WTC historian recalls 'city within a city'
Angus Kress Gillespie, professor of American studies at Rutgers University, is author of "Twin Towers: The Life of New York City's World Trade Center," a 1999 book chronicling the history of the skyscrapers. CNN correspondent Beth Nissen talked to him about the buildings' legacy.
CNN: What inspired you to write a biography of the World Trade Center?
Gillespie: American Studies is concerned not just with American history and American literature, but with artifacts -- man-made objects. We can read into artifacts the meaning of a civilization. The Twin Towers were a symbol of America's financial might.
CNN: Was the World Trade Center designed to be such an icon?
Gillespie: The original idea was to bring together under one roof ... steamship companies, importers, exporters, freight forwarders, customs brokers.
But then things changed. ... As Lower Manhattan real estate became more valuable, the mom-and-pop importers and exporters were gradually shoved out. In their place came banks, insurance companies, stockbrokers, the financial industry -- the World Trade Center became more of a blue-chip prestige business address, and less oriented toward world trade.
CNN: What were the challenges of constructing the Twin Towers?
Gillespie: It was a remarkable piece of engineering, beginning with the excavation. They needed to get down to bedrock, 70 feet down, to set the foundations. The World Trade Center was built like no other skyscraper. Instead of a rigid core of supporting columns inside, the buildings had this very stiff exterior, of steel lattice. This resulted in its unusual appearance, with those ribs of steel, and very narrow windows ... only about 22 inches wide.
CNN: How long did it take to build the World Trade Center?
Gillespie: Excavation began in 1966, and the first tenants moved in 1971 -- tenants would move in on the ground floors even as the upper floors were still being constructed. The formal dedication of the Twin Towers was delayed until 1973. ... No one had anything nice to say about the World Trade Center when it first opened.
CNN: What changed public attitudes toward the Twin Towers?
Gillespie: There were three accomplishments by daredevils that helped to endear the buildings to the hearts and minds of New Yorkers. One of the first of these was Philippe Petit, who actually strung a tightrope between the two towers, and walked across, in 1974. The second was Owen J. Quinn, who parachuted off one of the towers onto the plaza in 1975. And the third was George Willig, who actually scaled the towers in 1977.
CNN: When did the Twin Towers start to become symbols, icons, of New York City?
Gillespie: I would say 1977 ... the year in which the film "King Kong" was remade. Instead of having Fay Wray, we had Jessica Lange -- and King Kong climbed not the Empire State Building, but the World Trade Center, the Twin Towers.
CNN: In your book, you write about the Twin Towers as a "city within a city." Why?
Gillespie: It had its own police precinct. It had its own zip code -- 10048. It had its own energy source. Most skyscrapers in New York City receive their electricity from Con Edison, but the Port Authority bought electricity for the World Trade Center directly from the electricity supplier in Canada.
CNN: Given your familiarity with the design and construction of the Twin Towers, were you surprised that they collapsed?
Gillespie: I saw the fires, but I figured the firemen would come, they'd put out the fire, the Port Authority would repair the buildings, and life would go on.
The collapse of the Twin Towers was a unique phenomenon. ... When the concrete floors collapsed, everything fell like a stack of pancakes -- it didn't spread out all over Lower Manhattan. It fell where it was.
CNN: Could the World Trade Center be built again? Do you think it should be?
Gillespie: In my heart, I would love to see the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center built exactly as they were -- it'd be most gratifying. In my mind, however, I think it's unlikely. ... The trophy skyscraper, the magnificent skyscraper ... we may be seeing the last of them.
CNN: If you were called upon to eulogize the Twin Towers, what would you say?
Gillespie: I would say, "Here was a magnificent contribution, a magnificent project." Building what was then the tallest building in the world -- a symbol of American pride, of American finance, of American capitalism. And a lightning rod for our enemies.
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The American Studies Department at Rutgers University
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