10/13/2008 08:20 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Columbus Day at Columbus Circle

By Nicolaus Mills

New York has never had a Columbus Day like October 12, 1892. On that day 10,000 people gathered at Eighth Avenue and 59th Street to celebrate the 400th anniversary of Columbus's arrival in America by dedicating a statue to the explorer designed by the Italian sculptor Gaetano Russo. The statue, paid for by New York's Italian-American community, with subscriptions raised by Il Progresso, the city's largest foreign-language newspaper, had reached America with great fanfare a month earlier aboard the Italian naval transport Garigliano.
The dedication of statue, which then as now rests on a 70-foot granite column, was an important moment for New York's Italian immigrants, but this Columbus Day an equally good reason for taking note of Russo's work is that it calls attention to the remarkable transformation that Columbus Circle has undergone in recent years and the planning and architectural battles that have brought it to its present state.
Eleven years after the dedication of Russo's statue, Columbus Circle got a second important statue when in 1913 nine-year-old George Hearst, wearing the white dress uniform of an enlisted sailor, unveiled the monument to the battleship Maine in Columbus Circle by pulling the silken cord on the giant American flag covering Attilio Piccirill's statue of Columbia Triumphant driving a seashell chariot. The choice of George Hearst for an honor normally reserved for the famous was no accident. Fifteen years earlier, his father, newspaper mogul William Randolph Hearst, had popularized the slogan "Remember the Maine" as a way of ginning up support for war with Spain over the blowing up of the battleship Maine in Havana harbor.
The 1913 ceremony was preceded by one of the greatest Memorial Day parades ever witnessed in New York, and as the Maine monument was unveiled, battleships from the Atlantic fleet, anchored in the Hudson River, fired their guns in a salute timed to coincide with the playing of the National Anthem. Those on the reviewing stand at the Central Park plaza included the governor of New York, New York City's mayor, and the commander-in-chief of the Atlantic fleet. We "dedicate a monument that shall stand in this metropolis in the country, and in one of the greatest and busiest marts in the world," the orator of the day, former president William Howard Taft, declared.
Today the Maine statue stands in the same place it always has. The center of Columbus Circle---the point at which distances from New York are measured---continues to be dominated by Gaetano Russo's statue, and around the statue, cars follow an expanded version of the traffic circle completed in 1905 by William P. Eno, a New York businessman who worked with Frederick Law Olmsted on the creation of Central Park.
But the rest of Columbus Circle would be as unrecognizable to George Hearst as the current Hearst Company headquarters on West 57th Street, where British architect Norman Foster's forty-two story glass tower with its shiny metal, diagonal grids now looms over the old, six-story Hearst building designed by Joseph Urban.
Taking up the entire west side of Columbus Circle on the site where Robert Moses' massive New York Coliseum once sat is David Childs's Time-Warner Center, a mixed-use project with two 750-foot, dark class towers that, in addition to Time Warner's offices, contains the Mandarin Oriental Hotel, CNN studios, and Raphael Vinoly's Jazz at Lincoln Center complex. On the south side of the circle, Edward Durell Stone's nearly windowless Hunting Hartford Gallery of Modern Art with its Venetian-style loggia has been transformed by Brad Cloepfil into a sleek post-modern structure with a Mondrian-like facade of terra-cotta panels and patterned glass, and on the northern end of Columbus Circle, between Broadway and Central Park West where the 44-story story Gulf & Western Building once stood, Philip Johnson has created the new Trump International Hotel and Tower by replacing the Gulf & Western's gloomy dark-glass windows and concrete ribbing with a bright new exterior in which windows of gold-tinted glass and columns covered in golden bronze remind passersby of the landmark Seagram Building he and Mies van der Rohe designed in 1958.
Even the area around Russo's Columbus statue, originally not much larger than the base of the column on which it rests, has been changed. Landscape architect Laurie Olin, working with Vollmer Associates and Wet Design, has given the statue new prominence by surrounding it with berms of fountains and flower beds that shield it from the street. It is now possible to sit on the benches surrounding Russo's statue and not be distracted by the traffic whizzing by. Throwing a cigarette on the sidewalk next to the statue, as Jack Klugman's Oscar always did as the credits to the old "Odd Couple" television show were rolling, is now out of the question.
The result is a victory for eclectic architecture and the rough and tumble of New York architectural politics. The new Columbus Circle does not have the historic grandeur of England's Trafalgar Square with its National Gallery and St. Martin's-in-the Fields church, and in America Columbus Circle cannot architecturally compete with Boston's Copley Square, where I. M. Pei's modern John Hancock Tower shares space with such late nineteenth-century masterpieces as H. H. Richardson's Trinity Church and Charles McKim's Boston Public Library. But in New York, where it has become extremely difficult to tear down large enough areas to build on the basis of a master plan, Columbus Circle gives hope. In contrast to Lincoln Center, just four blocks north on Broadway, Columbus Circle, with its mix of tourists, commuters, jazz goers, and Whole Foods shoppers is a vital and safe place at all hours of the day.
Frederick Law Olmsted, the principal designer of Central Park, wanted to be sure that the streets surrounding the park's southwest entrance got the "architectural dignity" they needed, and the new Columbus Circle goes a long way toward fulfilling Olmsted's concern. But if Columbus Circle is a victory for Olmsted's hopes, even more telling is the way that the new Columbus Circle has avoided false homage to the past and plans that would have overbuilt it. What does not appear in Columbus Circle today---for example, the hulking 68- and 58-story, slant-roofed twin-towers complex proposed by Boston-based architect Moshe Safdie in 1985 and David Child's 1988 plans for a twin-towers building designed to look like a massive version of the Art Deco Central Park West apartments of the 1930s---is as revealing as what does appear.
The restraint is no accident, as the years of political and journalistic debates over Columbus Circle show. In the case of Safdie's oversized twin towers, it was not only the Municipal Art Society that helped kill them by arguing that in winter they would block sunlight from reaching large sections of Central Park. Equally important were the actions of hundreds of people (Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis among them), who in a 1987 demonstration against Safdie's building protested by holding up black umbrellas along the outlines of the shadows it was calculated that the building would cast.
Two decades later, those protests and the stir they caused have been forgotten by most New Yorkers, but what remains visible in today's Columbus Circle is the sense that it is a place in which openness and a sense of proportion are fundamental virtues and glitz is endurable if it is the price paid for getting essential building done.

Nicolaus Mills, a professor of American Studies at Sarah Lawrence College, is author of Winning the Peace: The Marshall Plan and America's Coming of Age as a Superpower.