Our article on vintage photos of Columbus Circle was super popular, but we got a good number of comments saying that one of the photos was not actually Columbus Circle. Indeed, it might not even be from New York City. The photo in question by Margaret Bourke-White was sourced from LIFE Magazine with the caption: “Columbus Circle, New York City, photographed from a helicopter, 1952.” Obviously, without the Christopher Columbus statue itself, and with the existence of two plazas, this is not Columbus Circle. We decided to do some digging to figure out where this photograph is from exactly.
We reached out to Getty Images and Joelle Sedlmeyer, the research editor told us:
We cannot confirm it is Columbus Circle. LIFE.com says it is and that is all the information I have. I wish we had more info but the photographers did not write down their shoot subjects. This shoot was labeled- NYC aerials.
If you zoom in, the words EAST RIVER DRIVE are painted on the road on the top of the traffic circle. This could be one of the reasons why this photo has been mislabeled–there’s East River Drive in NYC which was renamed the FDR Drive. But there’s also an East River Drive in Chicago and other places in the U.S.
We put the challenge to Benjamin Waldman, the Untapped Cities History Editor. Starting with the equestrian statue as the starting point, Benjamin found the Washington Monument in Philadelphia, just in front of the Philadelphia Museum of Art, to have the same fountain, octagonal base and four subsidiary sculptures. Indeed, Kelly Drive in Philadelphia was formerly known as East River Drive and was renamed in the 1980s for Councilman John B. Kelly, Jr.
Looking at an aerial image from Google Maps today, it looks like much of the traffic circle was filled in to form a park and an additional radiating circle added to make the elements symmetrical:
But a 1922 map shows the two elements as discrete islands in the middle of a traffic circle, as the 1952 LIFE image shows:
Thanks to all the commenters who pointed out this mistaken attribution, keep the challenges coming!