Postcard From The World Trade Center

28th February 1991

Noticeable by a distinctive crown feature atop an impressive fifty stories, the Woolworth Building sits at 233 Broadway in the Lower Manhattan financial district of New York City. Built as the headquarters of F W Woolworths five and ten cents chain stores, it was the tallest building in the world for 27 years following its completion in 1913 boasting a height of 792 feet. One of its many innovations were Otis express elevators which only stopped at certain floors, complemented by ‘local’ elevators stopping at every floor within a certain range.

The Woolworth Building was surpassed by what is now known as the Trump Building (927ft) in 1930. The address is 40 Wall Street. It has had numerous owners including Philippine president Ferdinand Marcos. Donald Trump assumed the lease in 1995. In 1946 a plane crashed into 40 Wall Street killing five crew members. This was the last, and only the second, time an aeroplane had collided with a tall New York building before the terrorist attacks on September 11th 2001.

The Chrysler building became the world’s tallest later in 1930. By the 1970s, the twin towers of the World Trade Centre, at 1368 ft, had humbled all competition.

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South Tower, Woolworth Building, North Tower.

Pictured behind the Woolworth Building, World Trade Center South Tower, or WTC 2, is to the left. To the right, topped by a TV transmitter, is the North Tower, WTC 1. Altogether the complex consisted of seven buildings. WTCs 3 to 6 were low-level structures surrounding 1 and 2. Seven was a 47 story 610 ft skyscraper with a red granite facade, slightly to the north on the other side of Vasey Street.

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View from the sidewalk.

Built by the Port Authority of New York, the area had previously been ‘Radio Row’, a warehouse and commercial district named for the 1920s boom in the sale of radio and electronic equipment. Constructed between 1966 and 1975 and costing $400 million the new development provided nearly 14 million square feet of office space for 70,000 daily commuters. Designed by Minoru Yamasaki of Emery Roth and Sons, the architecture was at first sniffily received, being referred to as the boxes that the Chrysler Building and the Empire State Building came in.

Part of the design was an observation deck on the 107th floor of the South Tower above which was an outdoor viewing platform (weather permitting). Called the “Top of the World Observation Deck”, it was accessed via a combination of express and local elevators.

The following photographs were taken from that observation deck on Thursday 28th February 1991, a cold and clear day not dissimilar to Tuesday the 11th September 2001. Coincidentally, that February day was also fateful.

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Looking downtown towards the Empire State Building.

Starting a 360-degree tour while facing northwards and downtown, the next skyscraper cluster surrounds the Empire State Building at the top middle of the photograph. In 1931, The Empire State overtook the Chrysler Building in the tallest race and remained there until the construction of the Twin Towers.

That one other plane crash occurred on July 28th 1945 when a B-25 bomber collided with the 79th floor of the Empire State killing eleven people in the building and all three on the plane.

The black skyscraper to the left is Penn One, beside which stands the Madison Square Garden arena and beneath both of which lies Penn Railroad Station. At the time of the photograph, Penn Station was under reconstruction. Isn’t it always? In 2021, the latest re-incarnation is a $1.6 billion Long Island Rail Road and Amtrak train hall next door in the former US Postal Service’s Moynihan building.

To the extreme left is the mighty Hudson River which defines the state line between New York and New Jersey and which was used by the 9/11 hijackers on American Airlines Flight 11 and United Airlines Flight 175 as a landmark to guide them towards what we now know as Ground Zero.

To the far right of the photograph is the East River which branches from the Hudson (as the Haarlem River) at Spuyten Duyvil and then rejoins it south of the WTC at the other end of the 13-mile long island of Manhattan.

Below the photographic vantage point and out of view, is Building Seven whose collapse on September the 11th has invited speculation. In this part of Manhattan, buildings do not meet terra firma at street level. Beneath are a series of concrete and steel rafts containing basement floors, car parking, utilities, metro lines et all. In effect, some of the buildings, including Seven, share foundations with nearby structures. Despite the controversy, the bigger surprise might be that more skyscrapers didn’t tumble.

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Church Street.

Turning 90 degrees to the right to face east reveals Church Street. The church being St Paul’s Chapel, out of the picture and to the left of 195 Broadway which is the light coloured, white Vermont granite, structure. Not all of the 195 Broadway plot is as it was in 1991. The Church Street frontage has been replaced by the 56 story ‘Millenium’ Hilton, deliberately misspelt to attract attention. The surviving part of the property, including a distinctive crown topped campanile, was the longtime headquarters of telecom giants AT&T and Western Union. As of 2021, it retains a link to the communications industry with tenants that include Thompson Reuters, Getty Images and HarperCollins.

The black matchbox on the far right is the 743 foot tall Liberty Plaza. Designed by Skidmore, Owings and Meryll it was formerly the headquarters of US Steel and Meryll Lynch. Presently it is owned by Brookfield Asset Management whose vice-chair is Puffin’s favourite Mark Carney, former Governor of the Bank of England.

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East River crossed by Manhattan and Brooklyn bridges.

Looking further east we see the East River again. This time being crossed by Brooklyn Bridge to the bottom and Manhattan Bridge above. Tucked down in the lower right-hand corner is the South Street Seaport historic quarter with its heritage buildings out of view on the Manhattan riverbank. A then and now comparison shows few architectural changes in the Lower East Side although crime, health and education statistics suggest the area has improved over the last three decades.

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Govenors Island.

To the south lies Governors island, still a military base in the early 1990s. The star-shaped structure close to is Castle William. Partway along the east shore appears to be, judging by its two masts, an alongside Spruance class destroyer of the US Navy. The cylindrical building to the far left is a ventilation shaft for the Brooklyn Battery Road Tunnel which connects Brooklyn with Manhattan.

In the far distance, the Verrazzano-Narrows Bridge joins Brooklyn to Statten island. A double-deck suspension bridge, its 693ft high towers and 4,260ft span carry thirteen lanes of traffic on two decks. Beyond lies Europe three thousand miles away on the other side of the Atlantic. One of the two great oceans which, as the shutter opened and closed, still protected America from international terrorism.

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Liberty Island.

Continuing our 360-degree sweep, Liberty Island and the Statue of Liberty fall into view. In the bottom left corner, a Statten Island ferry crosses the Upper Bay. White structures directly above France’s gift to America are oil facilities at the Port of Newark. Behind these lies Newark airport, origin of United Airlines Flight 93 which crashed at Stonycreek Township, Pennsylvania, presumably en route to Washington DC.

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The Central Railroad of New Jersey, or Communipaw, Terminal New Jersey.

Looking southwest towards New Jersey, the waterside Central Railroad of New Jersey (or Communipaw) Terminal is prominent. The flat land to the left was reclaimed from the bay and was previously covered in industrial and transportation facilities made redundant by containerisation, river tunnels and the interstate highway system. By the 1990s the land had been cleared but lay unused. Since then it has been developed as the Liberty State Park with, according to the Visit New Jersey website, “Boating and canoeing on the Hudson River and New York Bay, plus picnic areas, a playground, food concessions, areas for fishing and crabbing and a marina. The park also features trails for hiking, biking, nature walks and fitness and it’s the site of spectacular Fourth of July fireworks.”

The body of water in the background is Newark Bay and the bridge that crosses it is part of the New Jersey Turnpike Extension. To this side of the road bridge, barely visible, is the Leigh Valley Railroad Lift Bridge, which features a raisable section of track allowing for the passage of shipping. The Leigh Valley Railroad’s Hudson River terminal was at the far side of the Hudson reclamation and was long gone even thirty years ago.

As for the significance of the 28th February 1991, it marked the end of the First Gulf War. The date may be seen inscribed around the rim of Gulf One veteran’s medals. Just five days separated the US-led coalition’s first ground confrontation with Iraqi forces in Kuwait with the ceasefire terms expected to topple Saddam Hussein’s regime from within. The American media called this the ‘Hundred Hours War’. By the evening of the 28th of February, the front pages of the extra editions on sale at the foot of the World Trade Center were filled with a single outsized character – ‘V’ for victory. How wrong they were.

Elsewhere, Osama Bin Laden and others in the Muslim world, already hostile to the United States, were further infuriated. They drew their plans. Twenty four months later, a truck bomb on the second basement level of the World Trade Center killed six and injured over one thousand. On September 11th 2001, the Twin Towers were destroyed costing 2,606 lives. The resulting and continuing conflict has killed countless thousands more.

© Text & photographs Always Worth Saying 2021

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