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Central Park

Columbus Circle

This text is part of Parks’ Historical Signs Project and can be found posted within the park.

Opposite the four corners of rectangular Central Park, four individual plazas and squares mark unique transition points between city and park. The northwest circle, named for author Frederick Douglass, is undergoing redevelopment. To the northeast stands the Duke Ellington Memorial, dedicated to the memory of the great musician in 1997. Grand Army Plaza, with its statue of General William T. Sherman and Pulitzer Fountain, is located to the southeast. In the southwest corner, across from the Maine Monument (1912-13) is the Columbus Circle rotary. In 1869 the Commissioners of the Board of Central Park reported that this “open circular place was. . .laid out at the intersection of Fifty-ninth street, Eighth avenue, and Broadway,” as a turnabout for horse-drawn vehicles.

About ten thousand people—including Italian, Spanish, and American dignitaries—gathered in Columbus Circle on October 12, 1892, the 400th anniversary of the arrival of Christopher Columbus (1451-1506) in the New World. Together they dedicated the Columbus Monument, designed by Sicilian sculptor Gaetano Russo and donated to the City of New York by the Italian-American community. Gen. L.P. di Cesnola, the Director of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, spoke at the event, reminding the audience that the great explorer’s “true monument is this great land, its institutions, its prosperity, its blessing, its lessons of advance for all humanity.”

The monument consists of a statue of Columbus posed on a column mounted on a base surrounded by fountains; an allegorical figure depicting the Genius of Discovery stands on the base. Both Columbus and the latter figure are carved of Carrara marble. Bronze elements include two bas-reliefs portraying Columbus’s journey, as well as an American bald eagle and lotus-shaped cresting. In addition, bronze ships’ prows and anchors adorn the granite column. The surrounding fountains, designed by Douglas Leigh, were inspired by water displays in Rome. A gift from the Delacorte Foundation, the fountains were dedicated on Columbus Day, October 12, 1965.

Columbus Circle is remarkable not only for its central monument but also for the subways beneath it and the collection of buildings clustered around it. Workers managed to dig around and beneath the monument’s 1.5 million-ton foundations in order to complete the IRT subway tunnel and Columbus Circle station in 1902. The present crop of buildings includes the Huntington Hartford Gallery building (Edward Durell Stone, 1965), the Gulf & Western Building (Thomas E. Stanley, 1970), and the New York Coliseum (Leon and Lionel Levy, 1965). Over the past two decades, plans to replace the Coliseum with a new office tower have been prepared, discarded, and revived.

Two recent projects have made Columbus Circle more inviting. The monument was restored in time for the 500th anniversary of Columbus’s journey in 1992. In 1998 several city agencies including City Planning, Transportation, and Parks collaborated on an interim design for Columbus Circle. The roadways have been reconfigured, pedestrian walkways have been improved, and the public can now enjoy a beautiful and green sitting area in the middle of a major traffic hub. Transportation provided backfill, stone gravel, timbers, filter fabric, planter urns, and drainage pipe. Parks installed benches, added stone screenings around the fountain and sitting area, and planted topsoil, sod, trees, shrubs, groundcover, and flowering plants.

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