The World Trade Center Club
by John Delach
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 the twin towers to be the centerpiece of international trade. He decided that these towers should be the tallest buildings in the world to project their importance, but he wanted a crown jewel to enhance their glory. He commissioned 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, vintage wines and aged cigars. He recruited powerful restaurateurs who assembled a staff that exuded the proper snobbery of an elite country club. It became a new home for the three-martini lunch and featured a men’s room, adorned in pink and white Italian Marble, so magnificent, it could be an appropriate setting for a national leader to lie in state. The Club kept its own accounts and neither cash nor credit cards were accepted.
The press became aware of the privacy and opulence of The Club and 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. This was in the era of private lunch clubs when senior corporate officers frequented these clubs, belonging to one or more. They were swell places to entertain clients, prospects and underwriters with the bills going on generous expense accounts. My mentor, Charlie R, 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 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 Government’s tax rate was 90% and these trips provided an alternate method of compensation. The Brits usually invaded New York in May and October when the weather is best.
Charlie’s greatest coup came during a dinner for visiting Brits 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 convinced the staff to temporarily close the men’s room, and 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, 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 accomplished other matters of commerce.
The view was paramount and at times dramatic. On crystal clear winter nights, the brightness of the city overwhelmed 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 causing rivers, bays and the ocean to glow. Helicopters flew by at altitudes lower than The Club. The only view above us was of lights from airplanes and the stars. During dinner one night, as low clouds swept in from the west, the streets and buildings grew fainter and fainter until they disappeared. And yet, since these clouds were below The Club, we could still see the stars.
Such was life in the fast lane, 1970s and 1980s style. However, as the 1990s arrived, the Club had become an anachronism. The era of 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. Business had changed in focus, diversity and geography with a reduced tolerance for lunchtime drinking. This and 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 introduce them to The Club and the weather cooperated fully. The view was superb, the food good and the wine far too expensive, but they were as impressed as the French would ever admit.
I resigned from The Club in 2000 when I retired and never returned. On September 1, 2001 the Club died when the North Tower fell. It was no longer relevant, but my world changed forever with that tragedy.
To relieve my post-destruction gloom, I searched for and found my old photographs taken as a young man. I worked on Park Row at the time in sight of the towers as they climbed higher and higher. I thrilled at their ascent and frequently photographed their promise as new stories were added. I also found my last WTC membership card. I thought this evidence and my memories would be the final epitaph.
Curiously, it was not. A letter arrived with the return address being Mr. Jules Roinnel in Baldwin, Long Island. Jules was the Club’s Manager. Dated October 12, 2001, it began: ”Dear Member:” This was a surprise, not because I was no longer a member, but rather that a letter had actually been sent. The letter spoke of the 72 staff members who died and 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? Perhaps the Club could gain a third life? If it did whatever its name, or location, it could not duplicate what was. The Club, like its era and the towers belong to history.