October 2001, Revised September 2019
Today marks the 18th anniversary of the dreadful day that terrorists destroyed the World Trade Center and changed our lives forever. I wrote this a month after the towers fell.
Austin Tobin was the driving force behind the construction of the World Trade Center. As Chairman of the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, he envisioned these twin towers to be the centerpiece of international trade. He wanted these towers to be the tallest buildings in the world, but he also wanted a crown jewel to enhance their glory. To fulfill this desire, he commissioned architects to design the World Trade Center Club, his personal gift to power. Located on the 106th and 107th floors of the North Tower, The Club became a magnificent drinking and dining facility with private rooms, fine wine and cigars, with a staff that exuded the proper snobbery of an elite country club. It was home for the three-martini lunch and its men’s room, adorned in pink and white Italian Marble, was so magnificent it could be an appropriate setting for a rock star, if not a national leader, to lie in state. The Club kept its own accounts and neither cash nor credit cards were accepted.
When the press became aware of the privacy and opulence of The Club, all hell broke loose. How could a public agency promote a subsidized private club? Tobin had to pacify the press and politicos and so, at night it became “Windows on the World” the unique public restaurant 107 floors in the air. The NY Times first review read in part: “…as to the quality of the food, you cannot beat the view.”
At lunchtime, The Club remained members only. Senior officers in my industry, marine insurance, frequented several private luncheon clubs belonging to one or more. They were swell places to entertain clients, prospects and underwriters while their cost was buried in generous expense accounts. A mentor, Charlie Robbins, introduced me to The WTC Club. Charlie drank Bombay Gin Martinis and loved to entertain there. He especially liked to show it off to visiting British brokers and their wives. This was during an era when British firms sent their senior and most promising junior brokers to the United States for two or three weeks at a time in the company of their wives. The Labour Governments tax rate was 90% and these trips provided an alternate method of compensation. They came to New York mainly in May and October when the weather is best.
Charlie’s greatest coup came during a dinner in one of the private dining rooms. He disappeared and, on his return announced: “May I have your attention. I have arranged a special event for the ladies, a tour of the most magnificent men’s room in the world.” Charlie had bribed the staff to temporarily close the men’s room as he proceeded to escort the ladies, including my wife, on a private tour to the delight of all.
Charlie encouraged me to become a member. We worked in midtown and the cost was discounted if you were north of Canal Street. I took his advice and joined. During my 20 years as a member, I hosted many a lunch and dinner there. I utilized their private rooms to set agendas, deal with crises, welcome visitors, congratulate success, say goodbye to retirees, good luck to transferees and accomplish other matters of commerce.
The view was paramount and at times dramatic. On crystal clear winter nights, the brightness of the city overwhelmed us while the surrounding areas stretched to the horizon in strands of light. Manhattan buildings, seen from above, stood out silhouetted by spotlights and ground lights. If the moon was strong, or full, its reflected light made rivers, bays and the ocean glow. Helicopters flew by at altitudes lower than The Club. The only view above us were the lights from airplanes, satellites and the stars. One night during dinner low clouds swept in from the west obscuring streets and buildings as they grew fainter and fainter until they disappeared. Remarkably, we could still see the stars.
Such was life in the fast lane, 1970s and 1980s style. However, as the 1990s arrived, the Club became an anachronism. The era of the private luncheon clubs was over. The Harbor View Club, Drug and Chemical Club, The Wall Street Club and the infamous Whitehall Club, with its deadly bartender, Spiro, had all closed. The business of doing business had changed in focus, diversity and geography with a reduced tolerance for lunchtime drinking. This cultural shift, loss of tax deductibility, the cost of space and the desirability of their locations conspired to hasten their demise.
The terrorist bombing of the World Trade Center in 1993 had forced The Club to close, I thought permanently. So, it was with surprise that I opened an announcement in 1995 advising The Club would re-open. I re-joined at a discounted fee, but seldom used it as I too had changed. I hosted my last dinner in the fall of 1999 for a group of French underwriters from AXA Insurance Company. The summer before, they had entertained us and our client at their chateau in Bordeaux, a once in a lifetime event. My colleagues and I decided to present the Club to them in return. The weather cooperated fully. The view was superb, the food good and the wine, far too expensive for my taste but suitable for them all were a success. Our guests were as impressed as the French would ever admit.
I resigned from The Club in 2000 when I retired and never returned. On September 11, 2001, the Club died when the North Tower fell.
To relieve my post-destruction gloom, I searched for and found my old photographs taken as a young man that illustrated the promise of the the twin towers during their construction. I also found my last membership card. I embraced this as evidence of my memories of the club.
Curiously, a final chapter, an epitaph of sorts had to play out. A letter arrived with the return address for Mr. Jules Roinnel in Baldwin, Long Island. Jules was the Club’s Manager. Dated October 12th, Mr. Roinnel spoke about the 72 staff members who died that day. He also advised that two surviving luncheon clubs would offer guest privileges until the end of the year. Even though it read in part: “…the future of The World Trade Center Club is unclear.” it had an upbeat tone about it.
Perhaps Jules was going through the motions? We all express our grief differently. What once reigned supreme was gone. The Club, like its era and the towers belonged to history.