This site is included in LMCC’s Creative Insider’s Guide to Lower Manhattan, sponsored by Launch LM.

A pair of scarred tridents from the lower facade of the north tower, originally known as One World Trade Center, dominate the entrance pavilion of the National 9/11 Memorial Museum. Seventy feet tall, these steel building fragments help remind us of the project’s immense scale, as well as how these once-soaring towers were designed and engineered.

Dedicated in April 1973, the World Trade Center was built by the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey. First proposed as part of an exhibition at the New York World’s Fair in 1939, the concept was reintroduced by David Rockefeller, president of Chase Manhattan Bank, as part of an attempt to revitalize Lower Manhattan in 1960. Though the initial plans called for a site along the East River, with encouragement from his older brother Governor Nelson Rockefeller and the Port Authority, a west side location bordered by Liberty, Church and Vesey Streets was chosen by 1962.

The World Trade Center occupied a 16-acre super-block. Covering 15 blocks, streets were closed and de-mapped and the west side of the site was raised to create a level podium. At the northwest corner stood the block-long, century-and-a-half old Washington Market, which moved to Hunts Point in the Bronx in the 1960s. Along Church Street were a pair of matched 22-story towers known as Hudson Terminal, which served the Hudson and Manhattan Railroad and is now part of the PATH system. The remaining blocks contained numerous small businesses, many selling radios, black-and-white televisions, and related electronic equipment.

Minoru Yamasaki was chosen as architect in 1963. In contrast to many of his contemporaries, during his career he pursued a kind of romantic modernism, embellishing his commissions with delicate arched forms, slender columns, and decorative canopies. After developing various schemes, including a proposal for a single 150-story tower, he arrived at the idea of erecting twin 110-story towers with acre-sized office floors. Clad with a silvery aluminum alloy skin, each tube-like tower was supported by a concrete elevator core and load-bearing exterior walls. At the base, where each facade met the plaza, the notoriously narrow, deep set windows widened substantially, allowing views inside the marble lobbies and suggesting the kind of pointed lancet windows found in Gothic cathedrals.

Around the perimeter of the site, Yamasaki designed several additional office structures. Clad with blackish aluminum, these low-rise buildings deferred to the looming towers and enclosed a typically-unused five-acre plaza displaying Sphere, a globe-like fountain sculpture by Fritz Koenig – one of many artworks commissioned for the complex. Beneath the plaza sprawled the vast retail concourse. Like the underground passages at Rockefeller Center, but on a much grander scale, this level threaded the various buildings together and provided convenient access to public transit, including most importantly a new PATH station, which had been relocated from Hudson Terminal.

Overall, the complex was carefully designed and well executed but hardly admired. Critics were generally disappointed by the final results, but New Yorkers eventually grew to accept and even enjoy it. Though the 1362- and 1368-foot tall towers briefly held the title as the world’s tallest structures (they were surpassed by the 1451-foot Willis Tower in 1973), until their destruction in 2001 they stood tallest in New York, with public observation areas on the 107th and 110th floors of the south tower and LMCC studios for artists on the 92nd floor of the north tower. Windows on the World, an extravagant restaurant and drinking complex at the top of the north tower was especially popular, and the shopping mall was one of the busiest in the United States.

Matthew A. Postal