Growing Up at the World Trade Center, Long Before 9/11 and Just After…….With Previously Unpublished Photos

A 70s rendering of the World Trade Center.

Ten years ago, each time I watched the looping footage of the World Trade Center towers collapsing, my heart sank afresh with them. Not only because of the horror I felt over the many lives lost. I was also feeling melancholia about the actual towers. And yet, initially, it seemed peculiar to mourn the loss of steel.

My parents on the viewing platform as one of the World Trade Center towers rises behind them, 1969.

In the immediate aftermath of 9/11, I opened a scrapbook and located a snapshot of my parents on a winter day in 1969. In the background is the trade center being built, about as tall as it stood right after the attack. Studying it, I realized that what I was feeling was nostalgia rather than melancholia. It wasn’t about towers but about the lives of families like mine which had grown up with, and in them.

For as long as I’ve been conscious of my father, he was working on, or at, the World Trade Center. A Port Authority architect, he was personally involved with the trade center as early as 1965, recruiting potential tenants, creating and configuring space for them, then working with other architects and engineers to plan Windows on the World. I knew it simply as his ”work.”

Two of my brothers during our first visit to the World Trade Center’s Observation Deck

Our family had been anticipating the trade center since that day in 1969 when my father took us to a reception where a model of the towers was unveiled. Even my three younger brothers stopped running around long enough to cluster around in wonder at the model.

Two years later came a ”preview” of the finished towers, at a Sunday brunch. Typically, my father included us all, and we were put into jackets and ties, as if it were Easter. I had some idea that ”famous people” might be there and, in eager search of them, purposefully lost my parents and rode the elevator up and down alone and promenaded over the lobby’s purple carpet. None of the guards questioned me, and I thought myself secretly matured. I was 11. I was still immature enough, however, to shortly thereafter swipe more than a few of the official dedication programs and informational booklets, filled with drawings of the building of the World Trade Center. Ever the historic memorabilia keeper, I’ve since learned these are impossibly rare.

The April 1975 dedication program of the World Trade Center.

On Mother’s Day 1976, our family first dined at Windows on the World. It had opened weeks earlier, and the staff doted on us because they knew our father. Windows was our special restaurant, where we took visitors and celebrated moments like the 1998 wedding of my brother. The great moment to a Windows dinner, at least for me, was permission to survey the dessert table, resplendent with every color and texture and shape of sugar. Inevitably, however, my draw to the lemon tart with what were still the thinnest-cut lemon slices I’ve ever seen was too strong. So began my lifelong dessert love of all things lemon.

The view of 70s Manhattan looking uptown from the World Trade Center. copyright Carl Sferrazza

A view of some engineering at the top of a World Trade Center tower. copyright Carl Sferrazza

A view of Long Island from the World Trade Center Observation Deck. copyright Carl Sferrazza

Unlike the observation deck (where you were set back from the edge), you could press your nose against the window and let your stare plummet to the street. I preferred cloudy days, when the restaurant was like a dreamland, the windows snugly insulating us up in the air. I got my first college summer job there, a short stint as a busboy.

As an avid history student, I was angry that my father wouldn’t take us to Philadelphia on July 4, 1976. Instead, he arranged to bring us up to one of the top floors to watch Op Sail, the parade of international ships through New York Harbor. There was fear that the ship’s cannons might blow out the windows, but we crammed into those tall, thin windowsills to watch. Although the ships were just little dots, I would have regretted missing it all. And again, the larger history of the moment had a personal turning point involved. Many of my pictures that day show my 11-month-old sister seated in a windowsill, gesturing to be brought down so she could repeatedly try this new trick she’d learned – walking.

My father easily lured me from Washington to New York on July 4, 1986, to attend the Statue of Liberty centennial celebration at the trade center. On the observation deck I found myself comforting my mother after an upsetting incident as we looked down on Battery Park. Only later did it hit me that that I had spoken to her as an equal.

One of my grandmothers atop the World Trade Center Observation Deck.

Several years earlier, on a bright winter Sunday afternoon, I had my first experience in taking in that incredible, overwhelming view of Manhattan, Staten Island, New Jersey, Long Island, the East River, the Hudson River, the Brooklyn Bridge. My father took color photos of every view; they still seem to capture a sunny but bitter cold winter Sunday just before the sun sets.

Both of my grandmothers had joined us that Sunday. Usually both easily indulged us in conversation about memories of their earlier lives. One grandmother loved sharing with me colorful stories about New York life in the Teens and Twenties.This time, however, I noticed how intently she gazed at the shining, magnificent engineering atop the other tower. She didn’t seem to want to talk, just to look and think. Now, I think how astounding the experience must have been to see not only how much the New York of her youth had transformed, let alone seeing it from so high above.

My other grandmother and one of my brothers, atop the WTC Observation Deck.

Later, gazing at Ellis Island with my other grandmother, I questioned her in detail for the first time about her feelings about coming to the United States, about seeing her father again after several years. It had all been so, so long ago, when she was young. She shrugged and piped up as she turned away to look out again, at the sea beyond, ”It’s best in America.”

As late as 1993, I’d never even briefly considered my father’s mortality. That year, when I learned of the trade center bombing, I suddenly feared for his life. Years earlier, he’d told us how the trade center could never topple. We believed everything my father said. After the bombing, he reaffirmed that the trade center wouldn’t fall — between his descriptions of smoke inhalation. Even after I found a stack of photographs he took, and asked about the ghoulish images of trade center workers on stretchers, he chuckled. Oh, it was a mock disaster staged back in 1978.

The Statue of Liberty viewed from the WTC Observation Deck. copyright Carl Sferrazza

The Verrazano Bridge viewed from the WTC Observation Deck. copyright Carl Sferrazza

My last time at the trade center was in 1997, four years before its destruction; the occasion marked the first time my brothers and sister and I had organized an event together as adults, a surprise dinner for our parents’ anniversary. For the first time we all picked up the tab for them.

I now live in Los Angeles, while one of my brothers lives in Melbourne. He and his family had been scheduled to fly out from Australia to visit my parents in New York on September 11, 2001. There may have been one more family outing to Windows, my young niece marking the fourth generation of our family to experience the trade center.  Of course, their plane never left Melbourne.

A rendering of the building of the World Trade Center.

In the days and weeks after the 9/11 attack my father remembered so many of his co-workers from his many years at the trade center, one after the other. So many died. What a horror. He kept his thoughts largely to himself, but he did remark on several occasions, ”There are certain places, on the high spots of Northern Boulevard, where one could always see the towers. I’ve trained myself to avoid looking at the horizon entirely.”

A childhood souvenir: my blue and silver World Trade Center pennant.

My family lost only a place of memories; many others lost the person who created memories for them. It is often said that some good can come from tragedy. In this case, it is hard to see that. Yet somehow, as I think back to what I realized in the time period after 9/11, my father came to stand as tall as the towers once did.


Categories: Americana, History, Technology

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20 replies »

  1. Lad, I remember most your story, I have no idea where published, “the loss of a tall member of our family…”
    Fondest thoughts of you and your dad…
    Much.
    Love.

    • Thanks Anonymous B….:) Actually, this story has much more material and also the unpublished photos of the view from the top of the Twin Towers. Ten years ago? Ten? Was I writing this blog for about a total of one of those years? Time flies too swiftly to catch it seems. Will pass on your good word to my father as well…..thanks.

  2. In the neighborhood where we grew up, it was fascinating to get on the Long Island Expressway as the Towers went up. It seemed that each month, the skyline had grown to unfathomable proportions – until the next time we approached Manhattan and the Towers seemed to grow like a fast-growing garden. I remember my mom always saying “they CAN’T possibly get taller than THAT” as the years went on and the skyscrapers bloomed into the air.
    As Chairman of the Board of the East Side Chamber of Commerce, my dad got to bring the family to the opening of Windows on the World. The thing I most remember was not the food or the view; it was what seemed to be an endless (and terrifying) elevator ride for a young girl.
    The week after 9/11, I had to take a trip from CT out of LaGuardia. Crossing the Throgs Neck Bridge and seeing (and still smelling) the rubble on the way to the airport (a ghost town), I found myself weeping once again. This time it was for a huge piece of my childhood that I never imagined I would be mourning. The Twin Towers weren’t just skyscrapers, but rather the beginning of the technology that would later define the next generation’s way of life. (And yes, Carl, I can still taste that amazing Lemon Tart.)

    • So interesting to see the perspective of it as it grew. I think that the pictures are difficult to convey the modernistic sense of the arrived future and just the shere massive size of the towers, especially from the base looking up. It was a bit peculiar “experiencing” it all more remotely from California, on television. I do think that when one almost meditates on a specific event or incident at a particular place that the mind has efficiently stored details even down to the taste and smell and the weather and with practice I have found it possible to actually feel as if I am re-experiencing it through the senses. I have done this with people now gone, in terms of restoring experience through memory. And along those lines, as you add…..I can taste that lemon tart. With the actual lemon slices on it, the tart had that real deal bite to its taste. Thanks Rita,,

  3. Carl, this was such a touching tribute of memories.

  4. What a wonderful story! My first husband worked for Bovis Construction and was at the site from September 15 until the end of March 2002 when he was diagnosed with lung cancer. He died a year later. He had many stories about the work that was done at Ground Zero. My second husband’s Dad was a crane operator at the Twin Towers when it was being built. The Tower touched so many many lives in many different ways. I am so glad that Carolyn shared this with me. Great to be in touch with you after all these years! Wendy Zolota Montelione Krug

  5. I really enjoyed reading about your childhood and it brought back so many of the same memories for me…i too grew up in the same town you did…thanks for sharing

  6. Hi Carl!

    I really enjoyed this article! I just shared it with a man I know at work. His name is Ken Spiegel. He worked in accounting at the trade center and remembered your Dad!

    Jeanne

    • Thanks for that tip – will pass it on. And I really appreciate your taking the time to tell me you liked it. I have usually limited such personal stories to good old (late) Yeager, but since it does involve such an historic event, I felt ok with it. Thanks Jeanne!

  7. Dear Carl,
    unfortunately I could not find an email adress to contact you.
    Today I found the beautiful pictures of your family together with the WTC.
    Maybe you like to participate in our project?
    Please contact me

    Best Robert

    • Yes – and sorry for delay. Project looks great – one might find others here also from New York originally or who visited the towers who might have pictures from the observation deck or at the towers. Will be in touch with you at your email.

  8. Thank you for sharing your memories; I enjoyed reading them.

  9. Carl what a beautiful story, I am an Irish woman and have lived in Ireland all my life but my heart is in New York, the heartache I felt after the devastation of the twin towers I will never forget, so I can only imagine how you felt after all the good years you and your family experienced there on different occasions. My one regret is I never got to visit the towers. I have been to ground zero in 2010 & it was so emotional, I went back again in 2011 & I will be back in 2013 to visit the 9/11 memorial & I can’t wait, I find it a very special place. The spirit the American people have is amazing. Thank you for your story.

    • Caroline – and what a beautiful message from you. It’s always reassuring to encounter such thoughtful and upbeat people around the world rather randomly and I greatly appreciate your message. I also take some comfort in your observation about Americans. I’m not sure we all feel that way about ourselves all the time. And in verso, I have to say that ten days in Ireland in 2006 – and not once did I ever encounter anyone who wasn’t warm and engaging and full of fun. I greatly appreciate your message – for many reasons. Cheers.

  10. Wow..I am blown away by your story. It brings the Twin Towers to life. A lifelong Philadelphian, I have only been to NYC a handful of times, and had never visited the WTC. Watching the horror on 9/11, I knew there were many lives lost, but I never considered what the actual building meant to people. Thank you so much for your wonderful perspective.
    Clare S. Philadelphia PA

    • Thank you so much Clare – its always refreshing to learn that people have looked through the archives of stories and are coming to read them for the first time. Yes, those buildings meant a great deal to the families of those who had helped design and watch them rise, dedicated to the effort for many years. And many of those people were also among those killed. I appreciate your generous comments.

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