Skip to main content

A Roundabout Walk in Columbus Circle

On the southwest corner of Central Park, Columbus Circle spins travelers in centrifugal force out toward Broadway, Central Park West, 59th Street (Central Park South), and Eighth Avenue. The circular design, unusual in New York, is the work of William Phelps Eno (1858-1945), one of the true unsung creative minds of the modern world. Known as "the Father of Traffic Safety," the New York native in 1903 developed the world's first traffic code to deal with the nightmares of city congestion. According to his book, Street Traffic Regulation (published by The Rider and Driver Publishing Co., 1909), horse and carriage traffic in New York was completely chaotic in the late 19th century. He writes, "Conditions were execrable so far as time, economy, comfort and safety were concerned, and the police, without systematic direction, were powerless and in fact practically at the mercy of the mob."

Eno's subsequent advocacy for street safety led him to develop many innovations we now take for granted - the stop sign, speed limits, and one-way streets. His solutions for the horse-drawn age carried through to the age of the automobile. Eno is also the father of the rotary traffic circle, his solution for controlling the confusion presented by an intersection with multiple streets. In addition to designing Columbus Circle, Eno is the man responsible for devising the rotary traffic around the Arc de Triomphe at Place de l'Étoile in Paris. There, twelve avenues meet, and automobile traffic is often beyond a nightmare.

The pictures below, as shown in Eno's book, illustrate some of the the typical traffic problems in New York at the beginning of the 20th century.



One hundred years later, in 2005, the plaza at Columbus Circle in New York was renovated and greatly improved. The central plaza now features trees, seating spaces, seasonal plantings, and fountains. For pedestrians, Columbus Circle is much safer than in previous years.


View A Walk Around Columbus Circle in a larger map

Some highlights -

• The Monuments: The monument of Christopher Columbus is at the center of Columbus Circle. Created by Italian sculptor Gaetano Russo, the marble statue of the explorer was dedicated in 1892 to commemorate the 400th anniversary of the voyage to the New World. Merchant's Gate at the southwest corner of Central Park is one of the park's main entrances. The imposing Maine Monument from 1913 (right) was erected in honor of the sailors who were killed in the explosion and sinking of the battleship Maine in 1898. The incident triggered the Spanish-American War.

• Time Warner Center, 2003-2004, designed by David Childs of Skidmore, Owings & Merrill: An enormous complex with fashion and beauty stores, a large Williams-Sonoma store, shoe stores, gourmet markets and cafes and exceptional restaurants. The latter includes Landmarc, Per Se, and Porter House. CNN's New York bureau is here as well as the upscale Mandarin Oriental Hotel and Jazz at Lincoln Center. For a more thrilling walk, look for the places to see Columbus Circle from on high. Ride the escalators to the fourth floor of the Time Warner Center and look out on W. 59th Street, or visit the 35th story Lobby Bar at the Mandarin Oriental Hotel for a dramatic view with cocktails. From the point of view of the visitor to the Time Warner Center, the glass cable-net wall on the east side not only provides wonderful views of Columbus Circle, the six-story wall seemingly extends W. 59th directly into the building. Back in William Eno's day, the ornate Majestic Theatre was built on this spot in 1903. In his book, Eno analyzes the traffic issues presented by people gathering all at once at the theater, a problem that has never found a great solution.
Another novel form of traffic invention can be experienced in the customer checkout lanes at Whole Foods, the grocery store on the basement level of the Time Warner Center. A busy market popular with New Yorkers, the store features a nerve-wracking system to check out customers. While a robotic voice calls out the number of the next available register, a human person stands at the beginning of the lanes to insure that the customer heads in the right direction. It feels like a game show.

• Trump International Hotel and Tower. Built and renovated in 1997 over the skeleton of the previous Gulf and Western Building, the 52-story hotel and residential tower is also home to the restaurants Jean-Georges and Nougatine. The globe that looms over the subway entrance has become a familiar landmark.

• 240 Central Park South: This 28-story building designed by Mayer & Whittlesley was erected in 1941. As quoted in The City Review's The Midtown Book, architecture historians Robert A. M. Stern, Thomas Mellins and David Fishman credit the building as "the first Manhattan apartment house to make extensive use of balconies." A specimen of late Art Deco, the building features cool street-level storefronts.

• Museum of Arts and Design, 2 Columbus Circle. The controversial redesign of Edward Durrell Stone's building shouldn't discourage visitors from enjoying an excellent museum devoted to innovations in craft and design. Its new stylish restaurant named Robert (after the event designer Robert Isabell who passed away last year ) on the ninth floor provides great views of Central Park.

Columbus Circle makes a fun place to walk. It's also easy to escape the heavy corporate presence of Time Warner and Trump by fleeing on foot into Central Park. Or walk two blocks south and step into the lobby of the Hearst Tower at W. 57th and 8th Avenue. You can't ascend the escalator without being there on official business, but it's still possible to enjoy the minimalist beauty of "Ice Falls," a three-story public sculpture and water feature by James Carpenter Design Associates (also the designers of the Time Warner wall), from the mortal ground below. Also see nearby - the makeover of the old Newsweek Building, now rebranded as 3 Columbus Circle, on the east side of 8th Avenue between 57th and 58th, and the light green 56-story residential tower at 301 West 57th, Central Park Place, built in 1988. Overall, much of the building in this area of Manhattan is relatively new.

For those looking to walk in a straight line after strolling in a circle, one good option is to explore W. 57th Street by walking west to east from 8th Avenue to 5th Avenue. See A Cultural Guide to W. 57th Street: A Walk and a Map on this website.

If I could add anything to improve Columbus Circle, I would commission a statue of William Eno. As noted on the website of the Eno Transportation Foundation, the organization he founded in 1921, Eno did not care for cars. He preferred to ride horses, and he never learned to drive.
_______

Note on the embedded map: Switching from the current view into Street View pulls up a pretty springtime day in Columbus Circle.

Black and white photo from Street Traffic Regulation by William Phelps Eno (The Rider and Driver Publishing Co., 1909). Color images by Walking Off the Big Apple from February 17, 2010. For additional images see this set on Flickr WOTBA.









Popular posts from this blog

Circling the Met: A Springtime Visit to Central Park and the Metropolitan Museum of Art

For a double feature of art and nature, the Metropolitan Museum of Art happens to be conveniently situated in Central Park. The front of the museum faces Fifth Avenue, its monumental wings stretching the blocks between E. 80th and E. 84th. The sides and the back of the museum are within easy walking distance of several prominent landmarks within the park.  Cedar Hill in Central Park Before a visit to the Met, consider taking a walk around the museum beginning on the southern side. A walk in the park can serve as a good preparation for a museum visit, because looking at or noticing the shapes and colors of the built and natural environment can enhance the art experience. Cedar Hill in Central Park The path south of the 79 Street Transverse leads to a scene at Cedar Hill very much like a panorama, with a vast wide-angle expanse of green grass and hill. Take the first path that leads back over 79th Street to the southern side of the museum. This path brilliantly disguises the motor traffi

A New York Spring Calendar: Blooming Times and Seasonal Events

See the UPDATED 2018 CALENDAR HERE . Updated for 2017 . At this time of year, thoughts turn to spring. Let's spring forward to blooming times, the best locations for witnessing spring's beginnings, and springtime events in the big city. While the occasional snow could blow through the city, we're just weeks now from callery pears in bloom and opening day at the ballpark. In The Ramble, Central Park. mid-April Blooming Times •  Central Park Conservancy's website  lists blooming times within the park. During the month of March we begin to see crocus, daffodils, forsythia, snowdrops, witch-hazel, and hellebores. Species tulips will emerge in several places, but the Shakespeare Garden and Conservatory Garden are particularly good places to catch the beginning of Spring blooms. Central Park near E. 72nd St., saucer magnolia, typically end of March. •  Citywide Blooming Calendar from New York City Department of Parks & Recreation April is u

The Lonesome Metropolis: A Walk from Grand Central Terminal to Rockefeller Center

As New York City reopens, why do the attractions of the great metropolis still look mostly deserted on a summer morning? A morning walk from Grand Central Terminal to Rockefeller Center sought to address this question. As it turns out, there are several adequate explanations. But for what happens next, there are no right answers. Grand Central Terminal, 9:40 am. Wednesday, July 22, 2020. Many neighborhoods outside of tourist New York are still buzzing along. While some residents of wealthier neighborhoods have largely decamped to mountain cabins, beach houses, and other second homes, the less wealthy have nowhere to go and may still be working. Just visit Washington Heights or Corona or Flatbush, and you’ll see sidewalks full of shoppers and summer evening street partiers. Those who fled the city remain only a fraction of the total population.   Grand Central Terminal, 9:40 am. Wednesday, July 22, 2020. Other renowned parts of the city such as City Hall and Brooklyn Bridge have been fr

Visiting New York City Again on the First Day of Spring

  The first weekend of spring in New York City coincided with bright and pleasing weather. Blue skies and Blue Jays, Bald Eagles and brightened crowds greeted the new season, at least in my world. It may be a cliché to say something like “Hope is in the air,” but contrast this spring of 2021 with the one a year ago, the new mood is palpable. Last year during early spring, the city shut down, in caution and crisis, but this season feels like a resurrection, albeit still cautious. The Met Steps on Fifth Avenue Last spring, when many of the city’s residents feared going outside, many are at least partially vaccinated now. The numbers rise every day. I have been fully vaccinated for a month now, so I used the occasion to revisit New York City. I have been out and about in my neighborhood, but in terms of the public New York City, the one celebrated in tourist books and on this website, I have not ventured there much at all.  A Bald Eagle grasps a fish in its talons outside the Met Cloister

Early Voting in Washington Heights, and A Walk

Early voting for the 2020 federal election in New York began on Saturday, October 24 and continues through Sunday, November 1. The weekend was overcast and autumnal, with the bright yellows of fall on display. In New York City, thousands of New Yorkers turned out at the 88 early voting locations and waited in long lines, many stretching around the block.  A line to vote in Washington Heights. The line stretched around the block multiple times. Madison Square Garden in Manhattan and the Barclay’s Center in Brooklyn were two of the well-known sites, but most voting places were typical neighborhood places such as schools, churches, and hospitals.   The scene outside the entrance to the Russ Berrie Medical Science Pavilion, one of the early voting locations in Washington Heights. In Washington Heights in Upper Manhattan, two early voting locations were within a short walk of one another, causing some confusion for voters emerging from the 168th Street subway station. The Columbia Universit

North Towards Autumn: A Day Trip on the Metro-North Hudson Line

The peak of autumn colors in New York City tends to fall sometime in the days following Halloween, but those anxiously waiting leaf change can simply travel north.  Near Beacon, a view of autumn colors from the Metro-North Hudson line One way to speed the fall season is to take the Hudson line of Metro-North north of the city and watch the greens fade to oranges and yellows and the occasional burst of red.  Autumn light in Hastings-on-Hudson Weekends during the month of October are ideal times to make the trip. The air tends to be crisp with bright blue skies, and the Hudson River glimmers like a mirror in the light of autumn. As the Hudson line hugs the river for much of the distance north, the train ride alone provides plenty of opportunities for sightseeing. Try to grab a window seat on the river side of the train car for views of the Palisades and the bends of the Hudson Highlands later in the trip.   Autumn leaves on the Old Croton Aqueduct Trail in Hastings Still, October is a gr

Traversing Manhattan: An Afternoon Trip to the Battery and Back Again

  Wherein the vaccinated sightseer from Northern Manhattan travels to the southern end of the island by means of the express bus, the MTA subway, and the NYC ferry, with a little sauntering on foot In Battery Park, during the first blushes of spring in New York. View of One World Trade Center Residents of the far north and far south of Manhattan are the ones most keenly aware that they live on an island. The north end of the borough tapers to a relatively small area of land, bounded by the confluence of the Harlem and Hudson Rivers and the waters of Spuyten Duyvil. The land is hilly and green, with an old growth forest. The Battery sits on the southern end, a land where the geography is defined by the meeting of the East River, the Hudson River, and the vast New York Harbor. Manhattan stretches a little over 13 miles on the long side and just 2.3, more or less, at its width. On 42nd Street, approaching Grand Central Terminal. A resident of the hilly northern terrain may sometimes long

Walking on Snow

❄ ❄ ❄ ❄ For the better part of this new year, snow has been either on the ground or in the forecast. In the city landscape, the streets look enchanting for a day or so and then devolve into a dirty mess. This sort of snow is unappealing for an invigorating walk. A snowy path in Inwood Hill Park The forest, on the other hand, has managed to stay enchanting throughout each bout of winter weather. The presence of owls and hawks, bright red cardinals and sweet chickadees, and brown squirrels and black squirrels transform the woodlands into a fairy tale. An Eastern Screech-Owl at home in the winter forest I've spent much of the whole pandemic year, going back to March 2020, in the woods of Inwood Hill Park in Northern Manhattan. While I have been accustomed to walking through the park in spring, summer, and autumn, I've never managed to engage with the deepest parts of the forest when a lot of snow was on the ground. Last winter there wasn't much snow anyway. Eastern Screech-Owl

The Most Beautiful Bridge in the World

Swiss-born architect Le Corbusier (1887 - 1965), the leading proponent of the International Style of modern architecture, visited NYC on several occasions in the 1930s and 1940s, and he made much to say about the skyscraper city. He didn’t think much of the faux tops of the tall buildings nor did he care about the haphazard city planning, but he did fall madly in love with one particular bridge:  "The George Washington Bridge over the Hudson is the most beautiful bridge in the world. Made of cables and steel beams, it gleams in the sky like a reversed arch. It is blessed. It is the only seat of grace in the disordered city. It is painted an aluminum color and, between water and sky, you see nothing but the bent cord supported by two steel towers. When your car moves up the ramp the two towers rise so high that it brings you happiness; their structure is so pure, so resolute, so regular that here, finally, steel architecture seems to laugh. The car reaches an unexpectedly wide apr

NYC Re-openings and Travel Advice

What will open, and how will you get there? This list will be updated following official announcements. UPDATED October 10, 2020.  Many favorite local destinations have now reopened.  Hand sanitizer dispenser at the Marble Hill station of Metro-North's Hudson line Openings  - General Information and Popular Destinations    • Restaurants: Consult this NYC Department of Transportation map  (updated link) for restaurants currently open in NYC. Starting September 30, NYC allowed indoor dining at 25% capacity. • As of September 25, outdoor dining in NYC has been extended FOREVER. • The  9/11 Memorial  reopened on Saturday, July 4. Visitors must wear masks and keep social distancing practices. • (update) Libraries: NYPL. T he library will allow a grab-and-go service at 50 locations.   • Governors Island reopened July 15 with advance reserved tickets.  • The High Line  reopened on July 16, with several rules and limitations in place, including timed entry passes - available July 9. Entra