Two Columbus Circle
Two Columbus Circle is a freestanding ten-story reinforced-concrete structure. The height of the nine stories plus mechanical penthouse is 158 feet. The total gross floor area of the building is 54,000 square feet. At ground level, on all four façades, a colonnade of geometrically shaped curved precast concrete panels is inset with ovals of polished red granite veneer panels. Seven columns follow the curve of Columbus Circle, four columns follow in a straight line along Eighth Avenue, nine columns follow the straight line of West 58th Street, and seven columns follow the angle of Broadway. There is a loading dock between the sixth column and the seventh column and a bronze door of a fire stair exit between the third and fourth column on the West 58th Street side (counting from Eighth Avenue). The colonnade surrounds, in parallel fashion, a recessed lobby with plate glass walls with bronze mullions. This glass wall continues for two column bays on the east, all six bays on the north and two column bays on the west sides. Two glass and bronze revolving doors, which provide entrance from Columbus Circle, are set symmetrically to either side of the center point of the concave north glass wall. The rest of the exterior ground level walls are clad in bookmatched Verde marble veneer. There is a subway entrance on West 58th Street at Eighth Avenue, just outside the building line on the southwest corner of the block. The same façade material, bookmatched Verde marble veneer, is intact on the stairwell walls leading down from this entrance to the station’s mezzanine. The railing for this subway entrance, a version of the Transit Authority’s “KS1” railing of the early sixties, was custom crafted in bronze with a Verde marble base and featured the same circular design motif as other railings on the building. This railing has been removed and replaced by plywood.
The upper story walls are constructed of two inch thick grey-veined white Vermont Imperial Darby marble veneer panels set on concrete back-up which in turn are supported on stainless-steel shelf angles. An open arcade at the eighth and ninth floors at the center of each façade consists of a modern interpretation of a Venetian arcade, with terraces behind the arcades wrapping around these floor levels. Along the north terrace a wall of fenestration affords views overlooking Columbus Circle. The terrace provides direct views north up Broadway and of the southeast corner of Central Park. The tenth floor is a mechanical penthouse set back from the principal façade the same distance as the ground floor lobby. This penthouse is also clad in Vermont Imperial Darby marble.
The building is distinguished by bands of pierced White Vermont Imperial Darby marble panels. These pierced panels contain four ‘portholes’ each. Each porthole measures twelve inches in diameter. A double set of pierced panels are grouped vertically at the corner of each façade and two triple sets on the central portion of the south façade. A single set of panels just above the ground floor colonnade runs horizontally and a quadruple set runs horizontal as well between the upper arcade and roof parapet. A large portion of these 1,472 ‘portholes’ are glazed, which bring natural light to the interior. Others are filled with recessed circles of red granite. From the exterior, both glazed and filled ‘portholes’ give the appearance of consistent opaqueness.
In plan Two Columbus Circle follows the shape of the plot, reinforcing the ‘street wall’. This aspect of the design is especially notable in the concave north façade which follows the curve of the circle on a 217-degree radius.
Before dismantling, the façade materials of Two Columbus Circle were intact and completely original. Many of the marble panels are sound; others were in a deteriorated condition. This deterioration of some of the marble façade panels due to weathering and neglect could have been mediated by the application of contemporary preservation techniques.
Columbus Circle is a landscaped multi-lane traffic rotary. Broadway, Eighth Avenue, and Central Park South (West 59th Street) all converge on Columbus Circle. It is the point where - the commercial office and theater districts of Midtown to the south, the high-density residential Upper West Side to the north and west, the hotel and luxury apartment district of Central Park South to the east, and Central Park to the northeast - come together. The building, because of its size, shape and façade material, is prominent on its site.
Directly to the south of Two Columbus Circle, across West 58th is a dark brick, twenty-six story office tower, formerly known as the General Motors Building. To the west is a mixed-use complex known as the Time Warner Center which consists of a curving base clad in grey granite and glass containing an indoor shopping center topped by twin dark reflective glass clad seventy-five story towers containing offices, apartments and a hotel. Until the completion of this complex, Two Columbus Circle was the sole building built in the post-Second World War era whose façade followed the curve of the Circle. To the north across the Circle is a forty-four story bronze glass clad hotel/apartment tower, the Trump International Hotel and Towers. To the northeast is the Merchants Gate of Central Par marked by the Maine Monument. To the east is a buff-brick clad high-rise apartment complex, 240 Central Park South (New York City Landmark), which contains shops at its base directly across Broadway from Two Columbus Circle. To the southeast is the twenty-story limestone clad U.S. Rubber Building. At the center of Columbus Circle, directly to the north of Two Columbus Circle, surrounded by fountains, is a 80 foot column topped by a statue of Christopher Columbus.
The roughly trapezium shaped plot of Two Columbus Circle is bounded by Columbus Circle on the north, Broadway on the east, West 58th Street on the south, and Eighth Avenue on the West. The building’s footprint totals 4,600 square feet. The building occupies the entire lot. In plan Two Columbus Circle follows the shape of the plot, reinforcing the ‘street wall’. This aspect of the design is especially notable in the concave north façade which follows the curve of the circle on a 217-degree radius.
On a tiny, irregular island site “a miracle was needed to get an orderly, spacious gallery area”, said Stone. His solution was a series of galleries, arranged on landings like a grand staircase which spiral around the building’s central core. The arrangement of a stair gallery wrapping around a central core was similar to that proposed almost thirty years before by Howe & Lescaze’s Scheme Six proposal for the Museum of Modern Art in 1931. New York Times art critic John Canaday found that this arrangement “under New York’s building code, demanded so much elevator and stairway space that the exhibition galleries were reduced to boutiques, clustered around palatial escape routes.” Stone had solved the ‘insurmountable’ gallery requirements on a cramped site with masterful grace, hoisting visitors up by elevator and sending them down via galleries which are partially distributed on stair landings, one of which achieves grandiloquent height”, said critic Olga Gueft. Filtered natural light is introduced through glazed perforations at the corners, a technique which prevented deterioration of art work by filtering ultra-violet radiation. These perforations act as ‘portholes’ providing tantalizing glimpses of Central Park without distracting viewers from the art. By arranging the fenestration in the corners of Two Columbus Circle, architect Edward Durell Stone solved the dilemma of maximizing uninterrupted wall space for mounting exhibitions in a building of modest dimensions.
Speaking of the character and atmosphere of the gallery spaces Stone said: “The old monumental repositories had long since gone, replaced by the dramatic white, austere, brilliantly-illuminated areas, a tradition of the thirties. Yet, I have long felt that one of the objectives of a museum should be to make the visitor aspire to have original works of art in his home. With this in mind the galleries were given warm, rich materials and comfortable furniture. In such surroundings it is not difficult to project works of art into your own environment.” With wall to wall carpeting, parquet, and walls sheathed in wood and linen the galleries looked less like a museum than a home. Stone encouraged visitors to relax, rendezvous, and enjoy the glamour-studded openings. For Huntington Hartford’s trend-defying art collection Stone produced a site-defying building with disarming interiors. In addition, the architectural detailing of Two Columbus Circle had an easy and lighthearted feel. The circle motif was used extensively, from the porthole windows to the sidewalk paving. Inside, grilles, lighting fixtures and railings picked up the form. Even the railing for the subway entrance at 58th Street was custom cast in bronze to incorporate the motif.
Edward Durell Stone’s design manages to reconcile issues of function with the qualities of contextualism, urbanism, and emotional impact. This concern for these qualities was prescient. Two Columbus Circle represents an early example of the trend, which began in the 1960s, to reconcile more expressive human qualities with the cool intellectual abstractions of the prevailing International Style of the Modern Movement. Stone chose forms and materials scandalous to many critics of the period. Yet today, in light of changes in perception brought about by the evolution that modern architecture has gone through in the past four decades, some of the disparagement appears overwrought. Stone’s response to a complex program on a difficult, constricted site is admirable. The distinguishing architectural characteristics of Two Columbus Circle include, the tripartite organization of the façade, use of arcades at ground level and near the top, solid and pierced white marble façade panels, the organization of galleries at half levels wrapped around a central circulation core, the use of ‘portholes’ to allow natural light into the interior while protecting the art work from UV radiation, the clustering of these ‘portholes’ at the corners and the center of the long south wall in order to maximize wall space for displaying framed art work, and the specification of a palate of quality finishes achieving an intimate environment for viewing art. Although the building is only forty years old, today it is a work whose design value has been recognized by prominent critics and writers. It embodies distinctive characteristics of style and period, and it has generated extensive scholarly comment and evaluation. Throughout his search for “exuberant forms” via ornament and historical allusion, Stone never lost sight of the functionalism that was at the heart of the Modern movement. For the museum he used a reinforced concrete structural system for efficiency; ebony, bronze, book-matched walnut, marble and plush carpets for emotional expression. Split level galleries ingeniously made up for small floor plates, while nine stories of strikingly white Vermont Darby marble and an airborne Venetian arcade lent formality and historical reference. Stone’s first proposals for the exterior in 1956 show a virtually blank façade above a street level arcade, with glass wrapping the entire top floor. In 1959, he wrapped the building in a completely neutral mesh-like screen, revealing the structural frame only at the base and the roof. In both schemes, Stone was searching for a Classical simplicity compatible with, and complementary to Carrerre and Hastings’s United States Rubber Building (1912), located diagonally across from the site at the southeast corner of Broadway and West 58th Street. The final scheme, released in late 1959 shows the organization of the façade as a modern interpretation of the Beaux-Arts principle of the tripartite method. This method was based upon the three part organization of classical columns – base, shaft and capital. This tripartite method is illustrated in the adjacent Beaux-Arts U.S. Rubber Building. At Two Columbus Circle, architect Edward Durell Stone translated this classical principle by utilizing an arcade for the ‘base’, the smooth ‘shaft’ of white marble in the middle of the composition, and an arcade at the top akin to a ‘capital’. The walls of the Venetian-inspired vertical palazzo were perforated with porthole-like openings at the corners, base and crown to suggest rustication inspired according to Stone, by Saint-Germain-des Pres, a Romanesque Church in Paris. Referring to these and the vaguely middle-eastern inspired arcade at its base, New York Times, architectural critic Ada Louise Huxtable’s made her infamous quip about “a die-cut Venetian palazzo on lollypops”, although what is not recalled is that the barb was significantly buried in a report of amazing amiability. Interiors Magazine critic Olga Gueft wrote; “Every inch of the site’s building envelope is occupied. And every conceivable trick has been used to hide that fact –e.g., the play of circles on the façade and paving that distracts the eye from the hard building outline. For these miniature red granite-trimmed, green marble-lined colonnades, these rows of portholes like borders of eyelet hand-embroidered on a marble christening robe are too winsome for heavyweight criticism. ”
Edward Durrell Stone (1902-1978) was one of twentieth century America’s premier architects. His firm, based in New York City, was among the largest in the country. Branch offices were based in Chicago and Los Angeles. Stone was one of the few American-born architects working within the Modern Movement who enjoyed an international reputation and a worldwide practice. Stone was one of the few practitioners in the United States, in the pre-World War Two period, associated with International Style Modernism. His later career was marked by a dramatic evolution towards a reconciliation of Modernist concepts with an expressive personal style.
In post-war New York, three new, controversial museum buildings by America’s master architects were completed: the Guggenheim by Frank Lloyd Wright in 1959, The Huntington Hartford Gallery of Art at Two Columbus Circle in 1964, and the Whitney Museum of American Art by Marcel Breuer in 1966. Each of these structures is a provocative, expressive statement and represents a questioning of Modern orthodoxy. Edward Durell Stone arrived at the challenging design solution for Two Columbus Circle in part as a result of the journey his career had taken; first in the 1920s as an apprentice architect in the employ of traditionalist architects, then in the 1930s practicing as a young professional enthralled by the new forms and philosophies of the emerging International Style, then a reevaluation of those ideas in the 1940s. For the rest of his career Stone’s work would be marked by the search for an expressive, personal style while remaining true to his interpretation of the functionalism and goals of the Modern Movement. Two Columbus Circle is an important work by a master American architect at the height of his career. It is a pivotal work, in that it represents Stone’s own questioning of Modern orthodoxy and prophetic concerns for issues of context and urbanism. It is a prime, intact example of the evolution in architectural design and thought that was beginning to occur in the mid-1960s.
As architectural historians have sought, in recent years, to paint a much more complex picture of the spectrum of positions held by modernist architects, Edward Durell Stone’s critique of the mainstream of the Modern Movement has been regarded with greater sympathy. Indeed it might be said that Stone has not enjoyed such a high regard since he appeared on Time Magazine during the height of his popularity in his lifetime. And with the hind-sight of Post-Modernism many now understand that Stone’s embrace of ornament and historical allusion as critiques of doctrinaire International Style Modernism were important and precocious efforts to enrich the practice of modern architecture. These experiments are best embodied in two of Stone’s Two Columbus Circle. Not only is Two Columbus Circle a work of historic significance in the history of American modern architecture, but its architect’s stance was in direct sympathy with that of his client, whose Gallery of Modern Art sought to argue for a broader spectrum of modern art as a critique of the nearby Museum of Modern Art. Just as the artists displayed within embraced the human figure as opposed to abstraction, so Stone’s museum maintained that to be modern did not mean to be cut one off from artistic tradition. Huntington Hartford’s museum- an important episode in New York’s place in the history of modern taste and art – is recalled in Stone’s building.
Stone was not alone in exploring alternatives to mainstream Modernism. His later work exemplified the transition from Bauhaus Modernism to “other modernisms” that began abroad. The explorations were happening in the U.S. at Lincoln Center (1955–1969) with its “Monumental Modern,” particularly the buildings of Philip Johnson and Wallace Harrison; with Minoru Yamasaki’s Gothic inspired U.S. Pavilion for the 1962 Seattle World’s Fair, and later his World Trade Center towers; and with Eero Saarinen’s Ingalls Rink (1956–1958) and TWA Terminal (1956–1962).
Stone’s later works such as Two Columbus Circle did not follow the main trajectory of Modern architecture storming forward—progressive, experimental and abstract—as many critics thought it ought to. Rather, his work looked back at things that were not abstract. Two Columbus Circle is a signature Edward Durell Stone building encapsulating the architect’s late career theories. It is of its time, categorically representing the small subset of the Modern movement where Historicism and Modernism colluded.
Two Columbus Circle was designed to be complementary to its urban context. It was the first modern building on the site to address and hold the curve of the Circle. Its white marble façade, with its classical references, creates an appropriate backdrop for the Columbus rostrum column at the center of the Circle. Its classical tripartite façade organization relates well with the Beaux-Arts U.S. Rubber skyscraper adjacent. Its modest scale and light color distinguishes it from its larger, darker neighbors. It also acts as a gentle transition between the high-rise structures to the south and the open space of the Circle. Two Columbus Circle acts as a classical monument on an axial boulevard - it punctuates the vista from the north along Central Park West, as well as Broadway. Two Columbus Circle exhibits qualities of good urbanism rare in its 1964 contemporaries.
In 2002 work began on a total reconstruction of Columbus Circle itself, reconfiguring the automobile traffic once again in a circular pattern while for the first time providing a meaningful landscaped park with safer access for pedestrians at its center. Concurrently, west of Two Columbus Circle, construction of Ten Columbus Circle began. It's the most expensive single-building construction project in U.S. history. The Ten Columbus Circle building, known as Time Warner Center, will house Time Warner's corporate headquarters, CNN's New York bureau, Jazz at Lincoln Center, a luxury hotel, and luxury condominiums. The new building takes its cue from Stone’s building in that its front 4-story volume follows the curve of the Circle providing an amenable, pedestrian-friendly portico designed to human scale. It is a compliment to the Circle, the Maine Monument, and Two Columbus Circle.
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