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Extracting Survivors’ Stairway for a Home at the 9/11 Museum

Extracting Survivors’ Stairway for a Home at the 9/11 Museum

Jan 17, 2008
By By: David W. Dunlap | The New York Times | The New York Times

With the new World Trade Center rising clamorously around it, the last standing vestige of the old World Trade Center is about to be uprooted.

In the last week, workers have cut openings into a concrete superstructure supporting 38 steps that once led from Vesey Street up to the north end of the sprawling Austin J. Tobin Plaza. Because hundreds of evacuees made their way down this route on Sept. 11, 2001, it is called the “survivors’ stairway.”

Whether the stairway itself would survive was a question for the Pataki administration to ponder. It proposed to salvage individual steps but not the entire run of stairs, which stands where Tower 2 is to rise. Preservationists and survivors of the attack were dismayed by the plan.

So was the Spitzer administration. In August, Avi Schick, the chairman of the Lower Manhattan Development Corporation, proposed to extract the staircase whole from the surrounding concrete bulkhead, then reinstall it in the National Sept. 11 Memorial and Museum at ground zero.

Preparations are under way to do just that.

By late February, the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, which owns the site, expects to build a steel framework beneath the five-foot-wide staircase.

That will permit workers to isolate the stairs from the rest of the remaining Vesey Street structure, which includes a fragment of terrazzo paving from the Tobin Plaza, a sloping surface where two escalators once ran and an entrance to the Cortlandt Street station on the No. 1 subway line, which has been closed since 2001.

Besides the staircase, workers will salvage part of the plaza pavement. A plywood barrier and several columns from the subway station will be taken to Hangar 17 at Kennedy International Airport, where large-scale 9/11 artifacts are kept.

The rest of the structure will be demolished.

“You have to do it with an extraordinary amount of care,” said Stephen Sigmund, chief of public and government affairs at the Port Authority.

Once the staircase is atop its steel cradle, it will be jacked up and rolled to Vesey Street. It will stand opposite the small park outside 7 World Trade Center until it is lowered by crane to the museum’s principal floor, almost at bedrock.

The steel framework will continue supporting the staircase in its permanent location. Though visitors will not be able to walk down the staircase remnant, they will pass it on a new staircase or escalator.

“That ceremony of descent will be alongside the survivors’ stairway,” said Alice Greenwald, director of the memorial museum.

The removal and reinstallation will cost about $1 million.

One of the first to suggest this approach in 2006 – as a way of breaking the impasse between preserving the survivors’ stairway and proceeding with Tower 2 – was Robert Silman, an engineer working as a consultant to preservation groups like the New York Landmarks Conservancy and the Municipal Art Society.

“I’m confident they’ll get it right,” Mr. Silman said on Wednesday. “I think they’re very serious about doing a good job. I’ll say that now, because in the beginning, they were skeptical about doing the job at all. I have no quarrel with what’s being done.”

Mr. Schick saw a practical side to the project. “It sends the message that we can honor the memory of that day, hear the voice of those who experienced 9/11 and reconcile that with development goals and the need to move forward,” he said.

Ms. Greenwald found a more spiritual side to housing the staircase in the museum, saying, “It reinforces a fundamental curatorial message: We all live in a post-9/11 world and, in that sense, every one of us is a 9/11 survivor.”


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