On August 6th, 1966, the New York Times ran a small item at the bottom of page 21. "Jackhammers Bite to Start Trade Center Job." The unbylined story began:
The early morning quiet along the Hudson River waterfront was shattered yesterday as construction began on the $525-million World Trade Center. A pair of chattering jackhammers bit into the pavement at the intersection of West and Cortlandt Streets to prepare an excavation for the first stage of construction.
That was 50 years ago. And, of course, 15 years ago this Sunday, that monumental creation was destroyed by terrorists, and almost three thousand people were killed.
The attack on the World Trade Center turned the Twin Towers into symbols, inscribed in the American catechism as fallen heroes, which the nation refused to disparage in death.
But in life, they often appeared to New Yorkers like a pair of middle fingers—to good development, to good economics, to good taste. Many locals hated everything about the World Trade Center, but especially its outlandish mirror-image centerpieces. "The only governmental agency that could use those buildings would be the national space agency," Manhattan Assemblymember Louis DeSalvio said at a public hearing in 1966. "They could wrap a rubber band around the two of them and use it as a slingshot to send a man to the moon."
The first "World Trade Center" was conceived as an exhibit at the 1939 World's Fair in Flushing Meadows. A group of business and trade associations sponsored the center, which was advertised as a project to promote "world peace through world trade."
The fair exhibit was temporary, but soon city bigwigs were talking about creating a permanent trade center. An early champion of this idea was Winthrop Aldrich, chairman of Chase National Bank and scion of the Aldrich dynasty. In 1946, Aldrich, who had helped organize the World's Fair exhibition, was selected to lead the World Trade Center Corporation, a body created by the state legislature to study the feasibility of a permanent trade center in New York.
Ultimately, the corporation decided the state's money would be better spent improving the city's ports. The idea for a trade center, however, lived on. It was taken up by David Rockefeller, Aldrich's nephew, who in 1958 founded the Downtown Lower Manhattan Association.
In their book City in the Sky, journalists James Glanz and Eric Lipton describe the DLMA's early investigations into the possibility of constructing a complex that would bring together institutions representing every facet of international trade—shipping, insurance, customs, banking, and so on.
The association retained the consulting firm McKinsey & Co., which found that the prospects for such a project were grim. "Almost nothing about the concept—its mission or its targeted client base—was assured," Glanz and Lipton write. "Major corporations had already started exploiting international trade and would gain little real advantage from a World Trade Center."
Construction site for the World Trade Center, circa 1966. (Hulton Archive/Getty Images)
Rather than release it to the public, DLMA buried the McKinsey report and dismissed the firm. It then requested that the Port Authority revisit the possibility of a trade center. The authority's board decided that a trade center would be a good investment of money—and that the authority itself should oversee it.
For Rockefeller, the World Trade Center was to be the centerpiece of the DLMA's $1 billion downtown redevelopment plan, which would transform 564 acres in Lower Manhattan. The area's old buildings and crooked streets would be demolished and thoroughfares like Chambers, Fulton, and Greenwich Streets would be widened. Shiny new towers would go up. There would even be a new marina and heliport.
Rockefeller also had a personal stake in the project. Many firms were moving their offices to Midtown, but Chase Manhattan Bank, where Rockefeller was vice chairman, had built its own skyscraper near Wall Street. A booming downtown would be better for Chase.
In 1960, a site for the proposed trade center was identified in Lower Manhattan—almost 14 acres near the original South Street Seaport, on the east side.
To build the center, the Port Authority needed the approval of the governors of New York and New Jersey. Nelson Rockefeller, New York's governor and David Rockefeller's brother, backed the project. (Later critics of the WTC mocked this fraternal connection by calling the Twin Towers "David and Nelson.")
New Jersey, however, said it wouldn't sign on unless the project was moved to the west side, so it could include a new terminal for its commuter rail line. The state also insisted that the Port Authority take over the line, which was hemorrhaging money. (The line was rechristened as the Port Authority Trans-Hudson, also known as the PATH.)
As a compromise, the DLMA proposed placing the trade center in the area around Greenwich and Cortlandt Streets, a neighborhood then known as Radio Row, for its dozens of shops noisily selling radio equipment and other electronics.
The new plan called for the neighborhood's low-standing commercial and industrial buildings to be razed, replaced by a 16-acre "superblock" that would form the footprint of the trade center project.
Unhappy that their neighborhood and livelihoods were about to be obliterated, the Radio Rowers in June of 1962 asked a state judge for an injunction against the project. They also sought a judgment in the court of public opinion, staging a protest that featured a coffin draped in black with a life-sized dummy labeled "Small Business Man."
The Radio Row lawsuit went all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, which in 1963 threw it out for lack of jurisdiction.
With New Jersey and the Radiomen vanquished, the next challenge was opposition from major Manhattan real estate interests, who feared the project would oversaturate the market for commercial real estate, driving down rents and discouraging building.
Meanwhile, the scope of the World Trade Center project had broadened. In 1962, the plan called for a 72-story "world trade mart"—with hotel rooms for sleepy international businessmen—a securities exchange, and several other office towers. But by 1964 the Port Authority had decided the project would feature two 110-story buildings—the tallest ever built. These towers would contain more office space than the Pan Am Building (now the MetLife) and the Pentagon combined—about 10 million square feet—even though there were already about 10 million vacant square feet in the the city.
Like all public agencies, the Port Authority is tax-exempt, so the project would effectively be subsidized by taxpayer dollars. (The authority would also have a leg up on taxpaying commercial landlords.) Critics accused the authority of seeking to enrich itself at the expense of the entire city.
Writing in New York magazine in 1969, labor lawyer Theodore W. Kheel, called the project "a striking example of socialism at its worst."
Then there was the actual design. The Trade Center defied the development philosophy, then gaining popularity, of urbanists like Jane Jacobs, who celebrated vibrant street life at a human scale and adored the old buildings below Canal Street. In The Death and Life of Great American Cities, Jacobs described the WTC plan as an attack on the unique character of downtown:
What is more dramatic, even romantic, than the tumbled towers of lower Manhattan, rising suddenly to the clouds like a magic castle girded by water? Its very touch of jumbled jaggedness, its towering-sided canyons, are its magnificence. What vandalism it would represent (what vandalism the present project plans represent!) to dilute this magnificent city presence with the humdrum and the regimented.
Such regimental humdrummery was preferred by men like Rockefeller and master builder Robert Moses, who seemed intent on reshaping the city in their own images—big and brutal. It was an era of tearing up, plowing through and building over. In the name of "urban renewal," neighborhoods were sliced up or destroyed for projects like the BQE, the Cross Bronx Expressway, and Lincoln Center.
The World Trade Center exemplified this approach, and the project, launched at a moment of precipitous economic decline, became so polarizing, so apparently at odds with the city's needs and wants, that it would be New York's final superdevelopment of the 20th century.
The heart of the project, the Twin Towers, was designed by the architect Minoru Yamasaki, who is second-most-famous for the Pruitt-Igoe housing project in St. Louis. (That development became the symbol of the failure of urban renewal when it was blown up on live television.)
From an engineering perspective, the towers were revolutionary. The buildings' structural skin made interior columns unnecessary; its "sky lobby" system slashed the number of elevator shafts required; and newfangled shock absorbers prevented the towers from swaying too much for human comfort.
The scale was similarly impressive. Construction required 200,000 tons of steel and 2.2 million square feet of aluminum sheeting. There were 43,600 windows and almost as many doorknobs. More than six thousand sensors reported data on temperature and pressure to a supercomputer that could regulate them remotely. The Trade Center even had its own zip code.
From start to finish, the entire project took about seven years. The first tenants moved into the north tower in December 1970. The south tower had its first tenants by the following September, and the smaller surrounding buildings, Nos. 5 and 6 World Trade Center, were finished in time for the official dedication ceremony on April 4th, 1973—at a cost of $700 million, twice the estimate offered back in 1964.
The timing of the thing, as Alice Sparberg Alexiou notes in Jane Jacobs: Urban Visionary, "couldn't have been worse." There was still plenty of vacant office space in New York and a weak U.S. economy—the country was just months away from officially entering a recession—weighed upon the city's real estate market. Despite all the bold claims about creating a hub of international finance and trade, firms weren't exactly lining up to get into the Trade Center.
Looking northeast from the base of the Twin Towers, circa 1977. Edmund Vincent Gillon (1929-2008). Museum of the City of New York, 2013.3.2.12.
And in fact, by 1979, almost a decade after its first tenants moved in, there was still more than a million square feet of unoccupied office space at the complex.
That's on top of the huge chunk of the Twin Towers that had no private tenants. From the beginning, the buildings were stacked with public agencies: the Port Authority, U.S. Customs, and numerous departments of New York State. Together, these public agencies were leasing a third of all square footage at the World Trade Center.
Landlords without tenants generally lose money, which the Port Authority did in buckets—tens of millions of dollars over the next decade.
Still, for the average New Yorker, the economic folly of the project faded from consciousness as the years went on. It might have been a symbol of profligacy, but for most people, the Trade Center was just an eyesore.
A New York Times reporter, profiling a long-time employee of the Empire State Building's Observation Deck in 1985, wrote that he "seems to regard the World Trade Center as little better than the box the Empire State Building came in."
Professional critics were also not impressed. "These incredible giants just stand there, artless and dumb, without any relationship to anything, not even to each other," Wolf Von Eckardt wrote in Harper's in 1966. He referred to the towers as a "fearful instrument of urbicide."
"The buildings only succeeded as abstract objects," Paul Goldberger opines in the Ric Burns documentary Center of the World. "But it is not out of abstract geometric forms that you make a city." The Center's plaza, the size of four football fields, was infamously barren, windswept, and unwelcoming.
Inside was also disappointing. The Towers had slits for most of its windows, each about the width of a shoulder span, reportedly because Yamasaki was acrophobic. "No amount of head‐dodging from column to column can put that fragmented view together," the erstwhile Twin Towers apologist and NYT critic Ada Louise Huxtable wrote after visiting the Towers.
Of all the epithets hurled at the Twin Towers, the most frequently repeated was "arrogant." To Von Eckardt, they were "arrogant twins." To Village Voice writer Sally Helgesen (who actually liked them) they had an "arrogant beauty."
The architect Hugh Hardy, speaking to Salon's Eric Boehlert just a week after 9/11, said the towers had been "arrogant in their placement," complaining that they "gave no recognition to the skyline around them."
For many New Yorkers the towers didn't just dominate the skyline; they were the skyline, which was part of why their absence was felt so viscerally.
In a sense, the Towers were a great unifying force for New Yorkers—they brought all, high and low, rich and poor, together to hate. They were hated by Jacobs and Lewis Mumford, by architects, by Art Deco aficionados, by Homer Simpson, and by people on the street who could hardly walk past without getting blown away by the winds that whipped around them.
Manhattan skyline, 1997. (Al Bello/Allsport/Getty Images)
"I only wish I had a dollar for every New Yorker who has ever wished those buildings would disappear," the late City College professor Marshall Berman writes in the essay "When Bad Buildings Happen to Good People," part of the 2002 anthology After the World Trade Center.
"In its form, the WTC was brutal," Berman adds; "in its functioning, it was a drag."
Henry Stewart is deputy editor at Opera News. He was previously the culture editor of The L Magazine, and his writing has appeared in Literary Hub, BKLYNR, and Hey Ridge.