Larry Silverstein

At 70, developer Larry Silverstein watched his most important property, the iconic and world-famous World Trade Center—which he’d bought despite any amount of industry odds-making only weeks before—dissolve into cinders.

“My life was spared,” he said. “The lives of my children were spared. The lives of most of our employees were spared; we lost four. Those four had six children, so that was a very difficult experience—the very toughest part of the whole experience.”

Behind him, hanging on a wall of his spacious midtown office, was a large photograph of his yacht tearing across the ocean; below, the red taillights of cars on Fifth Avenue swept southward in the afternoon rush.

“I recognized, however, that I had signed a legal obligation that obligated me to pay $120 million year—escalating every five years—and that along with that obligation was the obligation to rebuild,” he said.

Developers tend to put things in terms of business, even when, as Chrysler or Rockefeller did, there is nobody to move into the buildings they propose, and no reason for those people to sit a hundred stories above the streets below. The greatest buildings of Manhattan arguably took shape out of developers’ dreams—of personal glory, of owning a share in the most magnificent skyline in the world—not from their business obligations.

The towers Larry Silverstein is now contracted to build are such buildings. Projections are still grim for his efforts to fill the millions of square feet of these buildings with businesses. But standing atop the first parcel of his project, the rebuilt 7 World Trade Center, and looking at the city below—and above, where the twin towers once stretched upward twice as high—it’s difficult to begrudge him this dream, or the rather gruff manner he affects when he tries to justify it.

Larry Silverstein is a short man who stoops his shoulders in such a way that it looks as if he has misplaced his neck. When he smiles, he smiles broadly, and his cheeks fold up like an accordion. He is an old-fashioned developer who walks briskly from the hip like a race walker. It’s easy to imagine that the posture was learned from a long life of managing small office buildings, presiding over men in dungarees slapping coats of fresh paint on them before reselling them for modest profits, and that it has carried him to the position he has found himself in today—as the most watched, and arguably the most important, real-estate developer in the city.

Before Sept. 11, Mr. Silverstein was just a bit player on the city’s real-estate stage, a gnat dancing around impatiently, watching much bigger players fail in their attempts to win the lease to the World Trade Center from the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey—a deal that Mr. Silverstein closed just six weeks before the towers collapsed. Now, at 74, he has a $120-million-a-year headache, and just about everyone wants to help relieve him of it: Mayor Michael Bloomberg, who envisions housing there; the victims’ families, some of whom want to turn the entire site into a memorial; and other developers, who would like a piece of the pie. The only people who offered him any money to get out, Mr. Silverstein said, weren’t the Port Authority, or the city, but the insurers, and he—almost out of spite—fought them to a very litigious end. Mr. Silverstein portrayed his tenacity in the most stoic of terms.

“It’s difficult to focus on anything else—it’s 24/7. I find myself waking up very often at 3, 3:30 in the morning and finding myself thinking about all that’s going on. When that happens, I find it’s difficult to go back to sleep.”

He added: “It’s just part of my life—I don’t see this changing for the foreseeable future. If that’s what it takes to get this done, then that’s what it takes.”

Mr. Silverstein is perhaps the only 74-year-old who exaggerates his age. “In May, I’ll be 75,” he said, “so I’m closer to 75 than to 74.” He was born in Bedford-Stuyvesant, and it’s fitting that this child of the Depression looks at his life less as a book that he’s writing than as a series of situations that he’s been thrown into the middle of and must find some way out of. While at New York University, he learned the business from his father, a small-time real-estate broker, and was determined to do better. He bought cheap buildings and tried to add value—most of the time, more than just that coat of paint—and then resold the properties for more, trading up until he was able to lease the two tallest buildings in the city.

“I had to go to Washington,” he said, recalling his lobbying efforts to get immunity from the lawsuits that were at one point expected from the families of people killed in the Sept. 11 attacks. “I was still recovering from the accident I had, in which a drunk driver slammed into me on the 25th of January of ’01, when I was walking up 57th Street. He drove right through a red light, slammed into me, almost killed me—but somehow I’m still here. It was a miracle. Recovering from that, I was walking around on crutches, walking the floors of the House and the Senate. Those are stone floors; they are long and they are hard. And so I asked my wife to come with me, and we are walking—it was a bitch. We literally moved to Washington for about five weeks to lobby on a constant basis to get this legislation accomplished. As part of it, we were anthraxed—we were in the Dirksen Federal Building, and they said, ‘You have to take yourself to the hospital right away; you might be anthraxed.’ So I said, ‘Hey, what’s going on in our lives? What’s this about?’”

Mr. Silverstein had no comparable experience to prepare him for negotiating with Congress, or for waiting out the public deliberations in New York over the architect, or for battling, most recently, yet another attempt to reduce his holdings.

But so much of everything that’s happened to Mr. Silverstein in his 70’s has turned out—through his skill or his luck or both—to redound to his benefit. As a result of security concerns, it was his architect, David Childs, instead of Daniel Libeskind, who ended up designing the Freedom Tower. The $100 million that Mr. Silverstein spent on legal costs paid off with an anticipated $4.6 billion award from the insurers. Low-interest, government-issued Liberty Bonds will likely pay for some or all of the rest of the five towers on the site. If completed according to present plans, it will be the largest office complex to be built in New York without a tenant in mind since the original World Trade Center was finished in the early 1970’s.

“My wife said she married me for better or for worse, but not for lunch,” Mr. Silverstein said, having recourse to a favorite line. “I have no retirement capability under that circumstance. My attitude is, if you don’t use it, you lose it—and I will stay involved as long as I can, mentally and physically.”

He has three children, two of whom work for Silverstein Properties, and he intends that they will one day inherit the company and its 10 million square feet at Ground Zero—the small measure of immortality that is the real dream of all of New York’s big developers.

“If there’s anything here, it will be theirs to enjoy, not me,” he said. “I’m 75.”

Larry Silverstein