New York City History - Columbus Circle

New York City History - Columbus Circle

Columbus Circle: The Heyday! - By William Shaw

Columbus Circle

The New York of a century ago was a town in constant flux.

The New York of a century ago was a town in constant flux. Growing northward at the galloping pace of a mile every decade, the city's centers of wealth, entertainment, commerce and residence metamorphosed in a constant, dizzying dance. One theme remained always – an agonizing housing shortage.

So when the 9th Avenue El's opening in 1879 made the West Side easily accessible for the first time, most everyone expected would-be homeowners to absolutely pour into the area, checkbooks at the ready. But it didn't happen that way.

From Farm to Warehouse, This was especially true in the southern portion of the neighborhood-to-be, the land where John Somerindyck had once farmed, fished and hunted his vast estate.

The 1880s saw an invasion by hordes of cheap, speculative tenements west of Broadway.

Columbus Circle

 

The land around Central Park remained pretty much empty.

It's easy to see why the southern Upper West Side got off to such a slow start. In the 1880's the place was still on the outskirts of town. The heart of fashionable society lay far downtown along Fifth. Avenue between Madison Square and Murray Hill. Nothing much was happening in Manhattan just below the West Side – except for the slimy doings in Hell's Kitchen and along the docks.

The lower Upper West Side was simply a part of a huge tract of land suddenly thrown open for development.

El on Ninth Avenue

The billowing smoke and noise of the ugly but essential El on Ninth Avenue cast a palling cloud upon the area.

 

The billowing smoke and noise of the ugly but essential El on Ninth Avenue cast a palling cloud upon the area. Farther to the west ran the massive trackworks of the New York Central railroad line, which opened around 1880. Besides adding another dose of smoke and noise, the trains carried livestock to stockyards at 60th Street, and the barnyard stench still another insult to the area.

Hence, despite the aristocratic potential of Central Park West, huge armories soon squatted heavily on Broadway at 67- 68th Street (where the Ansonia Post Office is now), on 66th Street off Central Park, and on 66th Street west of Columbus. An enormous equestrian school trotted onto the site of today's Trump International Hotel. Smack in the center of the Central's track beds and stockyards, at 61st Street near the River, tottered a three-story shack of a hotel.

Constantly surrounded by noise and smell, and with quiet getaway promised by endlessly passing trains, the deeds done there can well be imagined. In the first years of the 20th Century there gathered a gaggle of garages and a wasteland of warehouses – about 40 of them in the mere six blocks hounded by Amsterdam and West End from 59th to 65th Streets. Quite a few more found their way onto lots on or near Central Park West in the low 60s. The area certainly seemed headed for a drab, dreary destiny.

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Ground Zero Museum Workshop


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Columbus Circle: The Heyday! (continued)

View from Dakota Park

The Dakota Apartments on 72d Street triggered a gradual improvement of the lower park blocks.

The Dakota Apartments on 72d Street triggered a gradual improvement of the lower park blocks. Waves of high class residential development radiated from the Dakota's lordly towers after the building opened in 1884.

Slowly, lavish townhouses, patrician apartments and grand houses of worship rose in the Dakota's shadow.

Columbus Circle

Columbus Circle is the place to be!

And so, gentrification in and around the park blocks ultimately displaced some of the warehouses near Central Park in the 60s (although many remained, like the "Liberty Warehouse" on 64th Street, with its rooftop replica of the Statue of Liberty).

The last trace of the old Somerindyck estate finally vanished in 1903, when the "Sunken Village" – a remnant of the shantytown days at Broadway and 61st Street – was plowed under to make way for an apartment house.

Columbus Circle is the place to be! As the city moved up through the vacant land below 59th Street, Columbus Circle and Broadway in the 60s grew into an amazingly chic entertainment, although never a rival of the Great White Way downtown.

Reisenweber's Cafe

Reisenweber's Cafe was a tremendously popular spot on the Circle.

Reisenweber's Cafe was a tremendously popular spot on the Circle. Offering a "Delicious Frog Dinner" on weekend evenings for $1.25, followed by dancing to the Vienna Court Theater Orchestra.

Reisenweber's also turned New Yorkers' ears sideways with the first jazz ever performed in the northeast.

By 1905 the Cafe was joined by the opulent Majestic Playhouse on Broadway and 60th Street, where Victor Herbert held forth with orchestral concerts on Sunday nights. Vaudeville, live playhouses and early movie theaters moved into the increasingly lively streets.

 the Colonial on 62d Street

the Colonial on 62d Street

Not all of these were as respectable as the Majestic, though. Audiences at the Colonial on 62d Street, for example, thrilled to a "Concert" that included the Rossow midgets. Another featured act was Abdul Kader And His Three Wives. The Circle Theatre, on 60th Street followed suit with the "New City Sports," featuring six female wrestlers. These were joined a few years later by Blarney's Lincoln Square Theater, self-proclaimed to be "New York's Most Classy Vaudeville Theater," on Broadway and 66th Street.

Columbus Circle: The Heyday! (continued)

Tom Healy's Golden Glades Cafe

Tom Healy's Golden Glades Cafe

By the 1920s more than a dozen theaters stood scattered on the "subway circuit" – Broadway up through 97th Street's Shubert-Riviera Theatre. The St. Nicholas Rink, at 66th street off Central Park West, opened in 1896 with the nation's first indoor ice skating, but was soon converged into a boxing arena where heavy hitters from Jack Johnson to Mohammed Ali fought until 1962.

Folks out for a night on the town could partake of fine wine and wild game at Tom Healy's Golden Glades Cafe, around the corner on Columbus. The sudden popularity of Broadway above Columbus Circle brought a concentration of stores offering that new plaything of the leisured class - the automobile. By 1912, Broadway was "Automobile Row," where dealers hawked such long-lost lines as Whites, Packards, Gerfords and Premiers, along with everything else from brand-new Cadillacs to second-hand Fords, with huge billboards shouting their wares from ornamental rooftops.

the New Theater

the "New Theater"

The trend toward fashionability led to a spectacular miscalculation – the "New Theater," which opened at Central Park West and 82d Street in 1909.

Designed to appeal to Old Guard bluebloods, the big marble palace vastly overshot the West Side market, which was mostly made up of young, carefree aristocrats and the growing professional middle class.

Probably the most extravagant theater in the City's history, the New Theater – later called the Century – never got the red ink out of its balance sheets. Despite a takeover by an opera company anxious to compete with the Metropolitan downtown, the building was demolished in 1929 to make way for the Century Apartments.

The Ansonia Hotel

The Ansonia Hotel

In 1913, a real estate agent, Harry Hall, summed up the area's booming popularity this way: "Theatres on upper Broadway! Who would have expected or dreamed of such a thing fifteen years ago'? And yet today we find large playhouses, finely appointed, and the passer-by at night sees lines of people extending for a block waiting or an opportunity to purchase seats at the box office...Accompanying the theater, its natural running mate, the best class of restaurant, is well represented, and to-day, with the taxi and the privately owned motor-car, the theater party goes to supper uptown, near home. Retail shops of the daintiest description are here to be found, appealing to the feminine mind and the needs of a discriminating class."

Columbus Circle at Night

By World War I the farmer Somerindyck estate had split into two halves on either side of Broadway.

The east side – toward Central Park – had been transformed into the focus for high life on the West Side.

The land west of Broadway was to follow quite another route.