World Trade Center Model Carefully Restored and Conserved with Save America’s Treasures Grant

The American Architectural Foundation
Washington, DC
Year of Award: 2002
National Park Service SAT Grant: $62,000
Matching Share Leveraged: $66,024

“The World Trade Center should, because of its importance, become a living representation of man’s belief in humanity, his need for individual dignity, his belief in the cooperation of men, and through this cooperation, his ability to find greatness.” Minoru Yamasaki, FAIA, Architect, World Trade Center

Significance of the Model
This architectural model is the original presentation model from the office of the project’s architect, Minoru Yamasaki, FAIA (1912-1986), founder and principal of Minoru Yamasaki and Associates, located in Troy, Michigan. The ten foot by ten foot model was acquired in 1992 by the American Architectural Foundation (AAF) and is the only extant model of the site illustrating the original six buildings. These buildings are the North Tower (WTC Tower 1), South Tower (WTC Tower 2), the Marriott Hotel (WTC 3), the South Plaza Building (WTC 4), the North Plaza Building (WTC 5) and the U.S. Customs House (WTC 6). In 2002, the American Architectural Foundation received a Save America’s Treasures grant to conserve, restore, and preserve this important piece of America’s architectural heritage. AAF recently donated the model to the National September 11 Memorial and Museum in New York City.

Model of the World Trade Center Towers courtesy of Lee Stalworth

Construction of the Model
Yamasaki developed many designs for the sixteen-acre site to achieve the 10 million square feet of office space desired by the client, the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey. This model illustrates Yamasaki’s final design for the project, with its imposing twin towers surrounded by four smaller buildings and its prominent plaza. The East-West Highway is also depicted.  The towers, when constructed, would be 1,368 and 1,362 feet respectively and are represented on the model as structures measuring slightly over seven feet.

Yamasaki established a full-scale model shop, led by Mr. Alex Tunstall, within his firm. Yamasaki believed that using elegant, finely designed and constructed architectural models provided a very clear and realistic idea of the completed project for his clients. It was the job of Tunstall and his team to translate the architectural drawings into a wide range of models, from study models to the final presentation models, for the firm’s projects.  According to Mr. Tunstall, 108 study models were created for the WTC project.

Yamasaki’s directions to Tunstall for the final WTC model were to make the buildings’ exterior surfaces, particularly the twin towers, shimmer and shine to visually illustrate how the towers would look upon completion against the skyline of New York City as light reflected off the exterior at different times of the day. Yamasaki’s goal with this presentation model was to demonstrate the overall beauty and power of the completed project to the Port Authority. It was under Tunstall’s direction that this largest and most challenging scale model of the site was designed and constructed in 1971.

Alex Tunstall spent thirty years overseeing and creating architectural models. The first ten years of his career were spent in the office of Eero Saarinen. He then became chief of the model shop in the firm of Minoru Yamasaki and Associates, where he developed innovative techniques and creative approaches to transform architectural drawings and designs into three-dimensional masterpieces.

Using specially fabricated brass molds injected with plastic, very small precise pieces could be made. Since the MYA model shop had its own paint booth, the pieces were then sprayed with automotive paint to achieve just the right finish. These pieces were then hand sanded, and individually glued into specific grooves on the model’s surface. Other materials, including polystyrene, paper, steel wool, etc. were used to create the road surfaces, roofs of the buildings and other details. Using ingenuity and creativity, Mr. Tunstall and his team created crisp, clean, finely executed models that simulated in every detail how Yamasaki’s finished projects would look, as exemplified by the WTC presentation model.

A Unique Approach: Balthazar Korab, Alex Tunstall and Minoru Yamasaki
According to the well-known architectural photographer, Balthazar Korab (1926-2013), the official photographer for the MYA firm, Yamasaki understood the combination of the art of the model maker and the creative eye of the photographer needed to present the architect’s vision to the client. Korab created a signature approach to architectural photography by using models with backdrops and close up detail shots to simulate real life dimension and scale. He refined this technique so well that it could be challenging to distinguish the presentation model from the completed project. Yamasaki appreciated this technique and used it to win projects.

Korab took hundreds of photographs of the various models as they were constructed to visually document the many iterations of the project as it progressed. Because of its size and the amount of equipment needed to document this model, Korab photographed the model in the warehouse photo studio of Benyas Kofman in Oak Park, Michigan.

The combination of Tunstall’s artistry and Korab’s photography for creating presentation models on behalf of the MYA firm lasted for over twenty years. Both men, now deceased, participated in the Save America’s Treasures grant conservation project of the WTC model.

At the time of the SAT grant award, the then thirty-year-old WTC presentation model, meant to be a temporary representation of the WTC site, survived time, but with damage to its fragile components. The goal of this project was to restore as much of the model’s original fabric as possible, conserve elements that needed repair, and replace missing pieces with new pieces made exactly in the same manner as the originals.

The Model’s Preservation, Restoration, and Conservation
A team of professionals including a conservator, a model design and fabrication firm, a photographer, and a video company participated in the project. Support for the team was provided by senior partners in the MYA firm, who had actively participated with Yamasaki as part of the original WTC project team. The Smithsonian Analytical Laboratory also provided assistance. Alex Tunstall provided extraordinary information about the technical process he used to design the model, including paints, finishes, and mold fabrication. Balthazar Korab contributed outstanding information about the documentation process, and the man-power required to set up and break down the various models, particularly this final presentation model. His documentary photographs, particularly his close-up shots, greatly assisted the team during the conservation process.

In addition to information provided by Tunstall, broken pieces were carefully analyzed to determine their chemical content. It was discovered that the original brass molds and additional original pieces were no longer in existence. With Tunstall’s consultation, a new approach was taken, and new molds were made. Missing exterior pieces to the twin towers and surrounding buildings were fabricated, painted and waxed replicating Tunstall’s original approach.  Damaged portions of the model were carefully restored, and existing model elements slowly and painstakingly conserved and preserved. For example, many of the metal hand railings around the four lower buildings and plaza area were in complete disrepair or missing. The railings were replicated by using molds or a multi-layered photo etched process. These pieces were also individually hand-sanded, painted with automotive paint and carefully attached to the model.

All existing figures and cars on the model were repaired as needed. Eighty-five missing figures, fifty-two cars, and two buses were reinstated to the model. Each new figure was painted in five different colors to match the existing original figures. The fifty-two replacement cars are distinguished from the originals with a red dot on the underside, so if dislodged, it is identifiable as a replacement. Additionally, all new autos have their headlights painted in iridescent paint. By holding a black light over the model, replacement autos are immediately revealed.

Although originally intended as an architectural tool to demonstrate for the client how The World Trade Center project would dramatically change the face of New York City’s skyline, the WTC presentation model is now a revered object representing a nation’s tragic loss and a nation’s hope for the future.

Established in 1999, the Save America’s Treasures program is managed by the National Park Service, with the National Endowment Agencies, to preserve and protect nationally significant properties and collections for future generations of Americans.  Stories of saving those treasures will be shared through partnership with the American Architecture Foundation.

Featured photo courtesy of Lee Stalworth.



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Posted in: Center for Design & Cultural Heritage, Preservation, Print, Save America's Treasures

The American Architectural Foundation has been dedicated to advancing the role of architecture and design in American society since its founding in 1943 by the American Institute of Architects.

In its 75 years in existence the Foundation’s work has taken many forms — from educational programming and exhibitions in its early years to large-scale design initiatives and programs —all of which serve to create a rich legacy.

As the managing partner of the Mayors’ Institute on City Design for twenty years, in partnership with the National Endowment for the Arts and the United States Conference of Mayors, the Foundation helped move the needle on design and cities. And, through its other signature programs like Save America’s Treasures in partnership with National Parks Service, the Sustainable Cities Design Academy, and Design for Learning, the Foundation has provided critical design leadership training and technical assistance to hundreds of elected officials, education leaders, business leaders, and other key decision makers in the design process.

In recent years, cities and civic leaders have embraced design and design thinking in a way that could not have been imagined when the Foundation begin its work back in 1943 — and AAF’s role in this transformation is a source of great pride for the Foundation. With this increased interest in the role of design in shaping our cities came a proliferation of new organizations to support and facilitate this cultural shift. These advances in the role of design in American society and changes in the nonprofit design sector, coupled with the departure of the organization’s longest-serving CEO, prompted the Foundation’s Board to embark on an intensive and lengthy process to examine the ongoing role and work of the Foundation.

As the Board of Regents reflected on the positive changes of the cultural value of design, the accomplishments of the Foundation, and how the legacy of the Foundation’s work is being carried out by its former staff in new roles and organizations across the country, they reached the conclusion that the American Architectural Foundation had accomplished what it set out to do. As a result, the Foundation began to complete its remaining programs and wind down its operations in the Summer of 2018 and the organization’s endowments have been distributed to allied organizations. The Foundation’s research and reports will remain available on its website as a resource to the field.

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