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The Complete History of Ground Zero: Before and After 9/11

Architecture at Ground Zero
By Gabby Hammond

April 16, 2022

When it was first built, the World Trade Center symbolized globalization and the economic power of the United States. After the devastating terror attacks on 9/11, it also became a symbol of American resilience. 

This timeline will take you step by step from the beginnings of the World Trade Center in 1962 to the area today, 60 years later. You’ll discover just how much has changed in one small part of the city and how it was created, and then recreated all over again. 

Here’s a timeline of Ground Zero, including before and after the attacks of 9/11.

September 20, 1962: An architect is announced

After the idea for the World Trade Center was suggested by David Rockefeller to help stimulate urban renewal in Lower Manhattan, Port Authority named Minoru Yamasaki as the lead architect of the complex. 

January 18, 1964: The design is revealed

Two years later, Minoru’s final design was unveiled to the public. It included over 13 million square feet of office space and two twin towers standing 110 stories tall — plus a total of 95 express and local elevators. 

August 25, 1966: Groundbreaking day

After acquiring the property and clearing thirteen square blocks of buildings, construction for the World Trade Center began. Since the site was located on landfill, a slurry wall was built around the west side to keep water from the Hudson River out. 

April 4, 1973: The World Trade Center opens

Credit: Jon Harder / CC BY-SA 3.0

With Tower 1 and Tower 2 making history as the tallest buildings in the world, the seven buildings of the World Trade Center cost a total $900 million to build.

Eventually, the Twin Towers became an NYC icon. It’s estimated that over 50,000 people worked in the complex, with an additional 140,000 passing through each day. The World Trade Center was so large, it even had its own zip code.

August 7, 1974: Philippe Petit’s high-wire walk

French high-wire acrobat Philippe Petit performed what many people thought impossible — walking between the two towers on a tightrope.

From over 1,300 feet above ground, he rigged his own steel cable and used a custom made balancing pole. In 45 minutes, he made eight passes along the wire. Afterwards, he was charged with trespassing and disorderly conduct, but was later freed after promising to perform in Central Park. 

February 13, 1975: Fire in the North Tower

Just a couple years after its official opening, a three-alarm fire broke out on the 11th floor of the North Tower. It spread down to the 9th floor and up to the 14th. 

While it was extinguished within a few hours, it did cause some damage to the affected floors and brought attention to the fact that there were no fire sprinkler systems in the buildings. 

December 1975: South Tower open-air observation deck opens

On the 107th floor of the South Tower was a glass-enclosed observation deck. It was known as Top of the World, and included a miniature model of Manhattan, a theater, and video monitors with descriptions of points of interest throughout the city. 

When the outdoor deck opened, visitors could look out from a height of 1,377 ft and see up to 50 miles out. 

April 1976: Windows on the World opens

Credit: Raphael.concorde / CC BY-SA 3.0

Located on the 106th and 107th floors of the North Tower, Windows on the World was a collection of dining, meeting and entertainment venues. There was the main restaurant, a smaller American steakhouse and a bar. In its last full year of operation, Windows on the World became the highest-grossing restaurant in America. 

February 26, 1993: Bombing of the North Tower

Considered the first terrorist attack on the World Trade Center, the bombing of the North Tower occured after a truck filled with 1,500 pounds of explosives detonated in the underground garage. 

There was extensive damage to the tower, with a 100 ft hole being blasted through five sublevels. Six people were killed. A reflecting pool was later installed in their memory. 

January 14, 1998: Bank robbery

Led by Mafia member Ralph Guarino, a three-man crew gained maintenance access to the World Trade Center. They stole almost $2 million in cash from the Bank of America armored delivery truck in the North Tower. While they managed to escape from the complex, the criminals were all eventually arrested. Guarino later became an FBI informant. 

September 11, 2001: The attacks

The terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center is a memory that lives in the minds of millions of people to this day. Hijackers flew two Boeing 767 jets into the Twin Towers — the first into the North Tower at 8:46 am, the second into the South Tower at 9:03 a.m. 

Due to the heavy fires and damage to the buildings’ structural columns, both towers collapsed. The falling debris also led to a partial or complete collapse of all the other buildings in the World Trade Center. A total of 2,977 innocent people were killed. 

November, 2001: LMDC is established

The Lower Manhattan Development Corporation was formed by NY Governor George Pataki to oversee the rebuilding process of the World Trade Center. They were responsible for organizing competitions to select both a site plan and a memorial design. 

May 30, 2002: Last piece of steel removed from Ground Zero

The process of cleanup and recovery at Ground Zero took a total of eight months, with rescue and recovery workers working 24 hours a day. The remains of all the other buildings in the World Trade Center were demolished. 

And finally, by the end of May, the last piece of steel was ceremonially removed. Rebuilding of the site could now commence.

Here’s a timelapse of the rebuilding of the World Trade Center, showing how Ground Zero changed over 20 years.

February 27, 2003: Daniel Libeskind wins design competition

Starting in mid-2002, LMDC hosted an open-design study in order to choose the best plan for rebuilding the World Trade Center. It was narrowed down to seven semi-finalists, who presented their ideas to the public in December 2002. 

By February, Libeskind was announced as the winner and master planner. His design — Memory Foundations — included six new skyscrapers and a memorial and museum dedicated to those killed in the attacks. 

January 14, 2004: Memorial design is chosen

A separate competition was held to choose the design for the 9/11 memorial. Over 5,000 entries were received from over 60 nations. Reflecting Absence, designed by Michael Arad and Peter Walker, was selected as the winner. 

March 13, 2006: Construction begins

On the morning of March 13, workers arrived at the World Trade Center site to start surveying work for the new master plan. This marked the official start of construction for the National September 11 Memorial & Museum. 

May 23, 2006: 7 WTC opens

After 4 years of construction, the first tower to be rebuilt was Tower 7. It’s the shortest of the bunch, standing only 52 stories high. 

September 11, 2011: The National September 11 Memorial opens

September 11th memorial at Ground Zero with roses next to names

The memorial is made up of two square reflecting pools that mark the footprint of where the Twin Towers stood. Lining each pool is an engraved parapet with all of the victims’ names, as well as the six victims of the 1993 bombing.  

November 13, 2013: 4 WTC opens

4 World Trade Center was the second building to be completed. Inside is the Port Authority Headquarters of New York and New Jersey. 

May 21, 2014: The National September 11 Museum opens

Following the opening of the memorial, the museum was supposed to open later that year. But various delays pushed back the official opening to 2014. At the same time, the fences around the memorial were removed and it became a publicly accessible space. 

November 3, 2014: 1 WTC opens

Also known as the Freedom Tower, One World Trade Center is the tallest building in the United States. It stands at 1,776 feet — alluding to the year of the Declaration of Independence. 

At the very top is One World Observatory, with beautiful 360 degree views of lower Manhattan. 

March 4, 2016: The Oculus opens

The World Trade Center Transportation Hub (otherwise known as The Oculus) was one of the more controversial building projects. It opened several years behind schedule and billions of dollars over budget. The purpose was to replace the WTC PATH train station, combining it with a retail space and underground mall. 

June 29, 2016: Liberty Park opens

Liberty Park is an elevated park overlooking the memorial plaza. There’s wooden benches, a small elevated space similar to an amphitheater and an observation balcony. The total cost of construction was close to $50 million. 

August 2017: The Sphere returns to the World Trade Center

Credit: Epicgenius / CC BY-SA 4.0

The Sphere sculpture was originally installed in the plaza between the two towers. It miraculously survived the collapse of both towers and was placed in Battery Park for many years during the cleanup of Ground Zero.

Port Authority has it reinstalled in Liberty Park, overlooking its original location. 

June 11, 2018: 3 WTC opens

While Tower 3 is not the last one to be built, it is the most recent to be completed. It took 8 years to build and is the second tallest of the towers, standing at 1,079 feet. 

September 8, 2018: Cortlandt Street Subway reopens

After being closed for almost seventeen years after September 11, the Cortlandt Street subway station officially reopened in 2018. It was one of a few mass transit stations that had to be rebuilt in the aftermath. 

What’s next at the World Trade Center

While the World Trade Center has transformed significantly over the past 20 years, there is still more to come. 

The St. Nicholas Greek Orthodox Church is scheduled to open by the summer of 2022. A performing arts center named for billionaire businessman Ronald Perelman is currently under construction. And both 2 and 5 World Trade Center are scheduled to begin construction as well.

Interested in learning more about Ground Zero? Join us on a guided tour and see all the new buildings and changes in person. 

By Gabby Hammond

April 16, 2022

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