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City in the Sky: The Rise and Fall of the World Trade Center

City in the Sky: The Rise and Fall of the World Trade Center

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by James Glanz

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The definitive biography of the iconic skyscrapers and the ambitions that shaped them--from their dizzying rise to their unforgettable fall

More than a year after the nation began mourning the lives lost in the attacks on the World Trade Center, it became clear that something else was being mourned: the towers themselves. They were the biggest and brashest


The definitive biography of the iconic skyscrapers and the ambitions that shaped them--from their dizzying rise to their unforgettable fall

More than a year after the nation began mourning the lives lost in the attacks on the World Trade Center, it became clear that something else was being mourned: the towers themselves. They were the biggest and brashest icons that New York, and possibly America, has ever produced--magnificent giants that became intimately familiar around the globe. Their builders were possessed of a singular determination to create wonders of capitalism as well as engineering, refusing to admit defeat before natural forces, economics, or politics.

No one knows the history of the towers better than New York Times reporters James Glanz and Eric Lipton. In a vivid, brilliantly researched narrative, the authors re-create David Rockefeller's ambition to rebuild lower Manhattan, the spirited opposition of local storeowners and powerful politicians, the bold structural innovations that later determined who lived and died, master builder Guy Tozzoli's last desperate view of the towers on September 11, and the charged and chaotic recovery that could have unraveled the secrets of the buildings' collapse but instead has left some enduring mysteries.

City in the Sky is a riveting story of New York City itself, of architectural daring, human frailty, and a lost American icon.

Editorial Reviews

The New York Times
In their account of the rise and fall of the World Trade Center, James Glanz and Eric Lipton evoke the romance of skyscraper construction in New York even as they tell a version of it that ended in unimaginable tragedy on Sept. 11, 2001. The book centers on the power of an unaccountable public agency, cunning legal and political maneuvers and brilliant engineering innovations devised to address extraordinary structural challenges. It also registers the dignity and determination of Oscar Nadel and other proprietors in Radio Row, the consumer electronics district, who fought a smart, tough and losing battle against the hugely more powerful Port Authority of New York and New Jersey … Glanz and Lipton thus tell a fascinating story not unlike the one Robert Caro told in his now classic book on Robert Moses; their canvas is smaller but it is big enough to capture the grandeur and grandiosity of it all. — Thomas Bender
Publishers Weekly
This is not a book only about September 11; the towers' collapse begins on number 236 of 337 pages of narrative text. New York Times reporters Glanz (science) and Lipton (metropolitan news) instead deliver a thoroughly absorbing account of how the World Trade Center developed from an embryonic 1939 World's Fair building to "a city in the sky, the likes of which the planet had never seen." In this lively page-turner, intensively researched and meticulously documented, a world of international trade, business history, litigation, architecture, engineering and forensics comes clear-a political and financial melodrama with more wheeling and dealing than Dallas, touched lightly with the comedic and haunted by tragedy. The authors move a Robert Altman-sized cast (engineers, architects, iron workers, builders, demolitionists, lawyers, mobsters, mayors, mathematicians, critics, activists, real estate dealers, biochemists, union organizers, an aerialist, an arsonist) through the design, construction, destruction and memorializing. Faceless entities like the Port Authority acquire names, personal histories and diverse agendas. Bureaucratic reports and public hearings, reduced with clarity and balance, become comprehensible, even readable. The authors are remarkably skilled at telling all without telling too much: a "deadening" 44-page speech by Port Authority official Austin Tobin gets short shrift but a fair account. Their descriptions of new technologies (e.g., "artificial creakiness"), fresh experiments (particularly in wind engineering), complicated financial maneuverings and secret studies become clear to the non-specialist reader. While some superlatives might have been avoided ("the biggest and brashest icons that New York ever produced," etc.), Glanz and Lipton tell this compelling story without becoming overwrought, and with graphs and charts (and 16 pages of b&w photos not seen by PW) that contribute immensely to understanding the logistical and technical aspects of the project. This book may be the definitive popular account of the towers. (Nov.) Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information.
Library Journal
New York Times reporters Glanz and Lipton have written the biography of the World Trade Center, using a casual, storytelling style that reads more like a well-researched New Yorker magazine article than a formal history book. The book is in three parts: Chapters 1 through 7 chronicle the long and arduous building of the two towers; Chapter 8 tells of their brief, 30-year tenure; and Chapters 9 and 10 record their hard and quick fall. The story of the buildings' rise is peopled with the usual array of the rich and powerful, the architects and artisans, as they battle for influence. This part of the story is told conventionally. The middle section is a description of the humdrum daily life of the towers as commercial buildings, and its telling is anecdotal and mildly amusing. It is only in Part 3, when the towers come down, that we are drawn into the horror as the story violently shifts to the people who are dying before our eyes. This last part skillfully pulls all the book's earlier information into the full arc of the towers' life story, and the book, as a complete narrative, vibrates with palpable tragedy. Recommended for all libraries. [Previewed in Prepub Alert, LJ 7/03.]-Glenn Masuchika, Rockwell Collins Information Ctr., Cedar Rapids, IA Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
A remarkable biography-and autopsy-of the Twin Towers, controversial, like its subject, from start to finish. The World Trade Center, according to New York Times science reporter Glanz and metro reporter Lipton, began as a brainstorm by a man once called "the P.T. Barnum of real estate," William Zeckendorf, who had previously engineered the sale of a former Midtown slaughterhouse to erect the UN complex. That deal had effectively retired the only Midtown site large enough to accommodate a rival to the Rockefeller Center. When David Rockefeller, head of Chase National Bank, went looking for a building site to house his acquisition-swollen firm, he found that he had to stick close to Wall Street. The building he and Zeckendorf began planning in 1955 mutated, by 1961, into what a feasibility study called "A World Trade Center in the Port of New York." Though at the start many Manhattanites opposed the costly project, by the time the WTC was completed in late 1970, the towers "shouldered their way into the affections of ordinary New Yorkers." The WTC may have had a strange beauty, Glanz and Lipton write, but the construction was compromised in many ways by shortcuts taken to lighten the massive structure; whereas the Empire State Building, which survived a massive explosion when a B-25 bomber collided with it in 1945, was sheathed in brick and masonry that protected its girders and offered substantial fireproofing, the steel of the Twin Towers "was sprayed with a lightweight, foamy product . . . forming a fluffy coasting that would be hard-pressed even to stay in place-let alone give any fire protection-during a blast or impact or violent conflagration." And that steel was so thin, theauthors write, that when American Airlines Flight 11 collided with the north tower on September 11, 2001, "the light aluminum of the plane's fuselage and wings simply entered the building almost without slowing down." The implications seem clear: such shortcuts, made innocently enough in the interest of aesthetics and cost-effectiveness, condemned the WTC to fail and fall. A confidence-shaker that deserves widespread discussion as a new WTC begins to take shape.
From the Publisher
"[A] magnificent book." -The New Republic

"James Glanz and Eric Lipton's brilliantly reported and profoundly moving but admirably clear-eyed account of the accidental conception, long gestation, difficult birth, brief life and tragic death of the World Trade Center is likely to remain a classic."

-The New York Times

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City in the Sky

The Rise and Fall of the World Trade Center

By James Glanz, Eric Lipton

Henry Holt and Company

Copyright © 2003 James Glanz and Eric Lipton
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-4668-6307-1


David's Turn

Today, the world stands on the brink of a boom in international trade. ... To realize its role in the new era dawning for overseas trade and finance, this country must marshal its resources. One primary step in this direction would be to establish a single center, planned and equipped to serve that vital purpose.

— A Proposal for the Port of New York, by the Downtown–Lower Manhattan Association, January 1960

The phone rang at 7 A.M. in the four-story, red-brick town house on East Sixty-fifth Street where David Rockefeller was just finishing up his breakfast before his commute to work. Rockefeller, the youngest grandson of America's first billionaire, liked to ride the Lexington Avenue subway downtown to his office at Chase National Bank, one hand clutching the dangling strap, the other a newspaper folded lengthwise so that he could read it in the morning crush. As he swayed with the unsteady rhythms of the city's populist heart, he could have been any other executive on his way to work in Lower Manhattan. But the unexpected phone call on this day in February 1955 meant that Rockefeller would make his commute in the back of a gray Cadillac limousine that carried two telephones, enough room for seven passengers, and license plates that read, very simply, WZ. Those were the initials of William Zeckendorf, the unpredictable, inventive, and stupendously energetic real estate promoter — and an old Rockefeller family friend — who had called to say he had an idea that couldn't wait.

Rockefeller was used to last-minute brainstorms from Zeckendorf, an enormous, moon-faced man who had been called the P. T. Barnum of real estate. Zeckendorf never thought small, and he could seldom be accused of understatement. He ruled his real estate empire from within a huge architectural turret atop a skyscraper at 383 Madison Avenue. His lofty chamber, designed by I. M. Pei, featured an igloo-shaped, teakwood-enveloped office on the first level and a circular, glass-enclosed dining room on top. While visitors to his office struggled to get a few words in, Zeckendorf often fielded thirty-five calls an hour, furiously doodling triangles as he spoke, at times getting haircuts in his office chair, negotiating deal after deal — for properties that in some cases he had never seen. (His secretaries would carefully file the doodles, because they often contained notes about deals among the geometric shapes.) This was the real estate magician who had proposed turning the land under an East River slaughterhouse into the new home of the United Nations, a deal that the Rockefeller family had swung by putting up $8.5 million to buy the property. Not coincidentally, that maneuver also adroitly removed from private hands the only Midtown plot big enough to rival the Rockefeller family's own real estate venture, Rockefeller Center. Zeckendorf had bought and sold interests in the Chrysler Building, the Singer Building, 40 Wall Street, and dozens of other city landmarks. For Zeckendorf, doing the deal was the important thing.

Zeckendorf had crisply summed up his philosophy in a saying that became famous in real estate circles: "I would rather be alive at 18 percent than dead at the prime rate." Since the prime lending rate was in the low single digits, the declaration meant that Zeckendorf was willing to pay a tremendous premium for the sake of consummating a deal. That habit would ultimately lead him to a spectacular bankruptcy.

But for now Zeckendorf, with all of his ebullient showmanship, was advising David Rockefeller — an immensely powerful man who was serious, almost to the point of piety, about his city, his family, and his family's money — and Zeckendorf had come up with a sure-fire plan for building a giant new headquarters for Chase. He wanted to pitch it to Rockefeller during the limousine ride downtown.

This was going to be one hell of a deal.

Zeckendorf knew that Rockefeller had just been named executive vice president for planning and development at Chase. The bank had been looking for a place to consolidate its sprawling operations for years now, and as one of his first big assignments, Rockefeller had been asked by Chase's chairman, John J. McCloy, to help figure out where to build a new headquarters. In the last few decades, Chase had sopped up the assets of more than fifty smaller banks, collecting in the process an awkward little menagerie of nine downtown buildings. None of those buildings had enough space — or stature — for what, through a merger with the Bank of the Manhattan Company, was soon to be the city's largest and the world's second-largest bank, with some nine thousand downtown employees. It would have been all but impossible to find any suitable buildings downtown, in the historic heart of the financial district, because no one had broken ground there on a big new skyscraper since the early 1930s. Instead, the corporate epicenter was moving north, to Midtown — a place so far away, in commercial terms, that it might as well have been a separate city. The new corporate showplaces in Midtown — with their enormous windows, wide-open floor spaces, and, perhaps most glorious, central air conditioning — left the downtown towers looking like quaint but shopworn antiques.

So it must have seemed a sure bet that Chase would join corporate brethren like Lever Brothers, Colgate-Palmolive, and Seagram's to Park Avenue or the other glittering streets near Grand Central Terminal. But that would not have meshed with the deal that Zeckendorf had in mind, a deal so complicated that he would later refer to it in the style of a chess champion as his "Wall Street Maneuver."

Zeckendorf's deal would turn out to be the first move in a much larger game. That game, and the shrewd masters of politics, finance, real estate, public relations, urban planning, architecture, engineering, and construction who played it, would produce a pair of towers that rose above every other skyscraper in Manhattan and the world. Those towers and the handful of lesser buildings clustered around them downtown, in the part of the city traditionalists still insisted on calling Lower Manhattan, would become known as the World Trade Center.

Decades after his limousine ride with David Rockefeller, Zeckendorf's role in creating the trade center would be so obscured by later history that it would be all but forgotten. "What's his name, the name of the real estate promoter who did a lot of that?" McCloy, the bank's chairman, would say after the trade center had been open for almost a decade and Zeckendorf had died with his empire in ruins. "You know, the big fellow. I never thought I'd forget his name." But it is unlikely that anyone who knew Zeckendorf ever forgot another of his signature lines: "I make grapefruit out of lemons." That is what it would take to keep Chase from moving uptown.

As Rockefeller started looking into the question, McCloy could not help thinking about his downtown neighbor National City Bank and its chairman, Howard Sheperd, who was also looking for a new building. "Howard, what are you going to do?" McCloy had asked Sheperd at about that time. "Well, I want to stay downtown," Sheperd replied. But soon enough Sheperd came back to McCloy: "Jack, I've got a lot of young Turks over at my place who don't agree with the older hands. They think they ought to move uptown." And they did.

But Zeckendorf could scribble another important bit of information among the triangles on his notepad. Rockefeller and McCloy were bankers with an iron focus on the bottom line — "Sentiment should never be the basis for a business decision involving many thousands of people and hundreds of millions of dollars," David Rockefeller would write in what, for him, counted as fiery language — but they also had enough of a sense of history that they wanted to buck the trend. Their cramped headquarters, just north of Wall Street, overlooked the spot where the Dutch had first settled New York. Just across the street was the site of Federal Hall, where the Bill of Rights had been adopted and where George Washington took the oath as the nation's first president. And around the corner once stood a buttonwood tree, under which twenty-four brokers had gathered in 1792 to form a marketplace that ultimately would be named the New York Stock Exchange. Still, the Chase board was stocked with some of the same industrialists who were leading the move uptown, and in that February of 1955, stockholders were far more interested in the bank's $7.5 billion in assets than the view from the windows of its headquarters.

Here is where Zeckendorf came in. He had a little inside information. Within hours, he told Rockefeller on the limousine ride downtown, an old limestone office tower, right next door to Chase headquarters on Pine Street, was due to be sold. At fifteen stories, the 1884 building had been occupied by the Mutual Life Insurance Company of New York before it, too, left for Midtown. The building had been an architectural wonder in its day: arched windows, two-story porticos flanked by polished Quincy granite columns, and an entrance hall with Algerian onyx pillars and a marble frieze. But Zeckendorf had little interest in those flourishes. Stop the sale of the building, Zeckendorf told Rockefeller, and then make the following moves:

Buy the Mutual Life Insurance Building yourself.

Acquire the other buildings that Chase did not already own in this immediate two-block area. Sell off many of Chase's other downtown properties and find a new tenant for its current headquarters at 18 Pine Street.

Persuade the city to close off Cedar Street, which split the area containing the existing Chase holdings and the Mutual Life Building into two blocks.

Demolish much of those two blocks.

Use those two blocks as the base for a new skyscraper that would serve as headquarters for Chase.


In truth, the Wall Street Maneuver was not nearly that simple, since it required a dazzling set of side moves — which Zeckendorf dubbed "musical chairs" — that shuffled major companies around at some of the locations. But if you believed in the man's ability to pull off the maneuver, the outcome would be a spanking new downtown headquarters.

It would never really be clear how easy it was to amaze the determinedly mild, doggedly unemotive Rockefeller, whose lifelong hobby was collecting beetles. Whatever the threshold, the Wall Street Maneuver made the grade. The audacity of Zeckendorf's proposal astonished him.

But the Zeckendorf magic also persuaded him. They got out of the limousine and hurried to see McCloy in his fourth-floor office at 18 Pine Street.

"The Mutual Life site is under negotiation for sale and you have no time," Zeckendorf declared. "You have to bid for it today."

After Zeckendorf outlined the plan, McCloy became a believer too. He phoned the owner of the company that was making the sale and got him to delay it for a day. Less than twenty-four hours later, Chase had purchased the Mutual Life Insurance Building for $4.4 million.

McCloy and Rockefeller knew that, as with any deal that passed through Zeckendorf's restless hands, there were some imponderables, some Zeckendorfian risks that the bank would have to accept. The most obvious ones revolved around Cedar Street. Even after it purchased the land, the bank would need to go to Robert Moses, the city's powerful redevelopment czar, for the special permits needed to erase Cedar Street and create such a large plot. The famously dictatorial Moses would have to agree to the plan.

In fact, Moses would do more than that.

He would make the next move in the much greater game that Zeckendorf had set in motion.

* * *

From his bedroom window on the fifth floor of his boyhood home at 10 West Fifty-fourth Street in Midtown Manhattan, David Rockefeller had a lovely view south over the city. Although he could see the tops of some low, aging buildings in the foreground, the near distance was commanded by the spires of St. Patrick's Cathedral, just around the corner from his house, on Fifth Avenue. Farther away were the Empire State Building and the gleaming Chrysler Building, both recently completed — he was fifteen when the ribbon was cut on the Empire State Building on a hazy but cloudless May Day, 1931 — and ruling with absolute authority over the Midtown skyline. And if he looked past the muscular western shoulder of the Empire State Building, he could see open, unbroken sky for miles along the Hudson River shoreline toward Lower Manhattan.

Soon the low buildings would be replaced by Rockefeller Center. His father, John D. Rockefeller Jr., pushed ahead with the project through the Depression despite the obvious financial challenges and the withdrawal of the prime tenant, the Metropolitan Opera Company. With that perseverance, Mr. Junior (as he was called) would create one of New York's most storied architectural sites and the single place most associated with the family name. But the family didn't stop there in its remaking of the city. During this same period, David's mother, Abby Aldrich Rockefeller, became one of the founders of the Museum of Modern Art, which in the late 1930s would move to a complex built on the block that was partially occupied by the family home at 10 West Fifty-fourth Street — which would be razed to make way for the project. On an Upper West Side hill overlooking the Hudson River, David's father had also helped finance the construction of the neo-Gothic giant known as Riverside Church. In short, a simple tour of the city gave David Rockefeller a view of his family's adopted role as New York's benevolent parent.

It was a fraught relationship, to say the least. It depended not just on the family's energy and wealth and good intentions but on the city's willingness to accept paternalistic advice from these self-appointed wise men and women. The United States, after all, is supposed to be a democracy, where each individual is born equal to the next. With the power of money, big money, factored in, that theoretical equality was more than a little suspect. But preserving the pretense of equality — that, too, was an important American precept. Missteps by David's grandfather had made all too clear what kind of backlash the family could expect if it ended up on the wrong side of public opinion. John D. Rockefeller Sr. had turned a $2,000 investment in 1859 into a corporation that by the 1890s marketed 85 percent of the petroleum products sold in the United States. He righteously defended his high-volume, low-cost operation at Standard Oil by pronouncing that "we must ever remember we are refining oil for the poor man and he must have it cheap and good." But his ambitions and smarts drove him to create such a powerful and profitable enterprise that for much of his life it evoked more fear and hatred than respect and awe. "Our barbarians come from above," Henry Demarest Lloyd had written about John D. Rockefeller Sr. in 1894, in one of the most damaging of the tirades against a man some considered a monster and a thief. "Our great money makers have sprung up in one generation into seats of power kings do not know."

Power mattered. Money mattered supremely. But if not used wisely, they could elicit a venom and a fury that would leave even the richest man lonely and depressed, his true power reduced by forces beyond the ambit of capitalism. Power had to be wielded with a careful eye to every possible ricochet and riposte. And the ultimate source of that power, money, had to be nurtured and respected, its laws — economic laws, as hard-edged as laws of nature — understood and manipulated with consummate skill.

Stewardship. Again and again, that was the word that surfaced when talking about the five Rockefeller brothers, who had absorbed those lessons in the marrow of their bones. No one in the Rockefeller family would ever match the capacity of John D. Rockefeller Sr. to produce great geysers of wealth. But from the moment of their birth, David Rockefeller and his four brothers would live a life defined by both the privilege, and the burden, associated with properly handling and taking advantage of the family's fortune. By the time David was a young man, the Rockefellers, more than any other family in the United States, had assumed a role as royalty. Yes, the Morgan and the Vanderbilt clans stood out among a few other fabulously wealthy industrialists. But no other family with such great wealth had produced a string of such strong-willed descendants who were intent upon not only perpetuating their affluence, but in leveraging it to remake the community, and perhaps even the nation, where they lived. Before David Rockefeller and his brothers retired, they would attempt to extend that mandate to the world.

As the youngest of six children, David would not emerge from academics until his four brothers were already well along with careers that seemed worthy of the family name. John D. Rockefeller III, David's oldest brother, had taken control of the family philanthropic affairs and would later build Lincoln Center. In 1940, President Franklin D. Roosevelt named Nelson A. Rockefeller chairman of the Office of Inter-American Affairs, a bureau that promoted closer ties with Latin America. Laurance S. Rockefeller was busy trying to help start up Eastern Air Lines. Winthrop Rockefeller tried his own hand at the oil business. David, meanwhile, was a chubby young boy, known for wandering around the 3,500-acre family estate in Westchester in search of new beetle specimens he could add to his carefully classified and maintained collection.


Excerpted from City in the Sky by James Glanz, Eric Lipton. Copyright © 2003 James Glanz and Eric Lipton. Excerpted by permission of Henry Holt and Company.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Meet the Author

James Glanz is a science reporter for The New York Times with a doctorate in physics. Eric Lipton is a metropolitan reporter for the Times. Since September 11, 2001, they have investigated the attack on the World Trade Center and the aftermath. They live in New York.

James Glanz is a science reporter for The New York Times and has a doctorate in physics from Princeton University. He is the co-author of City in the Sky: The Rise and Fall of the World Trade Center.
Eric Lipton is a metropolitan reporter for the Times and the winner of a Pulitzer Prize for explanatory journalism in 1992. Since September 11, 2001, he has investigated the attack on the World Trade Center and the aftermath. He is co-author of City in the Sky. He lives in New York City.

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City in the Sky: The Rise and Fall of the World Trade Center 4 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 5 reviews.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Guest More than 1 year ago
The authors have captured a piece of history....
Guest More than 1 year ago
This book describes the conception, birth, and death of the WTC towers. The key people in these events and the struggles are described. The eminent-domain politics and the architectural design are particularly well covered. That the Port Authority had control over fire safety, and in the end sidestepped due diligence to arrive at the fireproofing, is described well. The one subject I wish had been covered better was the lack of roof rescue. There is some about this... in the 1993 bombing there was a roof rescue, and helicopters were a favored means of transportation to the WTC. That there were no safety precautions that led to roof rescues on 9/11 is mind-boggling. Generally, 9/11 has been under-investigated. This book is a stop back toward a serious look at what really happened.
Guest More than 1 year ago
This non fiction book 'grabs you' from the first paragraph. It reads like a great novel. All the back to the very beginning of the idea for a World Trade Center & the characters that made it happen keep you turning the pages. A great book.
Guest More than 1 year ago
A book about the technical aspects of the construction of the World Trade Center shouldn't be written by authors without credentials in construction or engineering. These authors are not engineers or contractors, nor are they even degreed in these disciplines. (Glanz is a physicist turned writer). The authors have allowed the reader to draw some controversial conclusions about the WTC and drawing such conclusions would be careless based on this work. The authors present a suspect angle, but I'm afraid that they don't have the right background to advance their theories or to create controversy surrounding the construction of the WTC.