New Glimpses of the Twin Towers’ Past

By David W. Dunlap New York Times

Anthony W. Robins did not set out to amass one of the most important surviving archives of the original World Trade Center. Though he is an architectural historian devoted to the buildings of New York City, Mr. Robins didn’t even set out to study the twin towers.

Rather, Gale Research, which was planning a series of books in the 1980s under the rubric Classics of American Architecture, asked Mr. Robins if he would turn his attention first to the trade center before tackling a monograph on the Chrysler Building, which was his preference.

Mr. Robins, now 62, is a well-known figure in landmarks circles, having served on the staff of the Landmarks Preservation Commission for 19 years. He is an adjunct professor at Columbia University and New York University. And if you happen to see a walking tour coming your way under the confident leadership of a man in a Bailey Dalton safari hat — well, that’s Mr. Robins.

Following his publisher’s request for a book on the trade center, Mr. Robins began his research in the early ’80s with the cooperation of the library maintained by the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey on the 55th floor of 1 World Trade Center, the north tower. The librarians permitted him to copy much of the material he needed, to supplement brochures and pamphlets he had obtained. His book was published in 1987.

Of course, Classics of American Architecture: The World Trade Center turned out to be the first of several shelves full of books about the trade center. This year, Mr. Robins published what amounts to a 25th-anniversary edition. (Sample pages as a PDF.) Apart from corrections, he has wisely left the original text untouched, the better to capture the memory of the trade center as it once was, he said in the foreword.

The new edition, Mr. Robins wrote, is intended to be a “reminder of a more innocent time, when the center stood as a symbol, certainly, of hubris, wealth and power, but also of the conviction that in New York City, Americans could do anything to which they set their minds.”

That end is well served by his decision to include reproductions of 10 original documents about the trade center: Port Authority reports, brochures, pamphlets and booklets. Given what happened on September 11, 2001, the exuberant language is almost shocking in its poignancy. A brochure for the observation deck, for example, begins with the headline: “The closest some of us will ever get to heaven.”

That so much trade center ephemera survived can be credited to Mr. Robins’s files, since the Port Authority’s collection was largely obliterated on 9/11. The library that Mr. Robins used was closed in 1995. In following years, some items in the World Trade Center archive had been given to other institutions. But the bulk of the material was in a storage cage on basement level B-4 when the towers fell.

What brings these artifacts to mind now is the marketing campaign by 1 World Trade Center, which is trying to entice tenants with catchphrases like: “New York’s number one,” “The world’s greatest address,” and “The summit of global real estate.”

The upbeat language of marketing has returned to ground zero. The funerary hush is slipping away. The Durst Organization, co-developer of 1 World Trade Center, notes on its Web site that the tower is “part of a 16-acre campus featuring a tree-filled park” (otherwise known as the National September 11 Memorial) and “nearly 450,000 square feet of dining, entertainment and shopping options.”

Mr. Robins’s collection evokes this same spirit and adds a rich dimension to trade center history. It also added 105 pages to what was originally a 65-page book. And he has a great deal more, about 500 pages.

“What I discovered in this process is that original documents are fascinating and need to be available, but in libraries and archives, not in books,” he wrote on the blog of the Special Libraries Association. “So what I hope to do — sometime in the coming year — is scan as much as I can and gradually put it up on a Web site.”

These documents are bound to interest not only historians but also New Yorkers seeking to recall the trade center’s early decades. I, for one, may never look again at the annual tribute in light without recalling that the observation deck once advertised itself with this admonition:

“And in the evening, please don’t touch the stars.”

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