For years now, it has seemed a foregone conclusion that One World Trade Center, the skyscraper that has arisen on the site of the destroyed twin towers in lower Manhattan, would rise to a symbolic height of 1,776 feet and dethrone Chicago's Willis Tower as the nation's tallest building.
But with the 12th anniversary of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks approaching Wednesday, new twists in the arcane game of measuring skyscraper height have raised the unlikely — and, for some, unthinkable — possibility that One World Trade Center won't be No. 1 and that Willis would retain the coveted titles of the tallest building in the U.S. and the Western Hemisphere.
The widely recognized arbiter of skyscraper bragging rights, the Chicago-based Council on Tall Buildings and Urban Habitat, will consider in November whether to knock more than 400 feet off One World Trade Center's official height, owing to a technical distinction between spires and antennas.
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Such a call would disrupt the carefully calibrated symbolism, envisioned by ground zero master planner Daniel Libeskind, of a tower rising to 1,776 feet — a reference to the year the Continental Congress adopted the Declaration of Independence and an expression of American resolve in the wake of the Sept. 11 attacks.
"I think the common perception and the common wisdom … is that it's 1,776," Nina Libeskind, the architect's wife and spokeswoman, said Monday in a telephone interview. "I don't know how one suddenly dictates that it isn't because they don't consider antennas to be part of the building. I would say it's the wrong call."
Conceivably, some Chicagoans might agree, despite the city's tradition of fashioning its identity from such superlatives as "world's largest store," "world's greatest newspaper," "world's busiest airport" and "world's tallest building." Chicagoans are Americans, too, and well recall the trauma of a dozen years ago. Some might prefer to cheer for One World Trade Center's pre-eminence.
According to the tall building council's rule book, spires can be counted in a tall building's height but broadcast antennas, like flagpoles, are superfluous add-ons. In 1996, that distinction doomed the bid of Willis Tower, then known by its original name of Sears Tower, to retain the world's tallest building crown. Instead the council ruled in favor of the Petronas Towers in Malaysia, whose spires made them a scant 33 feet taller than Sears.
For Chicago and New York, the stakes of being associated with the nation's tallest building are high, especially with Mayor Rahm Emanuel seeking to boost Chicago tourism. Last week, city officials trumpeted the news that Chicago had moved up one notch — to ninth place — among U.S. cities in attracting international tourists. New York ranked first.
Yet even if the council's height committee rules in One World Trade Center's favor, another technicality could upset the tower's appeal to national pride.
Four years ago, the council revised its rules to state that a skyscraper's height is measured from the lowest significant, open-air pedestrian entrance to the building's top.
Because One World Trade has a secondary, north-facing entrance that is five feet lower than its main, south-facing entrance, the tower's height in feet could be 1,781. That hardly has the same patriotic ring as 1,776, though it would recognize the year of the decisive Revolutionary War battle at Yorktown.
"The issue is not just about the height of the building. It's about the base of the building," said Antony Wood, the council's executive director.
The spire versus antenna issue surfaced last year when the Durst Organization, which is co-developing One World Trade Center with the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, confirmed its decision to eliminate a fiberglass and steel "radome" that would serve as an ornamental cover for the skyscraper's mast.
The decision, which saved an estimated $20 million in construction costs, was primarily based on concerns that the radome's tapering web of interlocking triangles would prove impossible to maintain, the developers said. It led to a reaction from the tower's architect that raised eyebrows at the council.
"Eliminating this integral part of the building's design and leaving an exposed antenna and equipment is unfortunate," the architect, David Childs of the New York office of Skidmore, Owings & Merrill (SOM), said in a widely disseminated statement.
Because the council, a private nonprofit association based at the Illinois Institute of Technology, relies heavily on architects' descriptions of their skyscrapers, Childs' statement appeared to lend credence to the view that One World Trade Center's mast could no longer be considered a spire.
"No one outside our organization has picked up on the subtlety of that," said Wood, the tall building council's executive director.
SOM on Monday backed off Childs' earlier statement, saying in an email "there is no doubt in our minds" that the mast atop One World Trade Center qualifies as a spire. But SOM did not explain why the tall buildings council ought to heed its new position, leaving the door open — if only a crack — for the council's height committee to base its decision on Childs' original remarks.
Addressing the issue of the lower secondary entrance, a spokeswoman said SOM's hope is that the design will be grandfathered in because it was unveiled in 2005 — four years before the council made its rule change.
"The 'front door' of (One World Trade Center) — symbolically and practically — is the south entrance," SOM said in its email. "This is the entrance that faces the 9/11 memorial and is, therefore, the most significant entrance to the building from every standpoint."