Capturing the Spirit of 1776, With a Different Number

Topic(s): New York | Comments Off on Capturing the Spirit of 1776, With a Different Number

Capturing the Spirit of 1776, With a Different Number
Published: January 1, 2004
ONE day, a glistening skyscraper will rise over the World Trade Center site, commemorating in its very structure, through the unforgettable dimension of its towering height, the milestone year in which the king lost power.
The king, of course, was Hildibald. And the year 541 was when he was beheaded at a banquet, leading to the elevation of his nephew, Totila, as the new king of the Ostrogoths.
Though the Freedom Tower, the first and tallest of the planned trade center skyscrapers, is routinely described as a 1,776-foot design, it will be, in the eyes of most of the world, a 541-meter building. That suggests a reference not to the year of American independence but to the year that Totila became king and the emperor Justinian extinguished the Roman consulship.
No matter. The 1,776-foot elevation emerged as one of the most critical points in the tortuous process that led to the design of the Freedom Tower by Skidmore, Owings & Merrill, working for the developer Larry A. Silverstein, and Studio Daniel Libeskind, the master planners of the trade center site.
It was Mr. Libeskind who proposed the 1,776-foot idea a year ago as part of his design concept for the site.
“A skyscraper rises above its predecessors,” he said, “reasserting the pre-eminence of freedom and beauty.”
Gov. George E. Pataki, who has called the skyscraper the Freedom Tower, embraced the notion.
“To me, the operative number was 1,776 feet,” he said in an interview, “because that really was an important part of the Libeskind concept, that we’re celebrating freedom here.”
Achieving that number will prove elusive, however.
Because steel and concrete react to changing temperatures, it could happen that Freedom Tower will contract and expand over a range of half a foot, at a minimum, from the depth of winter to the height of summer. Therefore, when the Fourth of July comes around, Freedom Tower may not be exactly 1,776 feet tall.
It gets trickier. The height is to be measured from the curb. But street levels, and therefore curb heights, are uneven around the rocky island of Manhattan. At the trade center site, they slope downward as they run west to the Hudson River.
Thus, a structure 1,776 feet above the curb at Vesey and West Streets, the northwest corner of the site, would be only 1,757.6 feet above the curb at Vesey and Church Streets, the northeast corner of the site.
(Curb heights are measured by the topographical unit of the Manhattan borough president’s office against an imaginary but uniform line called the Borough of Manhattan datum, 2.75 feet above mean sea level at Sandy Hook, N.J., as determined by the United States Coast and Geodetic Survey.)
Then there is the matter of what feature on the building actually marks the elevation of 1,776 feet. The photographs released last month show a model of Freedom Tower whose proportions do not visually correspond with the stated dimensions: a 1,500-foot superstructure topped by a 276-foot spire.
IN the model, the spire is roughly one-third as tall as the 1,500-foot building below it, meaning that it is in the range of 500 feet. That suggests that the symbolic elevation of 1,776 feet will have to be marked somewhere along this length, perhaps by a change in materials.
And all of the effort presumes that 1776 is synonymous with freedom to begin with, when it could be argued that it marks the creation of a slaveholding nation.
As for the implications of the date in New York City, 1776 also marked the beginning of British occupation.
The elevation of 1,789 feet has been suggested as an alternative by at least one person working on the Freedom Tower project: it would commemorate the year the Constitution took effect and George Washington was inaugurated as president, at a site only six blocks from what is now ground zero.
Higher in the sky, 1,865 feet could reflect the true advent of freedom by recalling the year slavery was outlawed by the 13th Amendment. There are those who might advance 1,945 feet, to record the signing of the United Nations Charter.
A 2,001-foot tower was proposed last year, several months before Mr. Libeskind’s presentation, by William Pedersen of Kohn Pedersen Fox Associates. In an article in New York magazine, Mr. Pedersen also called for wind turbines in the upper reaches of the building, just as Freedom Tower is to have.
The Freedom Tower may be the first skyscraper designed to meet a specifically commemorative height, said Ron Klemencic, the chairman of the Council on Tall Buildings and Urban Habitat, though he noted that some skyscrapers in Asia make a deliberate use of the lucky number 8 in their floor counts.
The patriotic motif set by the 1,776-foot elevation is echoed in the name Freedom Tower, which has struck some New Yorkers as a bit discordant.
Indeed, it is difficult to imagine anyone ever jumping into a taxi and saying, “Freedom Tower, driver, and make it snappy.”
As recently as this summer, the project was referred to internally by the development team as World Trade Center Tower 1. And Guy F. Tozzoli, who was in charge of planning, building, renting and operating the first World Trade Center, has said that he expects that usage to resume.
The last time the name Freedom was applied to a New York skyscraper may have been in 1956, when four beacons were installed at the top of the Empire State Building as an attention-getting device by Benjamin Sonnenberg, the publicist, who grandly called them the Freedom Lights.
As the design of the Freedom Tower evolves, it is to be hoped that it will not be driven too single-mindedly by the goal of expressing a number whose precision cannot be guaranteed anyway. With all due respect to King Totila.