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The Colossus of Cortlandt Street Part 2

Wednesday, October 26, 2005
EDITOR'S NOTE: This is the second in a two-part series, "The Colossus of Cortlandt Street." Part I, "The Born Builder," appeared last Wednesday.

Among the thousands of faces and facades that intermittently formed and faded in the cordoned off core of Ground Zero, at the exact intersection of Church and Cortlandt streets in Lower Manhattan, the sirens of history softened into silence - leaving only late summer zephyrs in their wake - and revealed what I went searching for after midnight: lost names, vanquished architecture, origins only recently released by tragedy.

THE WONDER

Between 1906 and 1907, headlines related to Jersey City resident Col. J. Hollis Wells's design for the mammoth Hudson Terminal monopolized newspapers and architectural and engineering periodicals almost daily: "McAdoo Tunnel And The World's Biggest Office Building"; "Tunnel Terminal Will Be A Wonder"; "The Completion Of A Gigantic Task." The most minute of physical details were printed in extended excerpts, quenching the thirsts of spellbound readers who couldn't wait for the station to be unveiled in August 1909. "The structure will not only be the biggest office building in the world," The Jersey Journal wrote, "but will also be one of the busiest, it being estimated that over half a million people will pass through it daily."

Wells's twin cross-shaped colossi, bounded by Cortlandt, Church and Fulton streets and overlooking the Hudson River, consisted of 22 above-ground stories and seven below-street level floors lined with ziggurating ramps, stairways, corridors and platforms, all configured to quickly and efficiently move thousands of commuters from Hudson & Manhattan Railroad trolleys to burgeoning sidewalks.

Designed in the Italian Renaissance style, the buildings boasted 4,000 offices, 5,000 windows, 30,000 electric lights and 39 express elevators. Wells, following specifications from William Gibbs McAdoo, the builder of the Hudson Tunnels (now PATH), included in his design interior movie theaters, meat markets, women's powder rooms and top-floor restaurants with sweeping views. The entire complex, electrified by the H&M Powerhouse on Washington Street in Jersey City, weighed up to 24,000 tons and required 75,000,000 pounds of concrete and 16,300,000 bricks - unheard of numbers at that time and enough to make it the largest and heaviest man-made structure on the planet.

Neither Wells nor McAdoo could have foretold the reach and influence of the Hudson Terminal. It would be more than half a century before a Cold War-era twin skyscraper project emulated (and eventually erased) his terminal and a full century before a post-9/11 train terminal planned to rise, bird-like, in angelic white over the same spot.

TOWERS TO COME

Undoubtedly, Austin Tobin, the head of the Port of New York Authority, must have been thinking of Wells's Hudson Terminal, which the agency had acquired after the Hudson & Manhattan Railroad went bankrupt in 1962, when he approached Japanese-American architect Minoru Yamasaki to design a world trade and financial center complex that would house, in a single location, both offices and subway lines - just like the Hudson Terminal. Yamasaki, known for his bland metal and glass skyscrapers, studied the perimeter of the terminal and surrounding blocks that would serve, in a few years, as a foundation for the Twin Towers. Looking up at Wells's buildings, he found them to be, as he wrote, "dilapidated and no architectural gems."

Tobin couldn't agree more. He and Yamasaki recognized the brilliance of the Hudson Terminal's function and profitability - nothing more. Like the terminal, their planned trade center had to lead commuters to floors lined with stores and restaurants, and the upper levels - all 110 stories - had to offer endless commercial office space. There had to be two towers on the site - like the Hudson Terminal - for two towers joined by a common public plaza were more profitable than one. And two, like the terminal, would guarantee the prestigious title of being the largest man-made skyscraper in the world.

Tobin and Yamamsaki took from Wells's terminal and, in return, leveled it shortly after construction began on the Twin Towers at the end of the 1960s.

A STATION RISES

On the night of my calling to Cortlandt Street, the site blared under blinding stadium floodlights. I could hear incoming and outgoing PATH trains below - a metallic century-old cacophony that reminded me, suddenly, of the Santiago Calatrava-designed WTC Transportation Hub, a stunning skeletal subway terminus shaped like a soaring spectral bird. That, too, will hold ground-floor commercial space high above the tracks as did its two predecessors - yet another testament to the Jersey City architect whose name is inevitably embedded in the history of Ground Zero.

NOTE: The author would like to thank Cynthia Harris, supervisor of the New Jersey Room, Jersey City Free Public Library; Leon Yost, photographer; and Gerry Weinstein of the Society For Industrial Archeology.

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 johngomez68@mac.com . 2005 The Jersey Journal 2005 NJ.com All Rights Reserved.

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