NEW YORK — Building experts declared New York's new World Trade Center tower the highest skyscraper in the country Tuesday, knocking Chicago's Willis Tower from the spot it has held for nearly 40 years and answering the burning question in high-rise circles: When is a long pointy thing protruding from a roof more than just a long pointy thing?
When it's a spire, according to the Chicago-based Council on Tall Buildings and Urban Habitat, which said the Lower Manhattan building's 408-foot spire was permanently attached to the structure and crucial to its overall character.
That sets it apart from antennas, flagpoles, lightning rods and other building additions that are purely functional and not part of the aesthetic design, the council's chairman, Timothy Johnson, said at a news conference in New York. As he spoke, officials of the council — an international nonprofit organization recognized as the arbiter of high-rise heights — delivered the news at a separate media conference in Chicago.
"Conceptually, from the architect's point of view, it's a major part of the building, and we agreed," said Johnson, describing the spire and lights housed within it as a "welcoming beacon" reminiscent of the Statue of Liberty's golden torch. "In a way, a light of memory," Johnson said of the spire, which had always been part of the building plan.
What changed, and what raised questions as to the structure's ultimate height, was the design around the spire. Originally, it was to have been encased in fiberglass panels. Last year, the building's architects dropped the panels, a move that saved millions of dollars in construction costs and ensured that the spire would be easier to maintain.
That put the council in the position of ruling on whether the spire was a fancy antenna or part of the building's official "architectural" height.
"The key word is permanence," the council's executive director, Antony Wood, said in Chicago as he explained the group's conclusion that this spire was not designed to be removed, discarded or replaced. "In our criteria, spires count in the height of buildings, and antennae do not count."
The Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, the Durst Organization and the architectural firm of Skidmore, Owings & Merrill, which all have a stake in the building, said the decision confirmed their "unwavering principle" to reach the 1,776-foot height as a symbol of patriotism and strength after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.
"This iconic building represents the resilience of America, and today's decision recognizes One World Trade Center's rightful place in history," they said in a statement. The building is scheduled to open in 2014.
The council's height committee, made up of 25 architects, engineers, designers and other building experts from 13 countries, met in Chicago last week to decide whether One World Trade Center met the criteria for becoming America's tallest building. The deliberations followed a presentation from the building's architects and recognition that the decision carried extraordinary emotional weight.
After the 2001 attacks, which brought down the two towers that once stood at the World Trade Center site, architects vowed to rebuild even higher to show that New York was not afraid of terrorists. The destroyed towers had topped out at 1,368 feet.
In Chicago, the Willis Tower, at 1,451 feet, was gracious in conceding the No. 1 spot.
"Willis Tower welcomes One World Trade Center to the elite club of the world's tallest buildings and congratulates the developers and owners on creating a beautiful building," building management said in a statement. "Willis Tower has never seen this as competition between two iconic buildings. One World Trade Center is a stunning architectural feat and it is a symbol of the resilience of the American people."
Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel was not as generous.
"If it looks like an antenna, acts like an antenna, then guess what? It is an antenna," Emanuel said of the spire.
One World Trade Center is not just the nation's tallest building but the world's fourth-highest, behind the 2,722-foot Burj Khalifa building in Dubai, United Arab Emirates; the 2,073-foot Shanghai Tower in China; and the 1,972-foot Mecca Royal Hotel Clock Tower in Mecca, Saudi Arabia.
This wasn't the first time that a building's topping has sparked controversy. In 1996, the Council on Tall Buildings declared Malaysia's Petronas Towers, at 1,483 feet each, the world's highest buildings, after accepting the 111-foot spires as part of the structural design. That knocked the Willis Tower — then known as the Sears Tower — out of first place, even though its occupied floors were higher than those of the Malaysian buildings.
Since then, the world's No.1 spot has changed several times and is likely to keep doing so. A 3,281-foot tower in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, is scheduled for completion in 2019, according to the council.
"Height matters," said Rick Bell, executive director of the New York chapter of the American Institute of Architects. "There's something special about being high up. The idea of being able to look down and see the big world — it's celestial."Copyright © 2015, Los Angeles Times