Ground Zero Rising

Million-dollar marble: At ground zero, an Oculus is born

Commuters walk through the Oculus in World Trade Center Transportation Hub
Spencer Platt | Getty Images
Commuters walk through the Oculus in World Trade Center Transportation Hub

Matt Crawford knows white Italian marble.

"Is it expensive? A hundred percent yes, it's expensive. Is it going to be very difficult to maintain? A thousand percent, yes.

"Would I have maybe picked white marble? Probably not, but I'm also not a designer who dreamed up this place, and if you didn't pick marble and (chose) something darker in color, I don't think it would be as beautiful."

There is little debate that the Oculus, the concourse and retail area for the World Trade Center transportation hub, is a striking architectural creation, but what you may not know is the amount of care and money put into the building's floor and how that cost increases yearly.

Crawford supervised a significant portion of the installation, working with his team to make sure each luxurious slab of imported Italian marble was installed properly.

Crawford is a site supervisor with Gem Roofing and Waterproofing, one of the two contractors hired to lay the 290,000-square-foot stone floor throughout the complex. Various contractors managed the marble installation in the areas near the transit platforms while Gem Roofing and Waterproofing handled the central section. Crawford says the marble has had its share of trouble, including problems with staining. Two incidents stand out.

"A control joint between the street and the Oculus began leaking," Crawford said. "The rebar underneath the floor began to rust and stain the marble. Soon after one of the sprinklers for Tower Three was left on and flooded the Oculus with almost 20,000 gallons of water. All the construction in the area also affects the Oculus."

Once construction is completed at the Oculus and 3 World Trade Center — an 80-floor skyscraper being built next door — damaged marble tiles will be replaced and the entire floor will be re-honed, a process similar to refinishing a wood floor. Re-honing will cost about $50,000 per year and will likely become a part of routine cleaning and maintenance.

The Italian Lassa marble in the main hub costs $50 per square foot. However, shipping, labor and additional supplies tack on $329.31, bringing the total cost to $379.31 per square foot.

About a quarter of a million commuters pass through the facility every day, and that was before the hub's retail stores opened on Aug. 16, making the station and its cleanup crews busier than ever. What does it take to maintain such a vast expanse of white stone in such a high traffic, punishing environment? A lot of manpower, to start with. According to Tommy Diaz, a porter at the Oculus, there are six porters per eight hour shift on a 24-hour rotation.

"Each porter has his own section to maintain. We use the 3M (industrial sized Easy Trap Duster) and Nutra Clean, a specialized marble cleanser. The overnight porters come through on the Zamboni so all I need to do in the morning is dust," Diaz said.

The Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, together with Santiago Calatrava, the architect of the Oculus, have been accused of wasteful spending. Critics suggest that part of the $3.9 billion in building costs could have been spent on other critical transportation infrastructure around the New York area. Pat Foye, the Port Authority's executive director, assumed office after the Oculus had exceeded its budget and acknowledged overspending on the project.

"I can't justify $4 billion. I think, given and first, the building is beautiful and iconic, and a work of art. My humble opinion, $4 billion should not have been spent. I think a perfectly appropriate transportation hub could've been built at half the cost and take the $2 billion and put it into gateway or some other project," Foye said.

Despite such criticism, the Oculus seems to be winning over the general public. Pay a visit and you may see the massive hallway dotted with people stopped in their tracks, staring up, taking pictures, and even lying on the white Italian marble floor, looking straight up at the intricate ceiling.

Crawford notes the "oohs and aahhhs" and obsessive picture-taking as proof that the structure, with all that lovingly installed imported stone, is a crowd pleaser.