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Here's how Michigan taxpayers came to own the designs for the original World Trade Center

Sep 11, 2014

The state of Michigan owns public parks, roads, buildings, and even some historic artifacts. Among those artifacts are the original architectural drawings of the World Trade Center.

This is a story of how the state of Michigan – its taxpayers – came to own the works.

Thousands of people visit the 9-11 Memorial in New York every day.

Children play by the fountain that surrounds the footprint of what once were the world’s tallest buildings. Some people take the time to read at least some of the names of the people who died here on 9-11.

They stop, remember, and envision what was once here.

Before the World Trade Center was an unmistakable presence on the New York skyline – before the towers became an unforgettable absence – the buildings were a vision in the mind of architect Minoru Yamasaki.

Yamasaki and his firm designed the complex – not just the Twin Towers, but also the customs house and other surrounding buildings – all built in the 1970s.

Mark Harvey.
Credit Mark Harvey blogspot

Mark Harvey runs his finger along one of the blue lines that make up the architect’s designs of the World Trade Center. He’s the official archivist of the state of Michigan.

“You can see here’s the World Trade Center, and they have all their different notations – when they needed to make their notations on them, they would make notations on it and stamp and date it,” says Harvey.

He’s showing me one of several large books that hold the designs. They’re kept in a very nondescript stack on a metal shelf in a simple, florescent lit storage room at the Michigan Historical Museum and Library.

He leafs through the book, showing different details of the designs – everything from the plumbing, the electrical, facades, and more.

The original designs for the World Trade Center reside in Lansing, Michigan – almost 700 miles from Manhattan.

Those books that contain the drawings are part of the archive’s collection of Yamasaki’s work. They were rescued from the Yamasaki offices in Troy, Michigan in 2010 – 24 years after Yamaski had died and his namesake firm was going bankrupt.

Harvey says architects sometimes laugh at historians and archivists when they get excited about these types of materials because architects just see them as a tool.

“To them, the exciting part is the actual building,” says Harvey. “This is just the means to get there, so they’re always curious why we’re interested in them. In this particular, instance, it’s interesting because the buildings are no longer there.”

How the state of Michigan came to own the designs is a bit of a cat-and-mouse tale, as it’s told by Mark Harvey.

Harvey says he got a phone call back in 2010 that the Yamasaki offices were about to be cleared out...

Harvey says he got a phone call back in 2010 that the Yamasaki offices were about to be cleared out, and much of the material was to be auctioned off by Oakland County to pay for back taxes.

And other material was going to be shredded and tossed in the trash.

This was a big deal because Yamasaki was one of the most important and influential architects of the 20th Century.

Harvey says he went to work and started making phone calls.

“We did get a call back from the county treasurer saying, you can go in, but we have to get ready for an auction on Wednesday morning, so you have between 8 a.m. and noon on Tuesday, which was the following day, to get whatever you can,” says Harvey.

Harvey pulled together a crew to be waiting at the door the following morning.

But first, Harvey had to resolve another issue – getting clear ownership of whatever they could pull out of the Yamasaki offices.

The county had a lock on the door, but there was no court ruling or anything like that clearly establishing that the Yamasaki firm no longer owned them.

Harvey says the CEO of Yamasaki was a fugitive at the time, as far as they knew, because of tax evasion charges.

“We did have a phone number for him. He was concerned about preserving the records, so we actually met. He set it up that we’d meet at the parking lot of the Starbucks down the street from the building the next morning,” says Harvey.

"A black Lexus pulled in next to me, and the window rolled down, and he waved me in. So I got out of my car and walked over and sat in the seat."

“So I arrived at 7:30. A black Lexus pulled in next to me, and the window rolled down, and he waved me in. So I got out of my car and walked over and sat in the seat.”

Harvey says it was as clandestine as it sounds.

They talked for 20 minutes. The CEO wanted some reassurances. He called his son – an attorney in New York – who wanted to make sure the state would not use the work to harass or humiliate his father.

The CEO signed the release, and Harvey and his crew went to work.

He says they worked as quickly as they could over the next four hours, going through the different wings of the firm.

Papers were flying, file cabinets banged against walls in the rush to get them into the moving truck. Harvey says he just grabbed things, not sure of what they were, whether they were valuable or not.

“And the shredders moved in right behind us with their dumpsters. I’ve never been in a situation of having to collect records with someone standing behind me with a dumpster.”

When noon came, that wasn’t the end of it.

“My sense that day was in talking to the former CEO is that everything wasn’t there. He had hinted along the way that there was other stuff that he was holding back,” Harvey says.

“So at about noon, I got a phone call from him that day we were cleaning out the office, and he said there was one other place and to meet him at this storage facility in Troy. And so we packed up and went over there, and that’s where the World Trade Center drawings were. He had hid them in a storage unit because he was, the firm was, there was still lingering litigation from the 9-11 disaster, so had hidden the drawings in the storage facility.”

“The value of these drawings is just, just enormous…”

Pauline Saliga, with the Society for Architectural Historians, made the initial phone call to Mark Harvey warning him that the Yamasaki records were in danger of being lost forever unless he did something.

“Obviously, with the World Trade Center, the significance is the buildings no longer exist, so outside of photographs and videotape and film, whatever we have documenting the buildings, these drawings show the architect’s actual intent,” she says.

“They show how the building was constructed, what the engineering was. I mean, they are an incredibly important document of the buildings as they were built, and obviously they don’t exist anymore.”

And here’s Mark Harvey, a mild-mannered scholar, being handed in this spy caper fashion, the designs for the World Trade Center.

“It was a mixture of excitement, and an overwhelming sense of responsibility, maybe a little pressure mixed in there,” Harvey says.

"... we have an incredible responsibility to preserve them, make them accessible, and deal with the iconic nature, not only of the building, but the tragedy that followed."

“We weren’t expecting to be handed these materials, and now – here they are and that’s great – but now we have an incredible responsibility to preserve them, make them accessible, and deal with the iconic nature, not only of the building, but the tragedy that followed.”

Harvey says the work is still being catalogued and archived, and once that’s done, the Michigan Library and Historical Center wants to make more of it available to the public.

Right now, one book is on display as part of an exhibit about putting creativity on paper.

There are plans for a more expansive Yamasaki exhibit next year in metro Detroit.

And Harvey says another goal is to have a large amount of the papers and slides posted online for people to see. The World Trade Center designs are significant, but only part of what’s considered to be an important collection of architectural history.

And that’s not the end of the story.

Mark Harvey says every few months after the Yamasaki offices were cleared out, he would get a phone call from the CEO.

“And he would say, ‘Well, I have more stuff. You can pick them up in the lobby of such and such a law firm on such and such road between 12 and two,” says Harvey.

”And sure enough, I’d show up and the foyer would be filled with presentation boards, photographs, again, all those sorts of materials that we had signed, legal title to, but for some reason he just hadn’t gotten around to pulling them out.”

Harvey says it’s been a year since he’s heard from the CEO.

“I think we’re done,” he says. “But … I don’t know for sure. He could call me. I don’t know.”

The World Trade Center is certainly Minoru Yamasaki’s most famous design, but examples of his work can be found all over the world – and all over Michigan.

They include One Woodward Avenue in Detroit, The Prentis Building and DeRoy Auditorium Complex on the campus of Wayne State University, and the Michigan State Medical Society Building in East Lansing.

*Editor's note: this story originally aired in 2012.