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The Colossus of Cortlandt Street

Wednesday, October 19, 2005
EDITOR'S NOTE: This is the first in a two-part series, "The Colossus of Cortlandt Street." BEGINNING OF THE LINE Famed Jersey City architect brought life to first Twin Tower dream

Walking one portentous evening across the Vesey Street pedestrian bridge at the World Trade Center site - the area eerily silenced, devoid of the usual throngs of Viewing Wall tourists and vendors pushing Twin Tower T-shirts and bulb-lit souvenirs - I squinted through sheets of steel scrims and half-draped grates down at the exposed pit that has come to be called Ground Zero.

PATH trains wailed on newly minted rails, their frames firing with electricity embers. I traced, from this point, their circuitous entry from a low portal in the west slurry wall - a steel-ringed, concrete-floored portal that connects, as it has since the early years of the last century, Lower Manhattan to Jersey City and Hoboken.

But there was, I knew, a more profound linkage lurking, a little-known chapter in the long history of what was tragically lost in twin twister clouds on Sept. 11, 2001.

Hurrying across the bridge toward Cortlandt Street where the WTC PATH station glowed in silver incandescent illumination, I contemplated one of its predecessors - the long-demolished 1906 Hudson Terminal, the world's first combined train terminal and twin office tower complex. In my mind's eye, I could see the outlines of a colossal Italian Renaissance superstructure that would lead, decades later, to the design and building of the Twin Towers.


The life of Ground Zero as a transportation terminus begins with a Jersey City architect whose name has been lost to history.

On Sept. 25, 1926, a Jersey Journal editorial mourned the passing of 63-year-old Gifford Avenue resident Col. J. Hollis Wells, a "born builder" who "knew how to rear splendid structures that beautified and gave tone and prestige to the communities that were fortunate to have the edifices. ...

"The Hudson Terminal building, the Mutual Life, the Hotel Astor in New York, many apartment houses of superior design, and the Trust Company of New Jersey building at Journal Square were just a few of the structures that his fertile brain helped to design. His mind conceived big things and his resistless energy helped to carry them out."

Newspapers countrywide mourned the famed architect of record-breaking skyscrapers - and, as Spanish-American War veterans touted, the war hero who fought bravely beside Teddy Roosevelt and the Rough Riders.

"In the field of building and engineering," The Jersey Journal reflected, "Col. Wells showed the same courage and daring that had marked his valiant career in Cuba. There, during the Spanish-American War in those torrid days of 1898, he assumed the leadership of a battalion and amid a deadly shellfire and the devastating work of the Spanish sharpshooters, he led up San Juan Hill and to victory the plucky band that had followed his lead."

Wells, a native of Canterbury, England, was raised in Bethlehem, Penn., and schooled in civil engineering at Lehigh University. He then moved to Manhattan, where he climbed the engineering ladder, working on menial public projects before landing a partnership position with Clinton & Russell, the renowned architectural firm responsible for some of the world's biggest buildings.

In 1895 Wells crossed the river to Jersey City's Bergen Hill, an elegant brownstone district bounded by Grand Street and Summit, Gardner, Monticello and Communipaw avenues. His relocation would prove fruitful for his firm as many Clinton & Russell commissions were carried out, including the design for the City Hospital on Baldwin Avenue (an Italian Renaissance structure that was leveled 30 years later to make way for Mayor Frank Hague's long-winded Medical Center campus).

Wells's increased involvement in massive Manhattan and Hudson County projects, particularly after his triumphant return from the battlefields, brought him into contact with the area's most powerful real estate tycoons, industry magnets and master builders. One of those contacts was builder William Gibbs McAdoo, who since 1902 had been busy digging subway tunnels under the Hudson River and was starting to think about an ornamental terminus that would force the world to take notice of his ground-breaking company, the Hudson & Manhattan Railroad.

McAdoo, the poster boy of transportation, was looking for an architect who could bring his vision of a unified terminal structure - a sprawling subway station lined and topped with retail and office space - to physical reality.

Wells, whose work on mammoth office, hotel and apartment complexes in Manhattan was bringing him accumulating accolades, caught McAdoo's eye. He found his architect.


Part II: Towers to Come
JOHN GOMEZ'S "Legends & Landmarks" column appears every Wednesday. Gomez is the founder and former president of the Jersey City Landmarks Conservancy. Contact him at

2005 The Jersey Journal

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