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The Glass Stampede

Illustration by Jason Lee   

42. The Journeys of Columbus Circle

The two blocks on the west side of Columbus Circle—from 58th to 60th Streets—have, over a century and a half, told New York’s development story in miniature. The site was first cleared as farmland (1), owned by one John Somerindyke, when this intersection of the Bloomingdale Road (later Broadway) and Eighth Avenue was the southern edge of the village of Harsenville. In the early 1890s, as brownstones and businesses were staking claims to the West Side, the crossroads was shaped into a circle with a monument to Christopher Columbus at its center.

It took a while for the neighborhood to live up to its imagined grandeur. Durland’s Riding Academy (2) and another stable lined the sides of Broadway.

As the area developed, its dominant business became entertainment—theater at first, then movies. The Circle Theatre (3), a vaudeville-and-burlesque joint at 60th and Broadway, opened its doors in 1901, right where Jazz at Lincoln Center’s patron’s enter today. It lasted a good four decades, to be briefly replaced by a sweet little streamlined roller-skating rink (4). (Meanwhile, the district’s emphasis shifted from theaters to auto dealerships.)

Then came Robert Moses’s big-think project, the New York Coliseum (5). Roman in scale (if not in spelling), it brought conventioneers by the trainload, ignored the city around it, and was not mourned one bit upon its demolition in 2000.

By then, developers had spent a decade making plays for the site—Mort Zuckerman memorably lost a big chunk of his $33.8 million deposit—and the winner was the Related Companies, which put up the Time Warner Center (6). The complex has turned out to be neither as monstrous nor as glamorous as the various factions anticipated. It efficiently satisfies deluxe desires—for quinoa salad, aromatherapy, boardrooms, park views, extra pillows, and more. As a money magnet, it’s a masterpiece; as architecture, it’s not half-bad.