Volume 19 • Issue 13 | August 11 - 17, 2006

talking point

Preserving the stairway is a path to spiraling costs

By David Stanke

The latest World Trade Center artifact under consideration is the “Survivors’ Stairway” also known as the Vesey St. staircase.  If the Port Authority and the Lower Manhattan Development Corp. concede to protect this artifact, they will subject the W.T.C. to ongoing cost overruns and construction delays.  The only responsible treatment of this 175-ton, 1,100-square-foot mass of crumbling concrete is to preserve the few remaining pieces of original granite and to demolish the remaining concrete so that rebuilding can continue.

This staircase poses an endless stream of problems. It stands in what will be the center of the 2 W.T.C. site, where Lord Norman Foster is designing a building. The eastern bathtub beneath it must be excavated seven stories below the staircase. The size, composition and condition of the staircase make it nearly impossible to store in place or to relocate intact.  It cannot be disassembled and reconstructed. 

And still, the Port Authority has irresponsibly engaged in a discussion of optional treatments without any estimate of costs, delays or feasibility. This approach led to a $1 billion memorial and years of inaction at the W.T.C. The Port should know better. They are hopelessly raising people’s expectations.

As an “artifact,” the Vesey St. staircase fails tests of historic significance on every level. Before 9/11, it was an architecturally insignificant staircase from the W.T.C. plaza to Vesey St.  It was not part of the Twin Towers, nor was it a target of the attacks.  It is no longer recognizable from what it once was. Its appearance is the result of W.T.C. deconstruction, not the attacks of 9/11. Even Daniel Libeskind, who found a symbol in everything, looked past this mound.  And still, preservationists demand protection with no consideration of costs. 

Some claim that a uniquely unified voice supports this staircase.  In L.M.D.C./P.A. sponsored meetings on W.T.C. historic preservation, every preservation organization supported preservation of the slurry wall. Now, they want the cement slabs below the W.T.C. towers preserved so that people can have a tactile experience with it, even “kiss it.” Repetitive, emotionally manipulative statements dominate discussions that have lost rational underpinnings.

Responses to this column will undoubtedly mention that the staircase is 11th on the National Trust’s list of most endangered places.  To place this in context, “notable” places with higher ranking include such universal, cultural cornerstones as Doo Wop Motels; Kenilworth, Illinois; and the Kootenai Lodge. For the cost of preserving one battered piece of concrete, you could save several of the higher ranked places. No doubt, the Historic Trust figured out that the W.T.C. is a great publicity tool.

The emotional importance attributed to the artifact is contrived. It became the “Survivors’ Stairway” years after 9/11 when a group of people formed the Survivors Network to establish their connection to 9/11. Early discussions of this group were high minded: bring people together to share experience, find meaning in the disaster, promote advancement of the human condition, and forge consensus on W.T.C. development. But in the end, these were difficult objectives.  Instead, as one of its members acknowledged to me, the Survivors Network “drank the Kool-Aid ” of W.T.C. historic preservation.

For those seeking a symbol of survival, there is “Double Check,” a bronze statue of a businessman looking into his briefcase. It sat on a bench in the Liberty Street Plaza off Broadway on the morning of 9/11. A photograph of it covered in debris made this statue immediately recognizable to millions. Now it sits in the restored park. Look closely to see marks of 9/11 debris on his head and back. His suit is permanently embedded with the grain of the W.T.C. dust that covered so many of us.  But this item was not chosen as the survivors’ symbol because it is off the W.T.C. site.  Four years with a blank slate at the W.T.C. have driven people to seek meaning in random objects, just as the eye begins to see spots when trained on a blank piece of paper. 

I, along with tens of thousands of others, am a survivor of the W.T.C. attacks. I state this simply as fact as someone whose home across the street was damaged Sept. 11. Survival is hardly a transcendent value. Antelope run from lions. Ants run from shoes. On 9/11, survival was not an act of bravery, it was an inseparable mix of desperation and luck, driven by instinct. I deserve no recognition. Life is survival’s reward.

The P.A. moved the most meaningful artifacts to a hangar at Kennedy Airport within a year of 9/11/01 – the massive, twisted columns of the towers, smashed emergency vehicles, and PATH station turnstiles that were last used by survivors escaping the disaster. The stuff left on site is already of second or third tier in importance.  The staircase was partially demolished four years ago and no one cared. Community Board 1 has resolved that this staircase should not further delay reconstruction. The resources for both Downtown rebuilding and the W.T.C. memorial are short. The harsh light of this reality demands a much simpler treatment for these stairs.

David Stanke, who lives and writes Downtown, is a consulting party to the Section 106 World Trade Center historic preservation process. His email is


Downtown Express is published by
Community Media LLC.
145 Sixth Avenue, New York, NY 10013
Phone: (212) 229-1890 Fax: (212) 229-2790
Advertising: (646) 452-2465 •
© 2006 Community Media, LLC


Written permission of the publisher
must be obtainedbefore any of the contents
of this newspaper, in whole or in part,
can be reproduced or redistributed.