Opening of the World Trade Center

After more than a decade of planning, political controversies, and construction, the World Trade Center was officially dedicated, and its twin towers soon became icons of New York City and symbols of American life.

Summary of Event

From the early twentieth century, New York City led the world in the development of a new and dramatic architectural form, the skyscraper. Buildings grew from 50 stories in 1909 to 77 by 1929. In 1931, the city’s first megaskyscraper, the Empire State Building, Empire State Building opened; it was a breathtaking 102 stories tall and topped out at 1,250 feet. For more than a generation, it was not only the tallest building in the world but also New York City’s most-visited and most-loved skyscraper and the focal point of the Manhattan skyline. Then, after more than four decades, on April 4, 1973, New York’s crowning tall-building achievement, the World Trade Center, was officially dedicated. Its twin towers were 110 stories tall and reached skyward 1,350 feet. Architecture;World Trade Center
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Skyscrapers;World Trade Center
[kw]Opening of the World Trade Center (Apr. 4, 1973)
[kw]World Trade Center, Opening of the (Apr. 4, 1973)
Architecture;World Trade Center
World Trade Center;opening
Skyscrapers;World Trade Center
[g]North America;Apr. 4, 1973: Opening of the World Trade Center[01140]
[g]United States;Apr. 4, 1973: Opening of the World Trade Center[01140]
[c]Architecture;Apr. 4, 1973: Opening of the World Trade Center[01140]
[c]Engineering;Apr. 4, 1973: Opening of the World Trade Center[01140]
[c]Trade and commerce;Apr. 4, 1973: Opening of the World Trade Center[01140]
Tobin, Austin J.
Tozzoli, Guy
Yamasaki, Minoru

The Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, Port Authority, New York-New Jersey an agency cocreated by the states of New Jersey and New York, planned, built, and operated the World Trade Center (WTC). The New York City government, public utilities, transportation systems, and many other entities were also deeply involved. The vast scope of the project ensured public controversies and hard-fought political battles over everything from land acquisition and building condemnations to the design and ultimate uses of the center. The roster of dignitaries at the dedication bore witness to some of the tolls taken by these conflicts. Although the governors of New York and New Jersey were present to officiate, the mayor of New York City was conspicuously absent, as was Austin J. Tobin, longtime executive director of the Port Authority. No one had played a greater role than Tobin in envisioning and developing the World Trade Center, from its inception in 1960 to the arrival of its first tenants in 1970, but enormous political pressure had forced his resignation in 1972.

It was Tobin who created the World Trade Department within the Port Authority and then appointed Guy Tozzoli to manage it. An engineer with considerable experience in planning and building major projects for the Port Authority, including pathbreaking containerized terminal facilities and the Newark Airport, Tozzoli was given the opportunity to select a large and talented staff. Together they moved forward, planning the structures that would make up the World Trade Center while Tobin orchestrated the many difficult political, legal, and commercial negotiations required. All members of the team came to believe that if the project were to succeed it had to be designed on a grand scale. At the same time, however, building on a grand scale carried immense risks. Ultimately, the Port Authority team had to attract enough tenants to fill some ten million square feet of office space, and by law at least 75 percent of these tenants had to have some direct connection to international trade. In addition, the project was expected to pay for itself.

Although many of the movers and shakers involved in the WTC project were on familiar terms with big-name architects who had already designed tall buildings for Manhattan, Tobin elected to go outside this circle of superstars. He chose Minoru Yamasaki, a Seattle-born architect who had studied and apprenticed in New York before setting up his own practice in the Detroit area. Tobin and Tozzoli presented Yamasaki with a set of requirements for office space allocation as well as retail, parking, and other facilities but gave the architect complete freedom to design the structures that would house these.

Yamasaki experimented with many different approaches but finally settled on a concept of very tall twin towers plus subordinate buildings set amid a large plaza of nearly five acres. The plaza would be laid out with landscaping and decorative elements designed to temper the immensity of the towers, affording a human scale to the WTC. Yamasaki was initially hesitant to plan towers more than 80 stories high, but shorter towers could not be made to accommodate the required ten million square feet of office space. Tozzoli’s commitment to doing nothing less than a spectacular project was thus translated into instructions to Yamasaki to design the world’s tallest buildings.

Plans for the WTC proposed seven buildings on a sixteen-acre site prominently featuring twin towers, 110 stories tall, devoid of ornamentation, and topping out at 1,350 feet. The complex was expected to house fifty thousand employees and welcome eighty thousand visitors a day. After some initial favorable reactions from pundits and the public, architectural critics harshly criticized the scale and design of the towers. The towers would be an eyesore, they argued, very tall boxes out of scale with their neighbors and lacking aesthetic qualities; their only distinguishing feature was bigness, banality grown huge.

Private developers also produced a storm of criticism, asserting that the Port Authority was competing unfairly, given that it was able to borrow money at lower rates and pay less in taxes than private parties, and so could charge lower rents. They were also angered when the state of New York agreed to lease almost 25 percent of the WTC’s office space, in a move the developers saw as a major political favor. They caustically suggested naming the twin towers after Governor Nelson A. Rockefeller and his brother David, a major force supporting the WTC in the hope of raising property values in Lower Manhattan.

Given all the controversy that preceded the event, many different strands of force and feeling ran through the dedication ceremony on April 4, 1973. Adding to the anxieties on that rainy day were the uncertainty of success (the final four buildings of the center were completed between 1975 and 1987) and the project’s enormous cost overruns (most estimates indicate at least a doubling of the original projected cost of $525 million).

Most New Yorkers were less interested in such concerns than they had been in the spectacle of the WTC’s creation. At first there was little to see except an enormous, deep hole. Workers poured a thick concrete wall around the hole and attached it to bedrock by steel cables to keep out the water that threatened the project from several directions. From this “bathtub,” the towers began to rise. Yamasaki and the builders pioneered new construction techniques. The exterior walls would bear the towers’ weight and withstand the severe wind forces to which they would be exposed. The only interior columns were for the elevator system, allowing virtually unobstructed rentable space on every floor. “Kangaroo cranes” perched atop existing construction, lifting structural materials and climbing themselves as the towers rose. More than 200,000 pieces of structural steel, the largest weighing fifty-two tons, went into the WTC’s construction. As the towers rose, the World Trade Center reinvented the New York skyline.


The World Trade Center’s towers quickly became symbols of Manhattan, recognized around the world and much loved by many. Their image was incorporated into everything from postcards to fashion shoots, from corporate logos to hundreds of forms of tourist kitsch. The observation deck atop the South Tower attracted thousands of visitors daily, and the privileged or lucky managed to get reservations at Windows on the World, the restaurant that occupied the 107th floor of the North Tower.

The Twin Towers of the World Trade Center in New York City in 1971, near the end of their construction. They would be destroyed in a terrorist attack thirty years later.

(AP/Wide World Photos)

The once-scorned ugly duckling was discovered to be a swan. Even some former critics acknowledged the unique beauty of the towers, whose aluminum alloy sheathing radiated a range of dramatic hues as light and weather conditions changed. Lit at night, they were dramatic in an altogether different way. Most arresting of all, day or night, was the splendor of the World Trade Center towers as viewed at mid-distance from the vicinity of the Statue of Liberty. New York City—and all that it represented—had produced a new American icon.

In February, 1993, a truck bomb exploded in the WTC’s underground garage, set off by terrorists who had intended to undermine a wall of the South Tower so that it would collapse against its twin. Terrorist acts The buildings remained standing, but the bomb did considerable damage, creating a crater five stories deep; six people died and more than one thousand were injured in the attack. As smoke from hundreds of burning cars filled the stairwells, Guy Tozzoli directed staffers down seventy-seven floors to safety. Along the way he offered them encouragement, saying, “I built these towers. I know they won’t fall down.” Ten Islamist terrorists were later convicted and sentenced to prison for up to 240 years each for their roles in the bombing. On September 11, 2001, September 11, 2001, attacks Islamist terrorists again attacked the World Trade Center, crashing commercial passenger aircraft into both towers; this time, the twin towers were destroyed, and more than twenty-six hundred people died. Architecture;World Trade Center
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Further Reading

  • Darton, Eric. Divided We Stand: A Biography of New York’s World Trade Center. New York: Basic Books, 1999. Provides a comprehensive overview and critical analysis of the WTC with strong emphasis on political processes and the changing role of the Port Authority.
  • Gillespie, Angus Kress. Twin Towers: The Life of New York City’s World Trade Center. New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press, 1999. Comprehensive volume is especially informa tive regarding the individuals involved in building operations. Includes diagrams and anecdotal information about WTC operations.
  • Ruchelman, Leonard I. The World Trade Center: Politics and Policies of Skyscraper Development. Syracuse, N.Y.: Syracuse University Press, 1977. Provides a technical account full of interesting and detailed information.

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