'Who's Afraid of the Big, Bad Buildings?': How New Yorkers Tried to Stop the World Trade Center

By in New York

New York's World Trade Center has been sorely missed since the 9/11 attacks. It's easy to forget, however, that many New Yorkers, such as the small business owners of Manhattan's Radio Row,campaigned against its construction in the 1960s -- to no avail.

Photo Gallery: Protests against the World Trade Center Construction Photos
Corbis

The procession slowly wound its way through the streets of lower Manhattan. A dozen protesters followed an open black coffin with a man with his eyes closed lying inside it. "Here lies Mr. Small Businessman," read a cardboard sign. "Don't let the Port Authority bury him."

They set the coffin down on Greenwich Street in front of Oscar's Radio, an electronics store, and the man climbed out. "This project is to benefit banks, insurance companies, people dealing in international trade," he shouted into his megaphone. "Why should the Port Authority put us out of business for something like that?"

It was Friday the 13th, of all days, a swelteringly hot July day in 1962. The man in the coffin was Oscar Nadel, the owner of Oscar's Radio and the president of the Downtown West Businessmen's Association, an organization representing local small business owners. The project he was protesting against was at the time the largest planned construction project in the history of the United States: the World Trade Center.

At the time, the designs for the massive construction project weren't clear yet. What was known, however, was that all of "Radio Row," a historical business quarter at the southern tip of Manhattan, would have to be completely demolished in order to make space for the center.

The Wrecking Ball Arrives

A total of 325 businesses were affected by the demolition -- electronic, housewares, jewellery and junk stores. It also represented the loss of a small bit of history: It was the area where the first tube radios had been sold. The state-owned Port Authority (PA) offered each business a settlement of $3,000, which would be worth about $21,000 today. But many business owners resisted the offers and challenged the project in court.

They didn't stand a chance. On March 26, 1966, the wrecking ball arrived.

In the nostalgic romanticizing of the World Trade Center 10 years after the 9/11 attacks, it is easy to overlook the fact that the very construction of the building had been contested and unpopular even before the groundbreaking. Decades in the planning, often met with hostility, oft abandoned and oft revived, it experienced one of the most turbulent development stories in the history of urban planning. It was an adventurous tug-of-war between political, financial and private interests.

The idea for the World Trade Center goes all the way back to World War II. In 1942, a man by the name of Austin Tobin became director of the New York Port Authority (PA). Tobin was a short, hard-working lawyer who had worked his way to the top of a municipal agency that, at the time, was still modest in size. He would ultimately lead the Port Authority for 30 years. In that time, he transformed the Port Authority into a profit-oriented company that became an important part of the face of New York.

Tobin ordered the expansion of the Lincoln Tunnel and the George Washington Bridge as well as the construction of the John F. Kennedy Airport. But the project closest to his heart was the "World Trade Center," a Rockefeller Center-like complex aimed at attracting global companies. In 1946, the New York state assembly gave its approval for the construction of a World Trade Center.

Austrian-born architect John Eberson drafted the first plans. Eberson had made a name for himself with his Art Deco movie palaces, including the legendary Loew's Paradise Theater in New York. His plan for the WTC envisioned a complex comprised of almost two dozen buildings to be constructed at a cost of around $150 million. But the vision was only shortlived, with the state government putting those plans on ice in 1949.

Billionaire David Rockefeller pulled the project out of obscurity in the mid-1950s. The banker, whose father had built the Rockefeller Center, teamed up with friends of his in the financial industry, together with PA boss Tobin and Robert Moses, New York's top city planner, to transform downtown New York into a new global business center.

For his plans, Rockefeller eyed a 53,000-square-meter area on the southern port docks along the East River, just a few hundred meters to the west of the later site of the WTC. He commissioned Skidmore, Owings and Merrill (SOM), a major architectural firm, to draft the plans. Coincidentally, the same firm is now building "One World Trade Center" at Ground Zero.

'Catalytic Bigness'

The mega-design, which he presented in 1960, was an example of what Rockefeller called "catalytic bigness." The design foresaw a box-shaped skyscraper of up to 70 floors in the style of the United Nations headquarters. It would have an exhibition hall, stores, restaurants and theaters. He also envisioned the New York Stock Exchange moving to the shore from Wall Street. The PA formally backed the $335 million project in March 1961.

But the project got stuck again. The Port Authority was jointly controlled by the state governments of New York and New Jersey. This time it was New Jersey Governor Robert Meyner who objected, because the WTC was going to be built on Manhattan's East Side rather than the West Side, where it would be located closer to his state. Meyner was primarily concerned about a commuter rail line, the Hudson and Manhattan Railroad (H&M), which ran under the Hudson River to Manhattan. The H&M went bankrupt in the 1950s and was taken over by the Port Authority. A mega project like the World Trade Center would make its re-opening profitable, so the thinking went.

Meyner's successor Richard Hughes negotiated a compromise which foresaw the WTC being built on the west side of lower Manhattan. On Jan. 22, 1962, the deal was sealed -- and the H&M brought back into operation. The radio vendor Oscar Nadel heard about it during a vacation in Florida.

The PA commissioned the Japanese-American architect Minoru Yamasaki to come up with the new design. He devised two twin towers which would be 80 to 90 floors high. The PA insisted on having 10,000,000 square feet (930,000 square meters) of office space, however. Yamasaki tried out over 100 different versions in an attempt to accommodate such a huge area before he settled on twin towers, each 110 floors high, located on a plaza and surrounded by several smaller buildings. The idea of making the towers the tallest in the world came from the Port Authority's marketing department.

A Daring Structure

The timing was perfect, coming at a time when America's blind faith in technology and its delusions of grandeur had reached its zenith.

Nevertheless, 110 stories were regarded as daring from a structural point of view. Yamasaki's engineers came up with new, innovative structural designs. The buildings' weather resistance was tested with models in three wind tunnels in the United States, Canada and Britain.

On Jan. 18, 1964, Yamasaki's design was unveiled to the public. David Rockefeller's brother Nelson, the then-governor of New York, led the ceremony at the Hilton, which had an 8-foot-high model of the towers as its centerpiece. The PA praised the World Trade Center as a place that would bring together governmental and private activities in the import-export field. Meanwhile, 50 demonstrators were protesting in front of the Hilton, headed by Oscar Nadel.

There was heavy criticism of the project in other areas too, such as from the real estate business. The construction mogul Lawrence Wien organized a campaign against the World Trade Center, claiming it was too large and would destroy the market for commercial real estate in New York. Wien also had another motivation: At the time, he owned the Empire State Building, which would lose its status as the world's tallest building.

Others were concerned about safety issues, in the event of an explosion or a plane crashing into the complex. The World Trade Center's chief structural engineer, Leslie Robertson, had factored in a plane crash, however. For his calculations, he used a Boeing 707, the most popular jetliner at the time. Robertson's conclusion was that if a plane got lost in the fog and crashed into the towers, it would only cause limited damage in terms of property and lives.

That failed to silence the critics, however. "Who's afraid of the big, bad buildings?" asked Ada Louise Huxtable, the New York Times' architecture critic, and gave the answer herself: "Everyone." She argued that many aspects of such a huge building project could not be calculated in advance. The urban historian Lewis Mumford called the towers "just glass-and-metal filing cabinets."

The criticism had little effect. The foundation stone for the World Trade Center was laid on Aug. 5, 1966 -- near the place where Oscar's Radio Shop had previously stood.

This story originally appeared in German on SPIEGEL ONLINE's history portal, einestages.de.

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