Before They Were Monuments

The recent anniversary of the dedication of the Empire State Building got me thinking about how we sometimes take for granted some of the great monuments of our time. So often these grand engineering achievements were considered folly at the time of their construction, but went on to become iconic images forever burned into our memory.

When it opened for business in 1931, the Empire State Building was the tallest building in the world by orders of magnitude. It stood more than twice as high the second tallest building. It would remain the world record holder until 1970, when the North Tower of the World Trade Center opened. Construction started at the height of the Great Depression, and many wondered if engaging in such a project was a wise decision considering the nation’s troubles. Fortunately, braver souls prevailed and the project went forward.

The Empire State Building under construction, 1930. Image: New York Public Library Archives

The Empire State Building under construction in 1930.
Image: New York Public Library Archives

There was also the problem of filling the office space. The ESB didn’t become profitable until 1950, almost two decades after King Kong swatted at biplanes from the building’s spire. This was a problem that was shared with the even more ambitious World Trade Center in the early 1970s.

The WTC, as proposed in the mid-60s, would be the tallest buildings in the world. The fact that one 110-story structure was going up was exciting enough, but the fact that there would be two identical towers seemed absolutely daunting.

The project was mired in controversy from the start. A 16-block section of downtown Manhattan had to be cleared for the new complex, and hundreds of business tenants had to either relocate or close up shop. This set a large number of New Yorkers against the Twin Towers before a shovelful of dirt was even turned over.

The World Trade Center under construction in 1970. Image: Time-Life

The World Trade Center under construction in 1970.
Image: Time-Life

The WTC contained enough office space to warrant its own ZIP code (10048, which was discontinued after September 11, 2001). The Twin Towers did not reach full occupancy until 1979, and even then only because the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey subsidy made rents cheaper in relation to its downtown neighbors. A number of architects also considered the buildings an eyesore. Such criticisms were forever silenced after 9/11, when nostalgia and raw emotion left us forever yearning for the return of the Twin Towers to the New York skyline.

Other modern monuments have had troubled beginnings. We cannot imagine life without the Brooklyn Bridge, the Lincoln Memorial, or the Golden Gate Bridge, but each has its own dramatic tale of how dreams were almost torn asunder by naysayers only to persevere thanks to ingenuity and American can-do spirit.

But that’s another story.