My last post quoted briefly my Oct. 4, 2001, column in the Providence Journal called “Peering into the towering abyss,” but the link seems to take readers to a sign-up sheet for the Journal archives instead of the text of the column. That’s what I found when I clicked the link on my iPhone, but when I clicked the same link on my iMac, it took me directly to the text. So I have no idea how this will work out for readers on other platforms. Therefore, I reprint the column in its entirety:
Peering into the towering abyss
The photograph above was taken in happier days, from the roof garden of my cousin’s building in Battery Park City. The towers loom up, dwarfing the building that engaged my attention even more than the two towers, a lovely old building. The towers were there, for better or worse, and, for all I knew, always would be. Late that night, I went back up to shoot the old building again. The soft lights transformed its ornate roofscape into a golden jewel. In the dark beyond, you could barely see the towers.
The towers were the world’s tallest for only a couple of years, until Chicago’s Sears Tower opened, in 1974. Actually, one of the twin towers was six feet taller than the other. Their architect, Minoru Ya-masaki, stood an inch above five feet.
After the terrorists destroyed the towers, and after the fog of horror cleared a bit from my mind, I thought of that old building so close by. Did it still exist? No photographs or footage had revealed its fate, at least none I’d seen. I mourn the lost towers and the lost lives, but when I visited New York, I had to find out what had become of that old building.
I found a room Sunday at the Gramercy Park Hotel. I went out into the rain, had lunch nearby, returned, tried to arrange dinner with the sister of a friend, and ended up seeing an off-Broadway play, Woman Killer, and, later, saw comic routines at the New York Comedy Club. (“The more Arab the driver, the bigger his flag.” “Instead of rebuilding two buildings with 110 stories each, how about eight buildings with 25 stories each? Call it the Manhattan Projects.”)
The next morning, after checking out, I headed south. I walked, puttering around, marveling at the Beaux Arts municipal district, City Hall Park, the Woolworth Building, etc. Procrastinating.
Finally, just before noon, I reached the edge of the no-go zone, and accepted without protest the assurances of a couple of police officers that there was no way I’d ever get anything like close to “ground zero.” I was directed down Chambers Street to construction headquarters for damage information, but could speak with no officials. They were very busy.
But near the end of Chambers, from a pedestrian bridge, I finally saw my old building. Its address turns out to be 90 West St. It was built in 1905. In the photo at the right, taken with a zoom from the footbridge over West Street, it stands just left of the white crane battered and bruised, but alive. At its foot is the debris of 2 World Trade Center. Between them was tiny St. Nicholas Greek Orthodox Church, built in the 1830s. It was obliterated.
I gaze upon this distressing scene, shoot a few pictures and move on. Back on Broadway, I again head south, peering west toward ground zero at every intersection. First Fulton, then Dey, then Cortland, then Liberty. With the crowds I linger, spellbound, taking pictures of ground zero. We continue to walk only after police lose patience, shouting, “Move along!” and threatening to confiscate cameras.
Thoroughly depressed, I wander toward Battery Park, then take a subway to the Port Authority Terminal (owner of the World Trade Center) and a bus for Providence, where the tallest buildings are less than a quarter the height of the late twin towers.
How curious that so many well-known architects and critics, even after the towers’ demise, can find so little good to say of their aesthetic charms. Powerful symbols, sure, no denying that. Even Ada Louise Huxtable, who in 1972 wrote that “these are big buildings, but they are not great architecture,” held firmly to that stance in writing their epitaph.
Perhaps buildings, like people, can attain greatness if not beauty in death. Many people shrink from the idea of building tall again. I do not know whether the towers should be rebuilt. A colleague says that would be to court a repeat disaster: Imagine two buildings each with 110 13th floors. Only a lunatic would rent space or take a job there.
Well, I’m not sure I agree. Maybe the murder of these two buildings, and their thousands of occupants and hundreds of rescuing heroes, can generate enough unity and strength of purpose in the civilized world to vanquish terrorism. Maybe then we can rest easy, build big, live large and watch the spirit of two buildings rise from tallness to greatness. Abraham Lincoln was no beauty, either.