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 …

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