As spire grows higher, 1 WTC is Manhattan’s new skyline centerpiece

By Steve Strunsky The Star-Ledger

NEW YORK — Looking up from across the Hudson, or down from the roof, the view is impressive even to those not easily impressed.

Steve Plate, a survivor of both terrorist attacks on the Twin Towers, is the director of construction for One World Trade Center. As the work nears completion on the spire atop the tower, Plate leads a tour of the building and shares his thoughts on its legacy. Video by John Munson/The Star-Ledger Watch video

Steve Plate, a survivor of both terrorist attacks on the Twin Towers, is the director of construction for One World Trade Center. As the work nears completion on the spire atop the tower, Plate leads a tour of the building and shares his thoughts on its legacy. Video by John Munson/The Star-Ledger

With its still-unfinished spire now reaching almost 1,500 feet in the air and rising, One World Trade Center as seen from the New Jersey Turnpike Extension — or many other vantage points in the state’s northeastern corner — stands head and shoulders above surrounding skyscrapers, putting a new peak on the Lower Manhattan skyline that had been missing since September 11.

Watch a video tour of 1WTC with Steve Plate on NJ.com.

“When you think of tall buildings and the role they play, it’s that image of the skyline,” said Kevin Brass, a spokesman for the Chicago-based Council on Tall Buildings and Urban Habitat, an international arbiter of building heights. “When you think of the skyline of New York going back before 9/11, it becomes the image of the city, so now the tower is going to create a new image for that city that will be visible for miles.”

But if One World Trade Center looks tall from the New Jersey Turnpike Extension, the 360-degree rooftop vista is downright extraterrestrial.

To the west, the 780-foot Goldman Sachs Tower in Jersey City, New Jersey’s tallest building, looks like a walk-up. The mighty Hudson River is a mere stream trickling over the horizon, while the jagged line of the majestic Palisades is reduced to a crack in the sidewalk. Even 1 WTC’s only panoramic rival, the Empire State Building, seems far less formidable than from more earthly vantage points.

Members of the public will almost be able to see for themselves after the building opens early next year, from a public observatory on the 102nd floor.

Guiding a recent tour of the building, Steve Plate, the man in charge of World Trade Center construction for the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, stood on the roof of the tower amid four house-sized air-conditioning units 1,368 feet above Vesey Street, craning his neck to look up.

Workers secure a piece of the rooftop spire during a tour of 1 World Trade Center. John Munson/The Star-Ledger

Workers secure a piece of the rooftop spire during a tour of 1 World Trade Center. John Munson/The Star-Ledger

With New Jersey, New York and the rest of the Earth falling away from him in every direction, Plate’s attention was fixed on the only people higher in the overcast sky than he was: a crew lowering the latest section of the tower’s concrete rooftop spire into place, raising the tower’s total height to more than 1,470 feet.

The stacking of each new section of spire is an emotional experience for Plate and others working on the centerpiece of the trade center site, being built at a cost of $3.8 billion to replace the Twin Towers, which had housed the Port Authority’s headquarters before being destroyed in an attack that killed nearly 3,000 people, including 87 of Plate’s co-workers at the bi-state agency,

“People are committed to this project; they’re committed to this cause,” said Plate, a 27-year Port Authority veteran who lives in Glen Ridge.

Soaring a total of 408 feet above the roof when completed, the tapering, masonry spire will play a significant role in how the tower is viewed by the rest of the world. The completed, 18-piece spire will eventually bring the tower’s overall height to 1,776 feet. Aside from its symbolic reference to the year the United States declared independence, the height could qualify One World Trade Center as the tallest building in the Western Hemisphere, if the Council on Tall Buildings declares the spire an architectural element of the tower, and not merely antennae.

The title would be not only a proud distinction, but also a marketable one: for all its symbolic value, the 3-million-square-foot commercial office building lacks lease agreements on 45 percent of its space.

By last week, even the unfinished spire had already pole-vaulted 1 WTC’s overall height above the 1,450-foot roof height of the Willis Tower in Chicago, formerly the Sears Tower, the hemisphere’s reigning tallest building. Brass, the building council spokesman, said the group’s height committee will issue a determination after 1 WTC’s official dedication.

From the roof of 1 WTC, the whole spire issue — like most surrounding buildings — seems trivial.

Regardless of its official height ranking, admirers of 1 WTC say it has accomplished one of its most important goals: patching a hole blasted in the sky on 9/11.

“This building effort has been a true symbol,” said Plate. “It’s a marker, not just for New York City, but for the whole region and all over the world, that we’re back.”

At the foot of 1 WTC, the 16-acre trade center site includes a pair of reflecting pools in the Twin Towers’ original footprints that is part of the official monument to the victims of the attack, as well as an exhibit hall documenting the 2001 and 1993 terror strikes, collectively known as the National September 11 Memorial and Museum. Some say they would have been reminders enough, without 1 WTC.

“That building does not represent anything to me,” said 9/11 widow Susan Rescorla of Mendham, whose husband was the subject of a bestselling book, an opera, and the U.S. Department of Homeland Security’s Rick Rescorla National Award for Resilience. “It’s the resilience of the people, not a building. I don’t think we needed to build something higher or better or whatever to prove a point.”

But others see 1 WTC as a practical memorial that will remain in view of millions of people every day, miles away from Ground Zero.

“Perhaps more that any other building in the world, One World Trade Center symbolizes the heart and the soul of its city,” said Brass. “It’s about resurrection. It’s about overcoming adversity and bureaucracy. And more than anything, it’s about creating an icon and overcoming a horrific tragedy.”

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