Twenty-one years. On this year’s observance of the attack on the World Trade Center, that number and that place have been intertwined in my life long before the tragedy we recall every 9/11.
I celebrated my 21st birthday at Windows on the World, the spectacular restaurant high above the city atop the North Tower of World Trade Center. It would become a destination restaurant where New Yorkers brought out-of-town guests and where we celebrated anniversaries, birthdays, and graduations.
As I did in its inaugural year 1976.
It opened that April 19, as a private club but anyone could visit if they paid $10 in dues plus $3 as a guest. But Sundays Brunch was open to all.
It was, my Long Island parents assumed correctly, a perfect place to celebrate my coming of age. Dining from 107 floors up in the most highly publicized skyscraper with the shimmering glass and the most jaw-dropping urban views would be the ultimate New York experience for this newest resident of the Big Apple.
21 Gun Salute
A decade earlier turning 21 would have signified becoming legal to drink and vote. But in March 1971 the voting age had been lowered to 18 and in N.Y the minimum drinking age was also lowered to 18.
By 1976 I had already had my share of Harvey Wallbangers at the singles clubs that dotted the city’s Upper East Side and too many Mateus-soaked evenings in small wine and cheese bars to count. That year would be my first presidential election but a man like President Ford who would tell the city I loved to drop dead would not get my vote.
Stepping into the elevators in the lobby of the World Trade Center transported you. The velvet ropes outside the express elevator and the uniformed attendants who asked your destination, made you feel as if you were being transported to a different world. As my ears popped riding up to the 107th floor I knew I was being taken to an exclusive world.
It was shiny, it was modern, it was hopeful and fed into the romance of dining in the sky. It was the most exciting and talked about eatery in N.Y. It was a dining room done in glittering brass and soft pastels, terraced so that all tables had a glimpse of the scene below.
In that 58-second elevator ride, you left the grit of 1970s Manhattan behind.
New York City was a place where pimps and prostitutes populated the streets, the subways graffiti-covered, and crime and muggings rampant. Exiting the elevator you literally walked from darkness to light, towards floor-to-ceiling windows beckoning from the end of the corridor
You wanted to press yourself against the huge glass windows with views that extended for 90 miles offering unparalleled vistas of Manhattan, Bronx, and New Jersey. From up there, it was all a toy village, cars silent, people microscopic, like a child’s miniaturized town
As the maître de led you across the vast expanse of the restaurant the city winked up from all sides.
Your head stayed in the clouds long after you left the restaurant.
A Creative Vision
The talent behind the restaurant was impressive
The brainchild of restauranteur Joe Baum formerly of the Restaurant Associates group that created those N.YC. icons like La Fonda Del Sol, The Forum of The Twelve Caesars, and the Four Seasons.
Graphic designer Milton Glaser contributed the menu artwork and the dishware in its distinctive sun and moon motifs. Chefs James Beard and Jacques Pepin helped develop the menu.
Not an Easy Start
The World Trade Center did not start out as a powerful symbol of the New York spirit.
Like many, my father initially had his doubts about the building of The World Trade Center. The project was reviled as a waste of public money and an architectural monstrosity. Destroy lower Manhattan for this?
Could this grand restaurant undertaken at a time when the NY economy hit rock bottom? People were abandoning the city. It was an absurd gamble at a time of bankruptcy both fiscally and morally.
But it quickly became a showcase restaurant. Within a year of its opening Windows was one of the most talked about restaurants in N.Y.
The restaurant was so high up that when it opened Gael Greene wrote in New York Magazine “everything to hate and fear is invisible.”
And she was right
Looking out over the expanse of the New York skyline, the decay, the decline, the burning Bronx, and a Manhattan full of crime disappeared.
The city may have been crumbling but that eluded me. And from those majestic heights, it felt like all my dreams could really soar.
I chose not to see the decay but saw only the excitement and hope of a 21-year-old art student. It was a creative mecca for artists, musicians, comedians, and actors. The tensions of the city were would reflected in a multicultural brew of rap, punk, avant-garde art, salsa, disco, and graffiti.
From those expansive windows, I saw Manhattan…not the city that President Ford only a year before told to drop dead…I saw my future.
But I would never envision a future when these formidable towers would fall, as easily as toy buildings.