The Story Behind the Towers


On an early spring day in 1961, David Rockefeller, a grandson of John D., the president of the Chase Manhattan Bank, and the founder of a potent organization called the Downtown– Lower Manhattan Association, attended a meeting for which he, over the previous three years, had laid considerable groundwork. His brother Nelson, who fancied the presidency not of the family bank but of the country, and to that end had been elected governor of New York in 1958, was there; also Robert B. Meyner, the Democratic governor of New Jersey. But neither the world’s most important bank president nor the two powerful governors led the discussion. That favor fell to Austin Tobin, the executive director of the Port of New York Authority—publicly less well known than David Rockefeller or the governors, but within his sphere a towering figure.

The Port Authority, the bi-state, quasi-public agency created in 1921 to assess the region’s transportation needs in a way that would transcend interstate quarreling, was an elite organization, in both the bad and the less frequently invoked good sense of the term, with its battalions of dedicated, expert engineers and designers and planners. Among those professionals, Tobin was revered as a virtual god, a conviction that was inculcated in the agency’s staff. Each morning, when Tobin’s limousine pulled up to the authority’s offices at 111 Eighth Avenue on the west side of Manhattan, news of his arrival was radioed ahead to the building’s elevator operators, who quickly donned white gloves for the purpose of pressing the button that would deliver Tobin up to his suite of offices.

Tobin convened this meeting to unveil a project that had been on the drawing board since the late 1940s, and that only now was edging toward reality under the name World Trade Center. Its intention was to house under one roof the various businesses—shippers, importers, exporters—that worked in international commerce and that were, at that point, scattered in various lower Manhattan locations. Tobin was not, that day, showing off the twin 110-story towers that we came to know. This version was the product of Gordon Bunshaft, probably New York’s most exalted midcentury architect. For this trade center, which at the time was located not on the Hudson but along the East River, Bunshaft and his associates at Skidmore, Owings and Merrill devised a diverse and comparatively humble complex consisting of a central building of over seventy stories, a smaller securities exchange, a world trade “mart” of shops and exhibition space, and parking. The next day’s papers, reviewing the proposal, could scarcely contain themselves. The New York Herald Tribune recommended that citizens should “pull out all the adjectival stops at once and cheer.” The Newark Evening News was usually more suspicious of Port Authority projects in which the benefit to New Jersey was anything less than self-evident, but it, too, was supine before the glamour of such a mighty trio as Rockefeller, Tobin, and Bunshaft, praising the plan as “big, imaginative, and architecturally and financially glamorous.”1

But if the Evening News was willing to fall into line, Meyner was not. As New Jersey’s governor, he was ever-alert to the prospect of the authority ramming a New York–centric project down his state’s throat. At the same time, opponents on both sides of the Hudson were raising questions about the plan and organizing coalitions and lawsuits to stop it. This gave Meyner some leverage to back up his skepticism. He took one look at the unveiled project, shrugged his shoulders, turned to Nelson, and asked, “What’s in it for me?” A difficult silence, Eric Darton reports in Divided We Stand,2 ensued.

That is the most basic question of political compromise, and in the case of the World Trade Center, it was exactly the right one. Many people and factions might have raised it about the project—commuters from Meyner’s home state, who depended on a rail line that had just filed for bankruptcy and that some in New Jersey felt the Port Authority should save; longshoremen and stevedores who worked on the then-disappearing Brooklyn docks; retail merchants whom the trade center would displace; public transportation advocates; almost everyone, that is, save David Rockefeller and investors who were concerned, among other things, with increasing the value of commercial real estate in lower Manhattan. In fact they all did ask what was in it for them, but one by one they were bought off or ignored, and the trade center project proceeded, as projects with the backing of the Rockefellers and The New York Times ordinarily do. In time the project grew, at the behest of Tobin and his staff, from Bunshaft’s relatively modest design to Minoru Yamasaki’s profoundly immodest one. The World Trade Center, all ten million square feet (the Pentagon is around six million) and sixteen acres of it, certainly broke dazzling new engineering ground, and just as certainly became an indelible and immediate symbol of the city.

But to say that the towers were a symbol that New Yorkers were particularly proud of would be to stretch the point. As is well known, the World Trade Center was unloved by architecture critics and by New Yorkers in general. But there were other problems with the towers as well, problems involving the economic life of the city and the region, which carried far greater consequences than did the buildings’ design. To many New Yorkers, they symbolized a New York that had become a real estate town, letting key sources of its past economic diversity—its once vibrant port, its small manufacturing concerns; by extension, that is to say, much of its working class—dwindle away. A New York, also, that had turned away from the development of its vast and once enviable public infrastructure of bridges, tunnels, and subways and toward using public money to build private space.

Now, of course, the towers are gone, under circumstances more horrific than any of us could have imagined. But it does not dishonor the three thousand who perished there, or the Port Authority itself, which lost seventy-five people in the attack, to argue that they should not have been built in the first place, and that the current circumstance, tragic as it is, affords New York’s leaders a chance to think hard about the city’s needs for the next century and devise solutions that do not include turning a transportation agency into one of the world’s biggest landlords.

Any thoughtful examination of the city’s future needs must begin with a proper understanding of its past. That past—how New York grew as a great commercial city, how its leaders strove through much of the twentieth century to make wise public investment decisions that ensured the city’s economic dominance, and how they later made very bad ones that helped hasten its demise—is as pertinent as ever as the city plans for a future without the trade towers, and its lessons for the current generation of New York’s rulers could hardly be clearer.


Before New York was the center of America’s intellectual and cultural life, it was the focus of its commercial life. Chiefly, it was a port—the greatest natural port anywhere on the eastern seaboard. The narrows separating Brooklyn and Staten Island guide a ship into the deep and easily navigable harbor as effortlessly as a well-graded access ramp guides a car onto a highway. By 1797, New York overtook Philadelphia as the country’s leading port. That supremacy was confirmed in 1825, with the opening of the Erie Canal. Running from Albany to Buffalo, the canal, conceived by Governor De Witt Clinton, provided the first direct and easy waterborne route from New York to Chicago and other points west. The city’s commercial position flourished, and its population exploded. New York became the nation’s most important city, almost entirely because of its port. The railroads, when they came, made the canal less important, but by that time New York’s preeminence was secure.

But there was a problem, which by the early twentieth century—by then, almost half the nation’s international trade was passing through the port of New York—urgently demanded a solution. Imports arriving in New York’s harbor whose eventual destinations were scattered throughout the United States were delivered to docks in Brooklyn or Manhattan. Exports from throughout America intended for shipment to Europe and elsewhere were brought chiefly by rail to New Jersey, just over the water from New York. But there the seamless transportation chain was broken. Goods could travel efficiently for hundreds or thousands of miles to New York or New Jersey, but no one had thought of an efficient way to move them between the two, across what was by comparison a mere puddle of a few hundred yards. It was as if there were a bridge built with an eighteen-inch gap in the middle; 99 percent finished but of no practical use.

Private companies sprang up to haul merchandise back and forth between the two states on lighters, or large barges. The process was cumbersome and costly: by the time goods were registered, papers processed, and lighterage fees paid, the resulting delays could be unbearable. It was not unusual, Jameson W. Doig notes in Empire on the Hudson, for traffic on the nation’s freight rails headed for New York to be backed up into central Pennsylvania.

New Jersey officials sought to turn this problem to their advantage by encouraging manufacturers of exports to ship overseas from their piers, in Jersey City. But exporters favored New York, partly because the railroads used a complex and antiquated fee system by which they charged exporters the same price whether they shipped from New York or New Jersey. This had the effect of making New York, where the piers were superior, the preferred destination. In 1916, New Jersey filed a formal complaint with the Interstate Commerce Commission charging that the fee system amounted to “rate discrimination.” It was the latest in a long line of interstate battles over the waterfront, which began a hundred years before with a tussle over whether New Jersey could introduce competition to Robert Fulton’s New York–licensed steamboat, and at one point, in 1825, culminated in state police detachments of the two states exchanging gunfire across the harbor.

New York leaders feared that an unfavorable decision by the ICC would result in much port activity shifting to New Jersey. But rather than arguing their case on narrow specifics, they gambled on seeking a longer-term solution that might make both sides happy. Taking the lead in this stratagem were two officers of the Chamber of Commerce of New York State, Julius Henry Cohen and Eugenius Outerbridge. Both men, Cohen in particular, were steeped in the anti-Tammany reform movement, and the arguments Cohen delivered to the ICC, while seeking to protect the city’s interests, also made an appeal to the progressive high-mindedness of the day: “Let all hands…cooperate in the solution of this great problem. Its final engineering solution will require the constructive mind of a great engineer….”[3 ]When, in 1917, the ICC handed down its decision in what came to be called the New York Harbor case, it had taken Cohen’s bait. The commissioners refused New Jersey’s request that freight rates be lowered, but they warned that they would reopen the case if the two states did not soon cooperate on a way to solve the problem—to fill in the last eighteen inches of that bridge. As everyone involved knew, there was only one way to do it: build a cross-harbor rail freight tunnel, possibly from New Jersey to Manhattan, but, because Manhattan was already in 1917 so cluttered, preferably to Brooklyn.

The Port of New York Authority came into being precisely to be the agency that would build that tunnel. They were new things in America, these “authorities” (the word came from Britain, where it dated to Queen Elizabeth I’s time), premised on the consanguine notions that, first, there existed a public need for certain construction projects that private enterprise would be loathe to undertake, and, second, that the planning and execution of such projects had to be insulated from both interstate conflict and the vulgar give-and-take of clubhouse politics. An authority would have a staff of professional experts, culled from the then-emerging specialized graduate schools in fields such as urban planning, and these experts, rather than factotums of the political machines, would devise disinterested proposals. It would also have a board of trustees to set policy. In theory at least, staffers and appointees to these coveted posts would take their public trust seriously, and act, in that reformist, Wilsonian way, in the public interest.

It was in this spirit that on April 30, 1921, the Port Authority came into being. It was granted dominion over a newly created “Port District” comprising all or parts of seventeen counties, including the entirety of New York City. It was given the power to issue bonds to acquire or construct the projects it deemed necessary to its mission. The legislation creating it, passed by both states’ legislatures, instructed that the authority’s first priority should be to prepare a comprehensive solution to the rail freight problem—that is, a cross-harbor rail freight tunnel. And, in good progressive fashion, the authority set about doing exactly that. Within seven months, its planners had proposed a comprehensive rail system for the region whose main feature would be an underwater tunnel across the harbor from Bayonne, New Jersey, to Sunset Park, Brooklyn. It would be financed by a bond issue and paid for through fees the authority would charge its users. There were piers right there in Brooklyn for sending goods overseas, and existing rail track that could carry merchandise to Long Island and to points north. The metaphorical bridge would be complete.

Eighty-one years later, the tunnel still doesn’t exist. To make a very long story very short, three things happened. First, the proposal inevitably got entangled in politics. New York City’s mayor at the time the proposal was laid down, John Hylan, was a Tammany man with little interest in a public weal that had no room for a pinch of honest graft for contractors and others who were supporters of his. He proposed a competing plan that won enough backing to keep the authority from being able to act on its proposal for several months. Second, the railroads were having none of it. They had established their own rail systems, on which they made handsome fees, and their interest in sharing a tunnel whose usage tariffs would go to a government agency was scant indeed. Cohen had foreseen this problem and had sought language in the legislation creating the authority that would give it the power to force the railroads to cooperate, but the railroads, with powerful lobbies, had won that fight. While the proposal’s momentum was thus delayed, the newspapers and civic leaders on both sides of the Hudson began clamoring for the Port Authority to turn its attention to another growing transportation problem, which is the third reason the tunnel was never built. It was the 1920s. It was the age of the car.

The Holland Tunnel had opened in 1927 (built by an independent commission and ceded to the authority in 1930), but it became congested immediately. Progress on further crossings was delayed by disputes over whether a bridge should go here or there—in 1920, the great bridge engineer Gustav Lindenthal had proposed a mammoth bridge from Weehawken to 57th Street, with sixteen lanes for cars and twelve rail tracks and vaulted towers that would have risen to the barely conceivable height of 825 feet, about the same as a seventy-five-story building (by comparison, the Brooklyn Bridge’s towers are 271 feet high). Mid-Manhattan business interests, skittish about the certain traffic congestion, opposed the plan, and the authority rejected it.

Lindenthal’s protégé, Othmar Ammann, had more success. As the Port Authority’s chief bridge engineer in its early years, Ammann oversaw the opening of four spans in quick succession. First came the Outerbridge Crossing and the Goethals Bridge. Both were opened in June 1928 and linked New Jersey to Staten Island over the narrow “kills,” a Dutch word for a kind of channel, that separate the two. The Manhattan newspapers were piqued that the authority’s first two projects should have done nothing to address directly the problem faced by commuters coming into Manhattan; the reason is that condemning the land required for the approaches on both sides was a far less complicated task than trying to do the same in Manhattan. To prove the point, a third New Jersey–Staten Island connection, the Bayonne Bridge, was completed in November 1931.

But by then no one was complaining, because the authority had quieted critics the month before with the completion of a project it had conceived of four years prior. On October 25, Ammann’s glorious George Washington Bridge opened to traffic. The finest testimonial, I believe, is Le Corbusier’s: “Here, finally, steel architecture seems to laugh.”4 But it is hard to imagine what words could have fully captured the awe with which 1930s eyes must have looked upon this muscular jewel of naked, geometric steel. Indeed, its stark beauty took even some of its planners by surprise—the Port Authority had enlisted Cass Gilbert, he of the Woolworth Building and the United States Supreme Court house, to come up with a design for encasing the steel frame in concrete and granite, but when people saw the frame, they liked it just the way it was, and Gilbert’s skin was left on the drawing board.5 On top of all that, it was brought in below budget. The Port Authority could still be accused of failing in its central mission. But what a way to fail this was!


Now came the Depression. The bond market was shaky, but the Roosevelt administration backed bonds to start work on the Lincoln Tunnel, whose first tube opened in 1937. In fact, Franklin Roosevelt, as governor of New York, had praised the authority as “a model for government agencies throughout the land”6 and had used it as a partial prototype for the Tennessee Valley Authority and other New Deal agencies. Roosevelt’s admiration did not, however, prevent him from trying, as president, to augment the federal till by imposing a duty on tax-exempt bonds, which the authority depended on to finance its projects. Improbably enough, the authority managed to defeat the administration, largely through the efforts of a thirty-five-year-old staff attorney who took the then-extraordinary initiative of organizing a nationwide co- alition of local municipalities and authorities to beat back the scheme. Thus did Austin Tobin announce himself to the world.

New Yorkers are better acquainted, through Robert Caro’s efforts, with Robert Moses. But Tobin left nearly as permanent a mark on their lives. He took over the leadership of the Port Authority in 1942 at age thirty-nine and immediately set about bringing the agency up to date. He modernized Newark Airport. He took over operation of LaGuardia Airport, which the city had built in 1939. He even defeated Moses in one of their early direct confrontations, wresting control of Idlewild (now Kennedy) Airport; then, Idlewild was little more than some runways and a few spartan hangars where passengers would have been lucky to find a newspaper or pack of cigarettes. But Tobin directed that all international air traffic should operate out of Idlewild and envisioned that it would one day be a far more important facility than LaGuardia.7

Empire on the Hudson, by Jameson W. Doig, a professor of politics and public affairs at Princeton University, comes most to life when it is chronicling the great era of Tobin’s accomplishments. Doig’s style is academic and his prose dry—he hides some fascinating information and revealing quotes in footnotes that run to nearly 150 pages. Still, Doig’s precision and thoroughness are valuable. His passion for the role of public building in urban life, and its often overlooked importance as a manifestation of liberalism’s achievements, is evident. He is good, too, if perhaps a little too generous to the authority, on the central tension that inhered in the authority’s nature, namely: its ethos of disinterested professionalism had a good side, enabling the agency (though not in the case of the freight tunnel) to rise above the kind of parochial squabbling that habitually kills large public projects. But it had a bad side, too, which was that such insulation permitted the authority to become arrogant and unaccountable to anyone.

Doig’s narrative ends in 1950, excepting a quick survey of the intervening years in an epilogue. This is a pity, because I would like to have read his detailed account of what happened in those years (he writes with a detachment that gives him an authority over the subject matter). By the time Doig’s story ends, most of the authority’s great public infrastructure projects had been built. It was a respected, and, thanks to its toll collections and the rents it collected at airports, a very rich agency, moving its chess pieces around—most notably, moving the ports out of the city to Newark and Elizabeth—but not undertaking prodigious new projects for public benefit. It was, in some sense, a bored agency, guarding its surpluses—$64 million by 1958—and its top-flight bond rating, but looking around for something big, and lucrative, to spend its money on.

New York City’s fiscal crisis of the 1970s was nearly twenty years away. Conventional wisdom holds that the crisis was chiefly the result of excessive social-welfare spending, and that is partly true. But other priorities that would contribute to the crisis—heavy borrowing to finance a large construction boom, deemphasizing the city’s industrial job base—were already being bruited, if quietly at that point, among the men who had the power to decide what the city’s future would hold. In that future there was to be little room anymore for port commerce, or industrial activity, or manufacturing—in November 1959, there were 991,000 manufacturing jobs in the city; by the time of the fiscal crisis, that number was 553,000; today it’s under 300,000.

Most people are under the impression that this happened because of, in one common phrase, “inevitable market forces,” among them lower manufacturing costs in the Southern states and abroad. Those forces played an undeniable role in the diminution of New York’s blue-collar job base. But to a considerable extent, the city’s manufacturing decline was planned by people who believed that the city’s future would be bound up in finance, insurance, and real estate. That future would depend on erecting more office space—on expanding the midtown central business district, and creating new ones elsewhere. And that, in turn, would depend on corporate leaders being able to sell politicians on the idea that chasing blue-collar enterprise out of the city and constructing commercial real estate was vital to the city’s survival; that such an emphasis was, in itself, a new public good; that these offices were the post-industrial city’s equivalent of a new international airplane terminal, or Othmar Ammann’s bridges; and that government, to be blunt, should foot the bill. And it was in this spirit that David Rockefeller came knocking on Austin Tobin’s door.

—This is the first of two articles.

  1. 1

    See Angus Kress Gillespie, Twin Towers: The Life of New York City’s World Trade Center (Rutgers University Press, 1999), p. 35.

  2. 2

    Divided We Stand: A Biography of New York’s World Trade Center (Basic Books, 1999); to be discussed in a forthcoming article, along with Angus Kress Gillespie’s Twin Towers.

  3. 4

    See Paul Goldberger, The City Observed: A Guide to the Architecture of Manhattan (Vintage, 1979), p. 325.

  4. 5

    Goldberger writes that Gilbert’s encasement was rejected “for reasons of economy” (The City Observed, p. 325); Angus Kress Gillespie tells the above story (Twin Towers, p. 29), which I have also read in various other forums. Whatever the case, they made the right decision.

  5. 6

    See Doig, Empire on the Hudson, p. 2. FDR spoke the words at the dedication of the George Washington Bridge.

  6. 7

    Caro, in The Power Broker: Robert Moses and the Fall of New York (Knopf, 1974), largely concurs with Doig’s account of the Idlewild fight (pp. 766–767). He also notes, however, that afterward, “every ensuing confrontation” between the Port Authority and Moses’s Triborough Bridge and Tunnel Authority “had resulted in a Moses victory” (p. 921); in that passage, he goes on to describe the way the two agencies worked in concert on the build- ing up of the interstate highway system within the city. A crucial link in that chain was the TBTA’s 1964 Verrazano-Narrows Bridge, joining Staten Island and Brooklyn, which the Port Authority helped back because the resulting higher traffic volume increased toll collections on the authority’s three New Jersey–Staten Island crossings by $5.5 million a year (p. 926).