By Rian Richards

Each week a floor is added to 1 World Trade Center, the scheduled 1,776-foot-high structure rising on the site of the former Twin Towers in Lower Manhattan. This week, on the eve of the anniversary of the country’s most horrific domestic tragedy, 9/11, dozens of construction workers are welding massive beams of steel to create the 39th floor of what will ultimately be a gleaming glass obelisk, a symbol of a city’s and nation’s resilience and the country’s tallest building.

And watching one of the country’s most significant building projects take shape, beam by beam, bolt by bolt, is Lower Merion native Kenneth A. Lewis.

“What we are witnessing is the construction of a new icon, for Lower Manhattan, New York City and for the entire country…” said Lewis.

And he should know.

The Lower Merion High School graduate is 1 World Trade Center’s project manager, the point person with the design team, construction managers and the myriad of other teams involved in creating the 102 floors that will loom over Lower Manhattan.

The building blocks of becoming an architect

Lewis recalls during a recent interview that during his childhood in Merion one of his joys was creating structures with wood building blocks with his brother, Michael. They once built a tower reaching to the basement ceiling of their home.

His first notion of becoming an architect came about at age 12 after watching a neighbor, Norman Paul, an architect, renovating his house.

His youth was also influenced by his father, Stanley, “the hardest worker I knew of but always made time for scouts (Liberty Troop 71),” and his mother, Bobbie, who “sent me to art classes at Long Beach Island Art Foundation” and “never doubted and always supported my resolve to be an architect.”

Another personal inspiration, he explains, was his rabbi, Henry Cohen, from Beth David Synagogue in Gladwyne. He “challenged himself, his students and the congregation to dig deeper into the issues of belief, looking at all forms of religion, the issues of the day and to look beyond stereotypes, ‘normal expectations,’ to reach a deeper understanding of the people and world around us.”

Lewis, 50, graduated from Lower Merion in 1978. He earned bachelor of architecture and bachelor of fine arts degrees from the Rhode Island School of Design in 1983, then earned a master of architecture degree from Harvard University’s Graduate School of Design in 1985.

His influences in architecture include Le Corbusier, Frank Furness and Louis Kahn. He admires the Barnes Foundation building near his home and Philadelphia’s PSFS Tower, which is today the Loews Hotel, a “modern and inspired response” in its time to modest sensibilities without “sacrificing creativity,” he explains.

“The PSFS Tower featured prominently in my RISD-degree project and is always a touchpoint when I return to the city,” he relates.

“Perhaps it’s because I rode the trolley along 13th Street with my mother once a month to my eye doctor’s office that I was inspired by the city,” he states.

Lewis joined Skidmore, Owings & Merrill (SOM) LLP in 1986, beginning his career at the New York City firm as a designer, and is today a director. The 75-year-old firm is known for designing many of the world’s tallest and most complex structures including the recently completed 160-floor Burj Khalifa, the world’s tallest building, in Dubai, United Arab Emirates.

Lewis’ projects have included serving as senior designer on the Columbus Center, the USB Warburg Center in Connecticut and the Rio Office Park in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. More recently he served first as senior designer and then as project manager for the Time Warner Center at Columbus Circle in New York, a double-tower, mixed-use glass-sheathed structure that houses the corporate headquarters of Time Warner, CNN television studios, the Mandarin Oriental Hotel and Jazz at Lincoln Center.

He also served as project manager for the new 7 World Trade Center, a 52-story, 750-foot-tall office tower next to the World Trade Center complex. On 9/11 the original structure collapsed later in the day; the building had been evacuated during the attacks on the Twin Towers.

The rise of 1 World Trade Center

But no project in Lewis’ impressive portfolio can compare to his current task: overseeing the construction of 1 World Trade Center, also colloquially known as “Tower One” and formerly referred to as the “Freedom Tower.”

His involvement in the project, which includes contributing to its design, is as deep as the tower’s foundation. His firm, SOM, just blocks away from the World Trade Center, was working with the site’s owners on proposed enhancements to the property’s plaza leading up to 9/11. On that day, a SOM colleague, Arkady Zaltsman, lost his life when the North Tower collapsed. At the time he was meeting with a client on the 105th floor. And after the tragedy members of the firm’s engineering staff worked with rescue teams to evaluate the stability of the surrounding buildings on and off the site.

“SOM’s offices are on Wall Street, just three blocks from the World Trade Center,” said Lewis. “Many of us witnessed the destruction first hand and we lost a friend and co-worker. When we came back to work the next week, we vowed, as a firm, to be a part of the solution, to help heal Lower Manhattan. While each of our projects is special, 1 World Trade Center has layers of emotion and importance — and visibility — that transcend any other building I’ve ever worked on. The memory of Sept. 11 will always be there, but the physical scar that was left on the city is in the process of being mended. I’m very proud to be a part of that effort.”

Tower One, which is owned by the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, is on schedule for completion in 2013. The construction site is massive in scope, with about 2,000 construction workers on site, according to Lewis, but that number will increase to nearly 3,200 at the peak of construction. The architect speaks about the complexities of the project including working with high-strength concrete and extremely high-wind loads, and building over an active underground-rail system, PATH, which takes commuters to and from New Jersey. An individual steel beam may weigh up to 60,000 to 80,000 pounds. And hoisting these beams are two behemoth Manitowoc crawler cranes, the largest of which is capable of lifting 835 tons. It is the largest crane ever used in Manhattan.

When completed, the 3.5-million-square-foot structure, which will accommodate office and retail use, with a total project cost of more than $3.2 billion will overlook the National September 11 Memorial and Museum, which is now under construction and will include two reflection pools on the footprints of the Twin Towers. When combined with its 450-foot telecommunications spire, the 1,776-foot tower (a height evoking the nation’s founding date) will become the tallest building in North America, surpassing the 1,250-foot-tall Empire State Building, 1,450-foot-tall Willis Tower (formerly known as the Sears Tower) and 1,368-foot-tall former Tower One, the taller of the Twin Towers.

(An interesting aside: The new Tower One’s main structure is actually 1,368 feet, equivalent to the former Tower One. The 450-foot spire rests on the roof, which is about 40 feet below the 1,368-foot-high parapet, thus accounting for the 1,776-foot total building height.)

An observation deck will be at the 100th floor and a restaurant with 360-degree views on the 102nd floor. High-speed elevators — the fastest in North America — will take passengers less than a minute to reach the top. Each story will be outfitted with floor-to-ceiling glass, and the base of the building will include prismatic glass, cut to create prisms of dancing sunlight. The top of the telecommunications mast will be a beacon flashing in Morse Code the letter “N,” a symbol standing for New York and used by lightships in the harbor.

Lewis says that Tower One will be a green building as well, featuring rooftop water collection, on-site energy generation and variable-speed fans for the mechanical systems — and SOM will seek LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) Gold certification.

As a homage to the Twin Towers, moreover, some of the original World Trade Center’s slabs and slurry wall are incorporated into lower levels of the new building.

Lewis also talks in length about the building’s “life-safety” elements, some of which have been incorporated into the new 7 World Trade Center and further refined for Tower One. Lewis points out that the design team asked itself after the devastation of 9/11 how it could construct a high-rise office tower to incorporate a broad array of safety enhancements without making it resemble a fortress. The safety features of the “robust” structure include:

— The concrete core, where elevator shafts, exit stairways and the utility infrastructure will be installed, is made of 14,000- to 15,000-psi (pounds per square inch) concrete (by comparison, the average psi for concrete cores is 6,000 to 8,000).

— The stairwells will be pressurized to reduce smoke build-up and wider than in the original Twin Towers — to allow unimpeded movement of office workers and first responders in emergencies — with illuminated tape on the steps to guide users in case of a power failure. Also, built-in antennæ will allow first responders improved communication.

— Window frames will be enhanced and glass panels fortified.

— Two air-filtration systems will be installed throughout the building.

— The tower’s water capacity to fight fires will be distributed throughout the structure and 20 percent greater than required by code.

Hometown roots

Lewis, who lives in Irvington in Westchester County, often visits his hometown, where much of his family and friends still live including his mother, Bobbie Lewis. He is also an Eagles season-ticket co-holder and can be found in the stands cheering the team with his 16-year-old son, Sam.

Bobbie Lewis said during an interview that her son exhibited precociousness at a young age, including a penchant for reading and painting. The mother, who is the original owner of Love From Home, a cookies and gift shop formerly in Narberth and now in Merion, credits his design skills to her family’s lineage.

“My father was a contractor and builder and I feel like his skills went directly to Ken,” said his mother by phone last week.

She looks forward to the day the 1,776-foot-tall tower is dedicated. And what will she tell her son that day?

“I won’t be able to talk,” says the proud mom.“I’ll be speechless.”