Folklorist Angus Gillespie examines the development and daily life of the World Trade Center in New York. He covers how the engineers solved complex problems, and the contrast between the architectural community's disdain and the public acceptance of the towers as a symbol of New York.
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Interview with Angus Kress Gillespie
Author of Twin Towers: The Life of New York City's World Trade Center
Question: What made you decide to write a book about the Twin Towers?
Answer: I was inspired by Alan Trachtenberg's Brooklyn Bridge: Fact and Symbol. Trachtenberg explored the Brooklyn Bridge, completed in 1883, as a cultural symbol of America. Just as the Brooklyn Bridge tells us about America of the 1880s, so the Twin Towers can tell us about the America of the 1970s. Indeed, while I wrote this book, I kept about my desk a photograph by Ralf Uicker of the Brooklyn Bridge in the foreground with the World Trade Center in the background.
Question: In the book you wrote, "I approached the Twin Towers not just as an artifact, but as a living social institution." Can you elaborate on this unique approach?
Answer: Well, the visitor tends to see the Twin Towers as a monument, as the tallest buildings in New York City. So the visitor tends to make a brief trip to the Observation Deck, to check it off his list, and move on to the next attraction. But, for the 35,000 tenants who work there daily, this is their home away from home. It's not just an office building. It's an entire complex with shops, restaurants, and bars. This is a place where office workers can meet their co-workers and their friends to share the joys and sorrows of everyday life. It's a place for something as mundane as a TGIF party or as significant as a retirement party.
Question: You also write, "But what do the Twin Towers mean? . . . The Twin Towers may be taken to symbolize American exceptionalism, or American capitalism, or even America itself." Why do you feel this is so? What do the Twin Towers mean?
Answer: Knowing that the Twin Towers were built with pride by the Port Authority, we can say the complex is a symbol of New York harbor, where ships come and go, where goods are bought and sold. But it's more than that. It's a testimony to the economic power of American capitalism. So, when in 1993 the center was bombed, it was a moment of epiphany for me. I realized that the terrorists and I were on the same wavelength. We both saw the World Trade Center as an important symbol of the United States.
Question: Why was the World Trade Center built by the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey. How is it that this agency, traditionally known for building bridges and tunnels, ended up with the project?
Answer: In the post-World War II period, New York City enjoyed peace and prosperity. The city grew tremendously, but most of the growth was in midtown. In the 1950s, civic leaders were concerned about the decline of development in lower Manhattan. Particularly concerned was David Rockefeller, president of Chase Manhattan Bank, who has just built a 60-story headquarters for his bank as a stimulus for the area. It was not enough, so Rockefeller and other captains of finance decided to come up with a new plan. One element of the plan called for the construction of a World Trade Center. Rockefeller managed to interest his brother Nelson, the governor of New York, and Mayor Robert F. Wagner, as well as New Jersey Governor Robert Meyner. All agreed that the Port Authority should study the plans for a World Trade Center in an effort to revitalized downtown Manhattan.
It was obvious to these key figures that the Port Authority should be the leading agency for the project. In the first place, only the Port Authority had the ability to raise the enormous sums of money required. In addition, the agency had the power legally to appropriate land for public use under the right of eminent domain. Finally, the agency had a world-class engineering staff with the expertise to oversee such a large and complex project.
Question: Why was the World Trade Center built in New York rather than New Jersey?
Answer: The original plan called for the World Trade Center to be built in New York City, so there never was a chance for the project to be built in New Jersey. Of course, since the Port Authority was a bi-state operation, the agency had to come up with something to placate New Jersey. The most pressing transportation need n New Jersey was to do something about the state's declining commuter rail system. So the Port Authority reluctantly agreed to take over the bankrupt Hudson and Manhattan Railroad, which was aptly given a new name, PATH (Port Authority Trans-Hudson). In a classical political deal, both sides won: New York got the Twin Towers and New Jersey got the PATH.
Question: The conception and construction of the World Trade Center and Twin Towers was fraught with controversy. What were some of the major controversies and what made this construction so contentious?
Answer: The biggest controversy was over the size of the proposed Twin Towers when the plan was first unveiled in 1964. The major opponents were citywide real estate operators. They called upon the Port Authority to scale down its plans. They said that they proposed World Trade Center would be four times as large as necessary and would undermine the entire market for Manhattan office space. The opponents were led by Lawrence A. Wein, who controlled the Empire State Building. He put together a Committee for a Reasonable World Trade Center. Wein appointed Robert Kopple, a 53-year-old lawyer known to be fond of a good legal fight, to head up the committee. Kopple promised, "We are ready to go to court to try to get this bloated project - these "Tobin Towers" - brought down to size.
Question: What's your favorite story that didn't make it into the book?
Answer: With great reluctance, I gave cursory attention to the U.S. Customs Service, which has its regional headquarters in Six World Trade Center. There are dozens of intriguing stories about how that agency foils smugglers who seek to avoid the payment of import duties. Similarly, I had to leave out any discussion of the Commodities Exchange located in Four World Trade Center, where fortunes are won and lost everyday.
Question: What was the most interesting or surprising thing you learned through your research?
Answer: I was quite surprised to learn that the Port Authority, as landlord of the World Trade Center, saw itself not just as great builder but also as an important patron of the arts. Though the agency has been criticized for assuming this role, I happen to think that it is a good thing for government to support the arts. Sculptures and tapestries are found in the public areas of the World Trade Center. These include works by famous artists such as Alexander Calder, Joan Miro, Louise Nevelson, Fritz Koenig, James Rosati, and Masayuki Nagare.
Question: You predict that the Twin Towers will always be the tallest buildings in New York City. Why?
Answer: In the first place, local neighborhoods have been empowered to block projects they do not want. In the second place, environmentalists can and do raise valid objections to large-scale projects. But the most important factor of all is that the culture has changed. Huge skyscrapers have fallen out of fashion. Today, they are seen as symbols of monumental ego, corporate extravagance, and terrible waste.
Fast Facts from Twin Towers: The Life of New York City's World Trade Center
by Angus Kress Gillespie
The owner-builder-landlord of the Twin Towers is the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey.
The architect who designed the World Trade Center was Seattle-born Minoru Yamasake, whose design for the project was unveiled in January 1964. He was assisted by Emory Roth & Sons.
The original budget estimate for the World Trade Center was $350 million. This increased first to $550 million, then to $750 million. The project was ultimately finished for just under $1 billion.
One World Trade Center is 110 stories, or 1,368 feet tall Two World Trade Center is 110 stories and 1,362 feet tall.
Excavated material from the construction site was used as landfill, adding 23 acres of the most valuable land in the country to New York City - the present site of Battery Park City and the World Financial Center.
Numerous archaeological relics were unearthed during construction, including anchors, clay pipes, hand-blown drinking glasses, cannon balls, coins (including an almost perfect 1749 British half-penny) and a time capsule buried at the time of the 1884 construction of the Washington market.
During peak periods, as many as 3,600 construction workers worked on the site. Eight men died building the World Trade Center.
The Twin Towers were the tallest buildings in the world until 1974 when the Sears Tower in Chicago surpassed them, with 110 stories at 1,454 feet.
Each Tower has 23 express, 72 "locals," and nine freight elevators. The express elevators have a 10,000-lb. capacity and are capable of carrying 55 people at one time at a climbing speed of 1,600 feet per minute. There are also 49 heavy-duty, high-speed escalators.
At its peak, the cooling system at the World Trade Center uses 100.7 million gallons of water from the Hudson Water each day.
The World Trade Center has six emergency generators that can yield 7.2 megawatts of emergency power - enough for the needs of about 4,000 typical suburban homes, but still only enough to keep bare essentials running, such as stairway lighting fire alarms, communications systems, fire and sprinkler pumps, and one elevator per bank.
The air conditioning system for the Twin Towers provides a total refrigeration capacity of 49,000 tons, enough to serve a city of more than 15,000 homes.
Each of the Twin Towers has its own automatic, unmanned window-washing machines. It takes five days to wash one side of each building. The 107th floor, which has extra-large windows, must be washed by hand.
The World Trade Center hosts 35,000 tenants and 15,00 visitors daily.
The one-millionth visitor to the Twin Towers observation deck visited on October 22, 1976, less than one year after the deck was opened.
The World Trade Center is home to the World Trade Institute; an educational organization set up in 1970 specifically to foster international commerce by holding classes at the Twin Towers complex. The Port Authority ran the Institute from 1970-77, when it was sold to Pace University, which has continued to offer these specialized classes.
At any one time, the World Trade Center is home to about 300 prime leaseholders, yet over the last 25 years there have been some 3,000 different leases. The majority of tenants are involved in maritime industries, commodity brokers, foreign banks, stockbrokers, insurance companies, and domestic banks. During most periods, office space at the World Trade Center is about 85% occupied and 15% unoccupied.
The World Trade Center may be the only high-rise building in the United States with its own police department - 42 officers.
King Kong fell to his death on the northeast plaza of the World Trade Center in the 1976 remake of the 1933 film classic. The Twin Towers replaced the Empire State Building of the original film.
The 1993 terror bombing of the Twin Towers cost $300 million for repairs to the basement and its mechanical systems, and another $225 million to clean smoke damage on each story of both towers.
There is a fountain near the North Tower dedicated to those who lost their lives in the 1993 terror bombing of the Twin Towers - John DiGiovanni, Robert Kirkpatrick, Steven Knapp, William Macko, Wilfredo Mercado, Monica Rodriguez Smith and her unborn child.
Chronology from Twin Towers: The Life of New York City's World Trade Center
by Angus Kress Gillespie March 1966: Demolition began on vacant buildings on the site
August 1966: Site excavation began.
August 1968: Steel construction began
December 1970: First tenant moved into One World Trade Center
December 1972: First tenant moved into Two World Trade Center
March 1972: First tenant moved into Five World Trade Center
April 1973: Dedication of the World Trade Center
January 1974: U.S. Customs Service moved into Six World Trade Center.
August 1974: Philippe Petit walked a tightrope between the Twin Towers
December 1975: World Trade Center Observation Deck opened.
April 1976: Windows on the World restaurant opened.
January 1977: First tenants moved into Four World Trade Center.
May 1977: George Willig walks up the face of the South Tower.
July 1981: Vista International New York Hotel (Three World Trade Center) opened.
February 1993: World Trade Center is bombed by terrorists.
The Twin Towers of the World Trade Center are more than office buildings. They are symbols of America, just as the Eiffel Tower and Big Ben represent their countries. Completed in 1976, these edifices are still the tallest man-made structures in New York City. Adorned with fountains and sculptures, the complex rises like Emerald City from what was once a dilapidated area of half-abandoned stores.
What went on before ground was even broken is a fascinating story in itself. Angus Gillespie recounts the political maneuvering necessary for the co-sponsor, the State of New Jersey, to agree to situate the project across the river in New York. Deftly presenting portraits of the men responsible for mooring the World Trade Center at its present location, he provides ample evidence that the backers were "second to none in self-promotion."
Twin Towers also demonstrates how engineers prepared the site and solved complex problems (wind patterns, elevator placement, ground-water complications) in order to erect the towers, each with 110 stories. And Gillespie discusses the contrast between the architectural community's almost universal disdain for the tower's design and the public's enthusiastic acceptance of the buildings as a symbol of New York.
It is the people who give this complex life, purpose, and vibrancy, folklorist Gillespie points out. Through numerous first-hand interviews conducted with the people who daily work there, Twin Towers portrays the world of bankers, shippers, freight forwarders, and traders. With skill and insight, Gillespie captures what happens during a normal twenty-four hour day in the Twin Towers, starting with early morning food deliveries and ending with the patrols of nighttime security guards.
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