Columbus Circle c. 1907. Photo from Library of Congress.

Columbus Circle: A Brief History

By John Tucker

Professional Children’s School has been located in the neighborhood of Columbus Circle since 1926 when the school moved into rented quarters in a brand-new 12-story office building at 1860 Broadway, on the NE corner of 61st Street.  While the area today can sometimes feel like a gap between better known neighborhoods such as Times Square or Lincoln Center, it has a unique history all its own.  Did you know it’s actually the point from which all distances to and from New York City are measured?

Columbus Circle in 1926 was a perfect location for a school for children working in the New York theater because it had steadily developed into an an entertainment mecca ever since the opening of Carnegie Hall on West 57th Street in 1892.  By the 1920’s Columbus Circle was swagged in electric advertising signs and home to a collection of movie palaces, radio studios and legitimate theaters, including the 1300-seat Majestic Theater where “The Wizard of Oz,” Frank L. Baum’s stage adaptation of his novel, opened in 1902.  

The southwest corner of Central Park was conceived as a circle by the park’s designers Frederick Law Olmstead and Calvert Vaux and appears in the original plans laid out for the park in 1857. It was known only as The Circle until the Columbus Monument was erected at its center in 1892 in commemoration of the 400th anniversary of the explorer’s voyage to America.  At a time when Italian immigrants were confronting discrimination and prejudice, the monument became an important symbol of Italian American pride.  The community not only raised the funds to build the monument but donated much of the physical labor to prepare the site.  Created by Italian sculptor Gaetano Russo, the column, statuary and bronze elements were all crafted in Italy.   Despite today’s reexamination of the explorer’s role in American history, the monument continues to serve as a symbol of pride for many in the Italian American community.  

The Columbus Circle subway station was built for New York’s first subway line by the  Interborough Rapid Transit Company (IRT) and opened in 1904 as a local station.  It is one of 28 stations on the original subway line.  In 1932 the Independent Subway System (IND) opened its Eighth Avenue Line express station in Columbus Circle.  It was not until 1948 that the two stations were combined.  Today, the original section of the Columbus Circle IRT Station is a New York City designated landmark and listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

Across the circle from the monument, at the southwest entrance to Central Park, stands the USS Maine National Monument erected in 1913 to honor those lost when the battleship Maine exploded and sank in Havana Harbor, igniting the Spanish American War (April 21 – August 13, 1898).   Newspaper mogul William Randolph Hearst, whose newspapers had led the charge to declare war, spearheaded the campaign to erect the memorial and have it located in Columbus Circle.  Hearst had been quietly buying up property in and around Columbus Circle, ultimately hoping to convince the city to rename the circle in his honor, like his newspaper rivals The New York Times (Times Square) and The New York Herald (Herald Square) had managed to have done.   The Great Depression put an end to Hearst’s dream, though the world headquarters of Hearst Communications remains just two blocks south, at the corner of Eighth Avenue and 57th Street in a modern 40-story tower that sits atop the original 1928 structure.