An Autobiography: Chapter 40, World Trade Tower


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The history of Roosevelt Island was a passion with Reverend Oliver Chapin, and he and I spent many hours in his study and on walks talking about the events and people who had inhabited that historical landmark in the East River. There had never been a play about the Island’s history, and I suggested to Oliver that we develop a production and present it to the residents. Oliver had books that had photos taken on the Island in the 1800s, and with my Yashica camera I copied many of these and made slides. There were 313 slides in the production.

I took countless photos on the Island, including the ruins of historical buildings. The most fascinating structure, of course, was the Octagon. The entrance was boarded up, and Oliver said no one had been inside in more than 20 years. We got permission to enter the Octagon, and when we stepped inside we were frozen in time. Oliver and I both stood there looking up at the spiraling staircase that went into total darkness. The only light we had was my camera, and as we slowly ascended the stairs every few minutes, I hit the flash and for a moment the entire tower was flooded with light. It is difficult to describe our experience.

I took some amazing photos as we fumbled along. We found an old wooden wheelchair and other furnishings that had been left there. There was a small stool, metal frame, wooden top that was definitely from the early days of the asylum. I resurrected that stool and still have it, a reminder of my days on Roosevelt Island. I like to think that Charles Dickens and Nellie Bly may have sat on it during their visits. That stool can be seen in our DVD of the One-Man Show I produced in 2009: Albert Schweitzer: Memoirs from Africa. 

As our project developed, we got more excited than ever, and Oliver said this could be a very important documentary for the Island’s history. I created hundreds of photos, and we decided to make a 90-minute multimedia dramatization. One day, walking down Main Street, I thought to myself that it would be great if we could get photos from a helicopter. 

I talked to Oliver, and he wasn’t too surprised at my idea since he had learned that I would do anything to make the end result dramatic and beautiful. We had no funds to pay for a helicopter, and I told Oliver that perhaps the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, who had a fleet of helicopters, might be willing to help us. So I got on the phone, and before we knew it, we had our helicopter.

The Port Authority owned the 15-acre World Trade Center site, and a date and time was set for us to be at the top of the World Trade Tower. Georgianna or anyone else couldn’t believe it when we told them. It was hard for us to believe it, too, but there we were, “the nearest place to Heaven in Manhattan,” waiting for our pilot to arrive; we had only to wait a few minutes. The pilot introduced himself and said, “I am at your disposal; just tell me where you want to go.”

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