Researched, Written and Compiled by Polly Bookhout
COLISEUM PARK APARTMENTS & COLUMBUS CIRCLE
By good fortune, Columbus Circle, and the nearby Coliseum Park Apartments, are at a hub of choices, to the northeast, Central Park; to the southeast, Midtown and the theatre district; to the southwest, the historic working class neighborhood of Hell's Kitchen; and to the northwest, the Lincoln Center area. From the beginning of our nation to the present, this crossroad has been a challenge.
What we know as the West Side, from Chelsea north up the island, was called Bloemen Dael, later Bloomingdale. Washington Irving describes it as, "a sweet and rural valley, beautified with many a bright flower, refreshed by many a pure streamlet, and enlivened here and there by a delectable little Dutch cottage, sheltered under some sloping hill, and almost buried in embowering trees." New Yorkers who could afford it took pleasure trips up the Bloomingdale Road, later called Broadway, by carriage, or when it snowed, by sleigh. Many had summer homes here so they could escape from the seasonal city plagues of malaria, cholera, and yellow fever.
Those who could not afford their own carriage would take an omnibus to the Halfway House at 59th Street and the Bloomingdale Road, then switch to another omnibus for the rest of the way uptown.
The summer estate of the prosperous Havemeyer family was on the south side of what would become 58th Street between 8th and 9th Avenues, facing the valley which begins in the middle of what is now our block, north of 58th Street. The valley deepened as it went north and west up the west side.
By 1864 the last remaining building on what had been the Havemeyer estate was being used as the Union Home and School for Soldier's Children.
By the 1850's the Hudson River Railroad extended up the west side of Manhattan, opening the area west of us for commercial development. By the 1860's Central Park had opened and it was hoped that the area west of the park would become a wealthy suburb. In our area, below 71st Street, the railroad, not the park, most influenced construction.
By 1885 city maps show our two blocks, between 58th and 60th Streets, west of Broadway, filled with livery stables and other commercial buildings, modest townhouses, and residences with names like Roosevelt, Havemeyer, St. Albans, Effingham, Carlyle, Milton, and Abbotsford.
The Ninth Avenue Elevated train raced up the avenue past Roosevelt Hospital between 58th and 59th Streets, St. Paul the Apostle Roman Catholic Church between 59th and 60th Streets, and the Twelfth Regimental Armory between 61st and 62nd Streets on the west side of Columbus Avenue. West of Tenth Avenue was San Juan Hill, an African Americans neighborhood extending from 59th Street to 64th Street. After the migration of African Americans to Harlem, this area became part of the Irish and Italian, and later Puerto Rican, Lincoln Square neighborhood to the north. PS 41 at 462 West 58th Street between Ninth and Tenth Avenue (now a residence) served the children of the area. The west wind brought all the residents of the area, well-off or poor, the smells of the breweries, a glycerine refinery, a varnish factory, a moulding mill, oil refineries, a paper hanging factory, and stock yards and train yards west of Tenth Avenue. To keep yourself clean you could go to the bathhouse on 59th Street west of Tenth Avenue, now called the 59th Street Recreation Center.
Dreamers and planners thought Columbus Circle should be the entertainment center of New York? The center had moved from 14th Street to 23rd Street, from 23rd Street to 34th Street, and then to 42nd Street. It could move again. The Circle could be a commercial center when the Hudson River Bridge was built at West 59th Street. A dreamer and planner, William Hearst was a strong booster of Columbus Circle, funding the Maine Monument and owning half the nearby real estate. By the twenties there were legitimate theatres near the Circle and vaudeville theatres, movie houses, and other entertainment venues on the west side, more than there would ever be in the decades to follow.
There were three theatres on our block, the Majestic Theatre, the 59th Street Theatre, and the Circle Theatre. The Majestic, with Pabst Grand Circle Hotel on the left and a small six-story triangular office building on the right, faced the Circle. The Pabst's Grand Circle Cafe, which opened in the early 1900's, was noted for its free lunches, its orchestra and its oyster bar. The triangular building, built in 1904, with its difficult-to-rent, odd-shaped offices, had a billboard covering its upper stories its last twenty-five years. That billboard was made famous in the 1954 Judy Holliday movie, It Should Happen To You.
The Reisenweber's Circle Hotel and the Columbus Theatre, were to the south on the Circle. Reisenweber's Cafe was noted for its delicious frog dinners followed by dancing to the Vienna Court Theater Orchestra. Sophie Tucker was the reigning entertainer. Jazz, then called ragtime, first appeared in New York at Reisenweber's. Across 58th Street from our block is a hotel named Trymore in 1916, Acropolis in 1930. Now, as the Westpark it is a surprising reminder of this era.
On our block was an impressive twenty-three story building built in 1920, the Gotham National Bank, later Manufacturer's Bank. It was near the northeast corner of 59th and Broadway and visible from the other side of Central Park. Wreckers and Excavators, who demolished the building for the Coliseum site, considered it the tallest building to be demolished up to that time.
When Columbus Circle became an entertainment center, one side effect was that the Circle became a major center for prostitution. From 1910 to 1919 the block between 58th and 59th Streets, west of the Circle, had eight or more houses of prostitution. The block to the north and the block to the south had between three and seven houses. In 1912 local residents complained that both Broadway and Columbus from 60th to 66th Streets were a streetwalkers' stroll.
As early as the 1930's Mayor La Guardia had an eye on our block from 58th to 59th Street for a Municipal Art Center, filling the block with an opera house, symphony hall, music library, a costume museum, and space for the Museum of Modern Art, the Guggenheim, and Columbia Broadcasting System using New Deal art programs to fund it. Though plans were drawn, the center was not built.
In 1946 the New York State Legislature assigned Robert Moses' Triborough, Tunnel, and Bridge Authority the task of building an exhibition hall. Cleverly, the city and Authority planned to acquire the then two block site between 58th and 60th Streets, Columbus Circle and Ninth Avenue, under Title 1 of the Federal Housing Act as "slum clearance". Under this law, over half the site had to be for housing. Because of this, the Coliseum Park Apartments were included in the plan.
The 1950's plan seems like an extension of La Guardia's plan. Initially, it included a sports arena and an opera house, as well as the exhibition hall. The Madison Square Garden Corporation protested a second arena that would compete with their arena. The arena was dropped. Though the Metropolitan Opera Association raised $1.2 million for a new house, the opera house was dropped from the plan. It appears that Moses wanted for-profit buildings on the site to defray the costs. The Met had raised enough money for the land, but not for the construction of an opera house.
Building the new Coliseum project was not without controversy. The Citizens' Council saw a rush job, the Luce papers saw a Title 1 scam, property owners on the site saw their property usurped, congressmen saw an overpriced project, tenants on the site saw themselves deprived of their homes, and architectural critics saw an inappropriate design.
The Coliseum opened on April 28, 1956. Frank Lloyd Wright said, "It's a great utilitarian achievement but architecture is something else again..." The new convention center provided the world's largest square footage of exhibition space. Trucks could drive into the exhibition area for loading and unloading. The elevators could accommodate semitrailer trucks. Air conditioning and glare free lighting were noteworthy. Large meetings of business and political conventions could not be held at the Coliseum for it lacked an auditorium, or a balcony overlooking the main floor as first planned.
In 1986, only thirty years later, the Jacob Javits Convention Center replaced the Coliseum as New York's official convention center. We shall see if our new neighbor, the AOL-Time Warner project, will be worthy of Columbus Circle.