September 11th and the Preservation of Memory

Posted on: September 11th, 2008 by Matt Ringelstetter

Today marks the seventh anniversary of the terrorist attacks of September 11th, and while the National Trust for Historic Preservation works hard to preserve buildings, landscapes and neighborhoods, it is important to note that one of our fundamental goals is the preservation of memory through the use of these tangible remainders. Place and memory are concepts that oftentimes interact, with places acting as containers for the collective memories of a particular society or group. From these collective memories, a sense of identity can be derived. Without the buildings, objects, and places that preservationists are concerned with saving, we as a society run the risk of losing the physical pieces that help tie us to a collective identity--whether it be regional, national, or even global.

Two years ago—as we do every spring—the National Trust for Historic Preservation unveiled its list of America's 11 Most Endangered Historic Places. One of these places was the World Trade Center’s Vesey Street Staircase. Known as the “Survivors’ Stairway,” due to the hundreds of people who used it to evacuate the towers during the attacks, the staircase was the last remaining above-ground feature of the World Trade Center, it was also in danger of being lost forever. Construction and development of a memorial site around the area where the Towers once stood threatened the stairs with demolition. This drew the attention of preservationists and everyday citizens alike to the question of how to most appropriately save this important reminder of the attacks and of those who were directly affected by them. Unquestionable for its historic value, the preservation of this 175 ton piece of concrete and steel is more important for the symbolic nature of what it represents. These were the stairs that people who survived the chaos of that morning used to exit the building, they were also used as the entrance for rescue workers to enter the building in order to help those still inside. In addition, the Survivors Stairway is a tangible piece of the September 11th attacks that itself survived, and holds the memory of all those who did not.

Saving the stairway took the efforts of numerous organizations combined with public support via letters to important decision-makers. Groups such as the Lower Manhattan Emergency Preservation Fund, the Preservation League of New York State, the World Monuments Fund, the Municipal Art Society, and the New York Landmarks Conservancy all aided in the process and in March of this year, the stairway was moved out of the path of construction and to a temporary location. In July, the stairs were placed within the foundations of the Memorial where visitors will eventually be able to view them next to the functional staircase as they use them to descend into the museum and experience the site at bedrock level.

The memorial itself is estimated for completion in 2011, and is titled Reflecting Absence, a reference to its attempt to incite thinking on two buildings long-associated with the New York skyline which have been lost forever. In a September 16, 2001 New York Times article, Michael J. Lewis stated that:

"In their absence, the World Trade Center towers are more a monument than ever. The physical void they leave is itself a poignant memorial, an aching emptiness that is the architectural counterpart to human loss."

Besides rows of trees and two waterfall-fed pools representing the areas where the buildings once stood, the memorial will include the names of victims from both towers, the Pentagon and the four flights which crashed in New York, Virginia and Pennsylvania on September 11th, 2001. The Pentagon opened its memorial this morning, and one planned for the Pennsylvania crash site is due to be finished in 2011.

The addition of a tangible, lasting piece of the buildings that did make it through the attacks is interesting when compared to the overall World Trade Center memorial itself, which focuses upon absence, emptiness and the recollection of things that are missing. The inclusion of the appropriately titled Survivors Stairway reminds us that some things did survive the catastrophe—both those who made it out, along with the memories of those who did not—and that we are still here as a nation and global community, whether it be one year after the attack or seven.

The National Trust for Historic Preservation works to save America's historic places. Join us today to help protect the places that matter to you.

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