"Roman Candle" turns 20: Secrets of Elliott Smith's accidental masterpiece (slideshow)
Elliott and the friends with whom he recorded in middle school in Texas (photo courtesy of Dan Pickering)
Topics: Entertainment News
They jeered when it went up. They cried when it crashed down.
During its nearly 30-year residence at the southern tip of Manhattan, the World Trade Center’s twin towers lived an unusual, contradictory city life.
Built, according to its chief architect Minoru Yamasaki, “as a living symbol of man’s dedication to world peace,” the World Trade Center was destroyed by terrorists in a devastating act of war.
The towers were acknowledged as a wonder of modern engineering, yet were riddled with quirks, like the way pencils rolled off desktops on the top floors when the wind began to gust. Real estate developers in the ’60s and ’70s derided the World Trade Center as government-sponsored folly. Yet this past summer the twin towers morphed into the most valuable piece of privately run real estate in New York.
And while the twin towers were embraced worldwide as the symbol of New York’s grandeur and prowess, locals, not to mention merciless critics, were cool to the sprawling complex, if not outright contemptuous of the “dreary” creation. Instead, they more often pointed to the Empire State and Chrysler buildings as structures that best echoed the city’s aspirations.
From the time the two towers opened for business in 1972, New Yorkers were fascinated by their sheer size and oddity. Daredevils parachuted off the roofs, scaled up windows and walked tightropes between the towers. Movie directors sent mechanical apes to the side (“King Kong”), and staged extravagant dance numbers in the plaza (“The Wiz”). Everyone wanted to touch the new towers, to prod them, to see if the glistening giants had a heart or a soul. The towers though, never seemed to look down, to notice the commotion below.
“The towers kept you at a distance. They said you are divided from me. It was a weird message,” says Eric Darton, author of “Divided We Stand: A Biography of New York City’s World Trade Center.” “They never cohered as a symbolic value like the Statue of Liberty or the Brooklyn Bridge.”
Few want to contemplate what the towers’ rubble may symbolize today. Instead, the question is how the buildings will be remembered.
“The thing we’re going to miss the most is the skyline,” says Angus Kress Gillespie, professor of American studies at Rutgers and author of “Twin Towers: The Life of New York City’s World Trade Center.” “I don’t want to minimize the loss of life or the financial loss. But a year from now what we’ll miss is the beautiful outline in the sky.”
“Even though New Yorkers didn’t necessarily love the buildings, they will be remembered with such pain,” says Carol Willis, founding director of New York’s Skyscraper Museum. “They were always there [looking south to] the bottom of Fifth Avenue. Now you keep looking at this fractured skyline and there’s this constant reminder they aren’t there anymore.”
The World Trade Center, despite its eventual role as a concrete symbol of New York’s financial prowess, was not originally intended to be one of the world’s great landmarks. Instead, it was simply a way for business leaders to clean up the neighborhood and boost rents.
In the 1950s David Rockefeller, co-chairman of Chase Manhattan Bank, had recently opened up headquarters downtown and wanted to stimulate the surrounding real estate market. Concerned that most businesses flocked to midtown, and even financial professionals deserted downtown after work, Rockefeller envisioned a world-class complex that would be the center of international trade.
With his brother Nelson serving as New York’s governor, Rockefeller lined up support from the bi-state, New York/New Jersey Port Authority agency. A wealthy, quasi-public commission (voting members are appointed by each state’s governor), the Port Authority was created at the turn of last century and given “full power and authority to purchase, construct, lease and operate terminal, transportation and other facilities of commerce.”
For the most part, that meant operating Hudson River crossings as well as Newark’s airport. But at the urging of the Rockefeller brothers, the Port Authority agreed to build the World Trade Center. In the 1970s, critics suggested the towers No. 1 and No. 2 be called by their true names, David and Nelson.
Midtown’s real estate developers adamantly opposed the project, afraid the new complex would glut the market with too much new office space and open the floodgates to a downtown migration.
Displaced local businesses located along a now-forgotten downtown section of the city known as Radio Row also protested. But the Port Authority enjoyed the power of eminent domain, giving it free rein to raze buildings for construction. (This was at a time when neighborhood objections to construction were routinely ignored by government-sponsored developers.)
By the time construction began, the Port Authority had upped to 10 million square feet the amount of office space it needed in order to make the deal economically viable. According to author Darton, Yamasaki, who had settled on a twin tower approach, then heeded the advice he received from a chief Port Authority planner: “Do a project that will get noticed.”
When the towers were officially opened in 1972, New York Gov. Rockefeller again came to the towers’ aid, solving a widespread vacancy problem by housing tens of thousands of state employees in the buildings. The state paid just $10 per square foot in rent. When vacancies began to shrink in the mid ’80s and new tenants were paying office rents in the $30-$40 range, New York state opted to move its employees out, conveniently freeing up valuable space for the Port Authority to lease.
Although the twin towers were never seen as one of the city’s most prestigious business addresses, by the ’90s early shipping and merchant marine tenants from the ’70s had been largely replaced by multinational banks and investment brokers such as Morgan Stanley Dean Witter. At the time of the attack the towers’ occupancy rate was a robust 98 percent. Few if any of its remaining tenants had any real connection to port trade.
How best to remember the World Trade Center? The irony is that over the years many critics wished the towers were never there to begin with. Writing for the New York Times, architectural commentator Paul Goldberger often referred to the twin towers as “banal,” and once suggested the World Trade Center represented “New York’s most disliked building.” (New York magazine eventually came up with just such a list; the Pan-Am building actually topped it.)
“Banal to me implies clichi and it’s been done all over the world, so I wouldn’t use that word,” says noted New York architect Hugh Hardy, who oversaw the restoration of the World Trade Center’s Windows on the World restaurant following the 1993 bombing.
Hardy instead opts for “arrogant.” Arrogant in the way the bullying, flat-top towers “gave no recognition to the skyline” around them; “arrogant in their placement.” Hardy suggests it wasn’t until the nearby Cesar Pelli-designed World Financial Center office complex was constructed in 1985 that the lower Manhattan skyline again began to jell. (Post-twin towers, it is now Pelli’s building that looks strangely out of place.)
The World Trade Center’s off-putting, five-acre concrete plaza, created to set the towers off as two jewels, also never made much sense. “The plaza has always been alienating,” says skyscraper historian Willis. “It’s so vast, so out of scale with human beings. They would try to populate it during the lunchtime hour with outdoor dance performers and set up a stage. But inevitably the stage would look like a toy. Plus, there was always heavy wind swirling around. It was not an oasis, but more like a tundra. It was not the type of place that drew people to it.”
And then there were the unusually narrow office windows that robbed tower inhabitants of what should have been an indisputable perk: the view. Yamasaki was afraid of heights and decided in order to make everyone feel secure while they worked in the offices, the windows, set between columns, would be just 18 inches across, narrower than Yamasaki’s own shoulder span.
(The height-sensitive architect also designed a special window rig for Roko Camaj, who’d been washing tower windows since 1975. Last week Camaj’s son was seen on a local New York television newscast, going from hospital to hospital searching for his father, who called moments after the first explosions but days later was still missing.)
The problem with Yamasaki’s window design, says Willis, is the towers offered “no sense of the spectacular panorama” for the workers inside, which is why she, like many professionals, declares the towers’ interior “a failure, aesthetically.” (The exception, of course, was the exclusive Windows on the World located on the 107th floor; thanks to the demands of the restaurant’s creator, Joseph Baum, the spectacular room boasted enormous windows and peerless views of the city.) The irony is that one of the tower’s selling points was its unique floor construction of prefabricated trussed steel, only 33 inches in depth. That allowed everyone a chance to look out the windows because the massive office space was uninterrupted by columns, a modernist ideal of the day.
In the end, the views, due to poor design, were a bust. But no other office complex before or after the towers ever boasted as much room. “It was a shrewd, intelligent way to house a wide-open space,” says architect Hardy.
Not only were the towers obscenely tall, but massively wide as well. The towers’ floors were 40,000 square feet, offering up an acre of space per floor; 220 acres between the twin towers.
Together, they boasted 10 million square feet in office space. That’s larger than the Pentagon and more space than some entire American downtown business districts, such as St. Louis, Miami and San Diego.
Record-breaking skyscrapers built today, many of them in Southeast Asia, are taller than the twin towers, but much narrower and nowhere near as massive all the way around.
“The professional critics of architecture were never really brought around. They say the towers were boring and unadorned,” says Gillespie, who can’t point to a single prominent critic or architect who over the years came forward to defend the twin towers.
“Journalists and the man on the street will say nice things about it. But architectural critics are cemented in their positions. I think they did miss the beauty, the way the towers were offset, not side-by-side, and how when you’re a on a boat on the Hudson River you can see shapes shift between the two [tower] forms. Or how at sunset at Jersey City’s Liberty State Park [across the Hudson], the towers’ polished aluminum reflected the golden sunshine.”
Architect Hardy recalls a favorite image of looking down West Broadway, a street lined with small-scale shops, only to be greeted at the end with the sight of the obscenely large twin towers hovering over it all. “It’s a classic photograph of the city because of the absurdity, which was quite wonderful,” he says.
Historian Willis cites another classic World Trade Center photo she saw tourists take time and time again; walking to the base of a tower and just pointing their camera straight up in the air, following the tower’s contour to the sky. “That view couldn’t help but impress people,” she says.
But while tourists over the years snatched up twin tower postcards by the millions, and New Yorkers did marvel at their dimensions, they never seemed to see themselves in the towers.
That changed in part on Feb. 26, 1993, when Islamic terrorists tried to blow up the World Trade Center by detonating bombs in the underground parking garage. The brazen attack left six dead, more than 1,000 injured and a science fiction-sized crater beneath the twin towers. But the building, and the city, did not bend. “We were the Titanic that hit the iceberg, but we kept going,” says Darton.
Following “Operation Spit and Polish,” the towers reopened for business just in time for the runaway financial bull market that lifted New York City to unmatched prosperity. “They were a metaphor: the height of the tower and the heights of the markets,” says the author.
The World Trade Center reached its financial summit this summer when the Port Authority privatized the complex, selling a 99-year lease to local developer Larry Silverstein for $3.2 billion, the most expensive real estate deal of its kind.
Preparing to take over the lease this summer, Silverstein, suddenly New York’s largest commercial landlord, told the New York Times, “I’ve been looking at the Trade Center for years, thinking what a great piece of real estate, what a thrill it would be to own it. There’s nothing like it in the world.”
And there may never be anything quite like it again, in New York.
Eric Boehlert, a former senior writer for Salon, is the author of "Lapdogs: How the Press Rolled Over for Bush."More Eric Boehlert.
Elliott and the friends with whom he recorded in middle school in Texas (photo courtesy of Dan Pickering)
Heatmiser publicity shot (L-R: Tony Lash, Brandt Peterson, Neil Gust, Elliott Smith) (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott and JJ Gonson (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
"Stray" 7-inch, Cavity Search Records (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott's Hampshire College ID photo, 1987
Elliott with "Le Domino," the guitar he used on "Roman Candle" (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Full "Roman Candle" record cover (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott goofing off in Portland (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Heatmiser (L-R: Elliott Smith, Neil Gust, Tony Lash, Brandt Peterson)(courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
The Greenhouse Sleeve -- Cassette sleeve from Murder of Crows release, 1988, with first appearance of Condor Avenue (photo courtesy of Glynnis Fawkes)