities Columbus Circle, 1910s-1920s. Notice the increase of billboard ads and buildings.

1921_Columbus-Circle_New-York-City_Untapped Cities Columbus Circle, 1921. At this point, cars became a bigger presence around the traffic island. The Art Deco Circle Building, featured in the center of the photo, was later demolished to make way for Columbus Circle. 59th Street was eliminated. 

1931_Manufacturers-Trust_Columbus-Circle_Untapped Cities Roof signs like “Manufacturer’s Trust” were blocked from installation in the 1960s except in Times Square. Image via nyneon.

1933_Columbus-Circle_New-York-City_Untapped Cities Aerial view of Columbus Circle, 1933.

1943_Columbus-Circle-Rally_New-York-City_Untapped Cities Italian-Americans showing their support for the Allies on Columbus Day at Columbus Circle, 1943. Note the Hotel Empire neon sign which still exists today.

1944_Columbus-Circle_New-York-City_Untapped Cities Columbus Circle during a heat wave in 1944. The famous Coca Cola sign forecasted the next day’s weather, but it was changed to a reading of the current temperature during WWII, when any kind of prediction could have benefited the enemy. The sign was removed in 1965. Image via wirednewyork.com.

1954_Columbus-Circle_Untapped Cities Movie still of Judy Holliday’s 1954 film, “It Should Happen to You!

1956_Columbus-Circle_New-York-Colliseum_Untapped-Cities A view of Robert Moses’ New York Coliseum in 1956. It was demolished in 2000 to make way for the Time Warner Center. Image via wirednewyork.com. The area become graffiti-ridden and extremely run down by the 1990s, some which can be seen in this photograph.

1990s_Columbus-Circle_New-York-City_Untapped Cities Columbus Circle, 1990s. For a time, Columbus Circle’s traffic pattern was non-circular, but it was later returned to a circular flow after the city commissioned a redesign of the traffic island.

Tatzu Nishi’s Discovering Columbus exhibit in 2012

Columbus Circle Manhattan NYC Untapped CitiesView of Columbus Circle today from the Robert restaurant at the MAD Museum, with an aerial view of the redesigned public plaza

The Charles Fazzino The Ride goes past Columbus Circle, featuring ballet dancers amidst residents and visitors taking time in Columbus Circle

See Central Park over the years and read more from our Vintage Photography column.

3 Comments

  1. pgk says:

    The photograph above with the following description is NOT of Columbus Circle. It does not belong in this sequence and should be removed:

    Aerial view of Columbus Circle, 1952. The trolleys no longer served Columbus Circle and cars have completely replaced their presence.

  2. Merry says:

    It’s been pointed out over at Wired New York that the photo “Aerial view of Columbus Circle, 1952.” is not actually Columbus Circle and not even in New York.

    Presumably, the photo came from http://www.vintag.es/2013/06/photographs-of-united-states-from-above.html.

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