Though the idea of the World Trade Center was first proposed in 1946, just after World War II, for nearly 15 years it would remain exactly that -- an idea. When the concept did re-emerge in the late 1950s, it would begin to move with an all but unstoppable force, propelled above all by two men, sons and brothers of one the most powerful family dynasties on earth.
As much as anyone else of their time, David and Nelson Rockefeller embodied the potent mix of pragmatic capitalist drive and visionary internationalist outlook that underlay the new world order that America had put in place at the end of the war. More than anyone else, they took it upon themselves to ensure New York's role at the very center of that burgeoning commercial imperium.
Wealth and Power
Scions of the fortune established by their grandfather, the titan John D. Rockefeller -- who had built his company, Standard Oil, into one of the first and greatest international conglomerates in the world -- the two brothers had in the years since the war come to hold sway over an almost unimaginable concentration of wealth and power.
Nelson, the second and most ambitious of John D. Rockefeller Jr.'s five sons, had begun his career in the Depression, helping his father transform midtown Manhattan through a spectacular office complex, Rockefeller Center, which became the supreme emblem of New York's new role as "headquarters city" for American corporations. In late 1946, when New York had seemed to be out of the running as the headquarters for the United Nations, Nelson had stepped in at the 11th hour, with the help of his brother David, to ensure that the new world organization made its home in the city -- by arranging for the purchase of the East River site with $8.5 million of their father's money.
David, the youngest and most determined of the brothers, had worked as an assistant to New York mayor Fiorello La Guardia before joining the international loan division of his family's bank, Chase, perhaps the most powerful financial institution in the world. By the mid-1950s, he was already becoming known as a "banker-statesman," who understood how to leverage financial resources to achieve larger political and diplomatic ends -- and how to leverage those ends, in turn, to amass more riches still.
From their offices on the 56th floor of 30 Rockefeller Plaza, the two brothers -- now taking over the reins of the family fortune from their father -- solidified their place at the very center of the East Coast power establishment. Nelson, preparing a bid for the governorship of New York State, exercised his passion for modern art and architecture by taking over leadership of his mother Abby Aldrich Rockefeller's project, the Museum of Modern Art, whose spectacular rise in the 1950s reflected the historic postwar shift of the art world from Paris to New York. David, meanwhile, rapidly ascending through Chase's upper ranks, embarked on an even larger initiative -- engineering a merger with the Bank of Manhattan to form Chase Manhattan, a financial colossus that would lead the way for American companies to transcend national boundaries and operate globally.
Even as that expansion was getting under way, David turned his sights to a more pressing problem, much closer to home: the ailing fortunes of the old financial district around Wall Street, which was now threatening to unravel completely in the face of the postwar boom remaking its rival four miles to the north, midtown Manhattan. In November 1955, David boldly announced that Chase Manhattan would construct a new headquarters just one block north of Wall Street -- a 60-story glass-and-steel tower rising from its own raised plaza that would represent the first major commercial construction in the district since the Depression.
The Big Idea
Concerned that even that bold gesture might not be enough to stem the exodus of business uptown, David next assembled a powerful coalition of business and real-estate leaders, called the Downtown-Lower Manhattan Association, to come up with a more sweeping proposal. At the center of the ambitious 550-block redevelopment program, released in 1959, would rise an updated version of the idea first floated more than a decade earlier -- one that would soon become David Rockefeller's most burning ambition: a World Trade Center.
Symbol of International Business
"David wanted to build an economic development entity," one aide later recalled, "that would also be a symbol of international business." "We don't want to compete with existing office space," the banker himself declared, defending the idea of the specialized, trade-related complex. "We want to provide some new use. A World Trade Center seems logical and it seems logical to have it near the banks that service the bulk of U.S. foreign trade."
Big, Bigger, Biggest
Like Rockefeller Center and Chase Manhattan before it, the complex would be an example of what David called "catalytic bigness" -- a project whose sheer size and impact would be large enough to provide the stimulus for further redevelopment. Indeed, the project David had in mind was so large and ambitious that it would require the resources of the state to bring it to fruition. As it happened, by January 1959 those resources were under the control of a new governor -- David's brother, Nelson -- who would soon take the lead in making his youngest sibling's vision a reality. In the years to come, as the project began rising over the skyline of Lower Manhattan, New Yorkers would give the immense twin towers a knowing nickname: David and Nelson.
My American Experience
How did you first learn of the September 11 attacks? Do you remember what you were doing when the Twin Towers fell? What did it mean to you? Do you have specific memories of that day?