The New York World Trade Center

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Podcast Transcript

Prior to their destruction in 2001, the World Trade Center in New York was a wonder of architecture. It was a collection of seven different buildings which served as a hub of commerce in New York’s financial district. 

The planning for the complex was decades in the making and during its brief history, it was witness to several significant events.

Learn more about the history of New York’s World Trade Center on this episode of Everything Everywhere Daily.

There are a lot of television shows and podcasts about the events of September 11 and the destruction of the World Trade Center. That is an enormous topic that would take a lot of time to dissect, and besides, there are plenty of other outlets that will be focusing on that. 

Instead, I want to put my own spin on things by focusing on what happened beforehand. How these buildings came to be and what made them special. 

If you go back far enough, to before the Dutch first arrived on the island of Manhattan, the spot where the World Trade Center was located was actually near the Hudson River. 

The southern tip of Manhattan used to be much smaller than it is today. All of the areas around the edge of the island today are reclaimed land. 

During the excavations at the site in 2010, they actually found the remains of an 18th-century ship not far from where the towers stood. Analysis of the wood shows it probably came from Philadelphia. 

Beginning in the 1920s, the location where the World Trade Center was located was known as Radio Row. It was a district focused on the sale of radios and electronic equipment that was centered on Courtland Street.

Even though lower Manhattan was the original location of the first settlement on the island, and even though the stock exchange was on Wall Street, by the mid-20th century most of the economic growth on the island was in midtown, closer to where Times Square is located. 

The idea for a world trade center in New York was first floated in 1943, based on a project in New Orleans. 

Here I’ll take a small detour to explain the idea of a world trade center. 

New York is not the only city that has a world trade center. Actually, there are currently 323 world trade centers located in 90 countries around the world. There is a World Trade Centers Association which serves as the organizing body for them. 

The idea of a world trade center is pretty simple. It is usually a single building or collection of buildings where companies and government agencies can operate under one roof that all seek to facilitate international trade. 

Due to the sheer size of the building in New York and its prominence on the skyline, if you generically said “the world trade center” it usually just referred to the one in New York. In most cities, the world trade center is usually just a normal size office building, and not necessarily located in a prominent place. 

Back in New York, the state legislature put their plans for a world trade center on hold in 1949 and then revived them again in 1961. 

The project was organized by the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey. As the port authority is jointly administered by both states, both states had to approve the plan.

New Jersey didn’t go along with it until the port authority agreed to take over the Hudson and Manhattan train station. This new station would allow people from New Jersey to rapidly get to the world trade center via a new transportation system based on the old H&M railway, called the Port Authority Trans-Hudson or PATH. 

In 1965, the port authority began using eminent domain to purchase the buildings on Radio Row, giving each business $3,000 regardless of how successful or established the business was. 

Demolition began in 1966. 

The lead architect of the project was American architect Minoru Yamasaki. 

His original plan had two towers that were 80 stories tall each. However, one of the primary requirements of the port authority was that the facility had to have 10,000,000 square feet of office space. To meet the requirement, Yamasaki changed the design so that each tower would be 110 stories tall. 

Each tower would be taller than any building in the world at the time of construction. 

One of the most innovative aspects of the towers was their elevator system. Rather than building elevator shafts that go up the entire building, he designed the elevators to run like trains. There would be local elevators and express elevators. 

The 44th and 78th floors were designated as “sky lobbies” where people would transfer to get elevators to go to higher floors. 

This system allowed the percent of the building which could be used for office space to go from 62% to 75%. This system is still used today in many super-tall skyscrapers. The elevators were also the fastest in the world at the time of construction. 

The towers themselves were what is called a framed tube design. Basically, each tower was a metal tube with load-bearing columns on the perimeter. There were 59 load-bearing columns on each side for a total of 236. 

This technique, which was new in the 1960s, allowed for very open floor plans. Another consequence is that the building had very narrow windows which were only 18 inches wide. 

I should note, that during the design of the building in the 1960s, the architects actually did consider the possibility of a plane colliding with one of the towers. This had actually occurred back in 1945 when a B-25 bomber hit the Empire State Building in the fog. 

Their scenario was a Boeing 707 lost in the fog trying to land at Newark or JFK airports. 

There was a fair amount of resistance to the design of the towers. Aesthetically, many architects were against the modernist design and claimed it looked like a giant filing cabinet. 

Many of the building owners in Manhattan objected to the government being involved in such an enormous increase of commercial real estate which would depress prices. 

The City of New York also had objections. Believe it or not, because this was a Port Authority project, which was a state agency, the city had no say or control over what was happening. This included not being subject to New York City building codes. 

Construction of the north tower began in August 1968 and construction of the south tower began in January 1969. 

Over 1.2 million cubic yards of fill was removed from the world trade center site. All of that material was used to reclaim land and expand the southwest of Manhattan.

Due to the prefabricated nature of many of the components of the building, especially the aluminum exterior, construction went quickly. Tower 1 topped out on December 23, 1970, and tower 2 topped out on July 19, 1971.

Both buildings were dedicated on April 4, 1973, and by that point, tenants had already been in both buildings for quite some time. The first tenants in tower 1 had moved in even before the building had topped out. 

The world trade center’s distinction of being the tallest building in the world didn’t last very long. It only held the record for two years until the Sears Tower in Chicago surpassed it in 1974.

Over the next 15 years, five more buildings were built in the world trade center complex, the last of which was the 47 story building 7 which was constructed in the mid-1980s.

One of the first noteworthy events to happen at the world trade center occurred on August 7, 1974, when a French tightrope walker named Philippe Petit managed to string a wire between the two towers and walked across. 

He spent six years planning the walk, even before the buildings had been completed.

It was all highly illegal and he called it the “artistic crime of the century”. 

There is a fantastic documentary about it called “Man on Wire” which I highly recommend. The story is interesting enough that I’ll probably dedicate a full episode to it in the future. 

On February 13, 1975, a fire broke out on the 11th floor of the North Tower. It spread to nearby floors and it was primarily paper in filing cabinets which burned, and the fireproofing had protected all of the structural steel. 

On February 26, 1993, a truck filled with 1,500 pounds of explosives was detonated in the underground parking garage of the north tower. The terrorist’s plan was to have one tower fall over onto the other tower like dominos, but that isn’t how skyscrapers fall down.

The design of the tower actually helped in this attack because it mostly blew up inside the hollow cylinder causing little structural damage. 

Today, 20 years after the events of September 11, 2001, the world trade center site is still under development. There is a national memorial on the site of the two towers, and there have been several new buildings constructed. The new World Trade Center 1, informally known as the Freedom Tower, is now the tallest building in the western hemisphere.

World Trade Center 2 is scheduled for completion in 2022 and will be one of the tallest buildings in the United States. There are three other buildings completed as well as a new transportation hub as well as a performing arts center and a Greek Orthodox Church, which replaced one which was destroyed. 

The world trade center site has been a center of commerce in New York City ever since the world trade center was constructed. Despite the events of September 11th, New York has rebuilt and today the world trade center site is once again a major hub of the city.

The Associate Producers of Everything Everywhere Daily are Peter Bennett & Thor Thomsen.

Today’s review comes from listener 372444 over at Apple Podcasts in the United States. They write:

A Daily “Must-Listen”

Gary has an incredible talent for curating interesting topics and providing an amazingly comprehensive overview of the topic in such a short podcast!

At only 10 minutes a day (give or take), it is on my “must listen” list each morning. And he never fails to feed my curious nature by introducing me to a little-known historical event and unique geographical locations… Or to provide a totally new perspective to a mundane piece of school book history.

I have been following Gary as a travel photographer long before he began this podcast (thanks to a mutual friend) and I applaud his ability to refocus his efforts during this past year to bring us such a well-researched and well-constructed podcast. I’m looking forward to his next project of Everything Everywhere Tours!

Thank you listener 372444. That has got to be one of the longest, well-written reviews that I’ve gotten so far. 

Just an update, I’m talking to some companies this week about the tours and I hope to have some updates very soon.

Remember if you leave a review or send in a question, you too can have your review read on the show.