"Did you know that Columbus Circle is the epicenter of New York?"
Laurie Beckelman asks what sounds like a trick question. Given that she is currently embroiled in what may be the last major battle in the recuperation of Columbus Circle—a skirmish with preservationists over the conversion of A&P heir Huntington Hartford's marble-covered Gallery of Modern Art into the Museum of Arts & Design—she could be speaking metaphorically. But she is, in fact, being quite literal.
Columbus Circle, the intersection of 59th Street with Broadway and Eighth Avenue, is, you see, the point from which distances to New York City are measured. If you are on the Long Island Expressway and see a sign that says NEW YORK CITY 50, it means that you are 50 miles from the spot where a statue of Christopher Columbus, looking a bit lost, stands atop a 77-foot pillar.
In the weeks preceding the opening of the Time Warner Center—an 80-story, 2.8 million-square-foot, twin-towered complex that is about to transform historically underpopulated Columbus Circle into an upscale destination—people, mostly publicists, have been sharing this bit of trivia with me. I've been a little skeptical, because I've never seen it written down anywhere, but I believe Beckelman. After all, she used to be chair of the city's landmarks commission.
While the Columbus statue, erected in 1892, is meant to be the focal point of the circle, the marble man is nearly invisible against the Time Warner Center's glassy, oddly angled façade. The towers, on the west side of Columbus Circle, were nearly 20 years in the making and will house an array of businesses. Facing the circle is an upscale shopping mall filled with familiar brands, including Hugo Boss, Joseph Abboud, Sephora, J. Crew, Coach, Stuart Weitzman, and Tourneau. On the third and fourth floors are five restaurants—headed by some of the country's most famous chefs—and a bar.Above the restaurants, on the fifth and sixth floors, is a jazz theater complex, Wynton Marsalis's brainchild. In the north tower, from the 35th through 54th floor, is the North American flagship of the Asian luxury hotel chain Mandarin Oriental, with its own restaurant and mega-bar and a plush bi-level spa. Above the hotel are 16 floors of high-end residences. The south tower is home to Time Warner and the studios of CNN, which visitors to the center will be able to tour, plus 29 floors given over to residences that are selling for as much as $40 million each.
The first component of the Time Warner Center to shake off the plaster dustwas theMandarin Oriental, New York, which opened in November, accessible from an entrance on 60th Street. Because even its lowest floors are high up, there is no such thing as a room without a view; new perspectives of Central Park, the Hudson River, and midtown are available from any window. As you might expect, each room is well-equipped: a computer, two flat-screen TV's (one in the bathroom), a shower with two heads (one adjustable, the other fixed), and, best of all, a pair of binoculars.
The Mandarin Oriental is by no means the first stylish hotel in the neighborhood. In fact, Rudolph Tauscher, its general manager, used to be in charge of the Trump International Hotel & Tower, directly across Broadway. Donald Trumpwas the first developer to rescue Columbus Circle from ignominy, seeing potential in the unloved Gulf & Western Tower. This skinny 52-story building wedged between Broadway and Central Park West had a habit of twisting on windy days, dropping windows onto the sidewalk below. Trump structurally retrofitted the tower, reclad it in bronze glass, and then hung his name over the door. On the ground floor he installed superstar chef Jean-Georges Vongerichten's restaurant, Jean Georges. He also planted a shiny small-scale unisphere at the prow of the building. According to Trump's feng shui consultant, the globe deflects the "bad energy" that emanates from Columbus Circle.
Trump was followed to the neighborhood by Ian Schrager, who in 2000 opened the Hudsonhotel a half-block west of Columbus Circle, on 58th Street. While Trump's hotel emphasized ample accommodations and a kind of cool elegance, the Hudson's rooms were the size of space capsules, and its bar scene was so overheated that hotel guests had to get past a bouncer behind a velvet rope to return to their rooms at night. Both Trump's and Schrager's efforts felt like outposts, brave forays into untested territory. The Mandarin Oriental, by contrast, is an announcement that Columbus Circle is no longer a no-man's-land.
Tauscher remembers what it was like before Trump and Vongerichten opened their doors: "People said to Jean-Georges, 'It's not going to work.'" No one is saying that to Tauscher, who compares the Time Warner Center to Rockefeller Center. "What's happening is that a new destination is being created here," he says.
In October, in the last weeks before the hotel's opening, Tauscher has other concerns: "I worry a little bit about everything," he says. "The quality of the wineglasses, the marketing plans, the training of the employees, looking after the thread count rating to make sure that it stays at two hundred eighty." One other small worry that comes out over lunch at Gabriel's, the neighborhood restaurant that served as the unofficial construction cafeteria for the Time Warner Center's tenants, is that he keeps referring to the hotel's location as the "north tower." His director of public relations, Sonya Rendigs, insists that he call it the "north building" to eliminate any hint of a kinship between this twin-towered complex and the World Trade Center. "I'll kick you under the table," Rendigs offers.
Even before the hotel is completed, as the spa's massage therapists practice their moves at tables set up in one of the ballrooms and construction workers race to get everything done, the attention to detail is striking: the elegant 75-foot indoor lap pool with its view of the Hudson River, the hammered-nickel bar in MOBar designed by Tony Chi, the glass artwork by Dale Chihuly in the lobby.
The mandate, says one of the hotel's interior designers, Sandra Cortner, of Atlanta-based Hirsch Bedner Associates, is "to whisper the Orient." In other words, Mandarin Oriental hotels should be distinguished by Asian touches, but a guest might not be able to say exactly why the room—or the lobby or the elevator—feels a bit Chinese or maybe Japanese. For example, there is something Cortner calls an "Oriental cloud pattern," a series of fingerprint-like swirls, that keeps recurring. You see it on the inside of the elevator doors, on the light fixtures in the lobby, and on the oversized drawer pulls in the guest rooms.
While the restaurant, Asiate, is lovely, with its leather booths and views of the park, and the rooms, with their upholstered window seats and silk throws, are luxe, the most impressive thing is the spa (open to non-guests). The steam room has a domed ceiling made of glass tiles with the iridescence of abalone shells. I imagine that taking a steam bath there would feel a bit like being naked in Hagia Sophia.
Still, the most beautiful thing on Columbus Circle will likely be the Museum of Arts & Design, scheduled to open in 2006. That is, if things go as planned. The design, submitted by Portland, Oregon-based architect Brad Cloepfil, calls for skinning the marble off the façade, cutting into the solid concrete structure within, and recladding the building with a pattern of white terra-cotta and glass. The building will be perforated, admitting sunlight during the day and allowing the museum to glow at night. The problem for Beckelman and others in charge of the new Museum of Arts & Design is that some preservationists believe the Venetian-inspired palazzo is already beautiful or, at least, unusual enough to be landmarked and restored rather than renovated.