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At 374,000 Pounds, ‘Big Boy’ Plays Vital Supporting Role at Ground Zero

Maggie Boepple, the director of the Ronald O. Perelman Center for the Performing Arts in Lower Manhattan, stood in front of a beam stored in New Jersey that will become the main anchor for the center.

Words are written on it, steelworkers’ words like “OK to weld” that do not speak to what happened in the place where it is going.

They are written on the last steel beam for one of the last major construction projects at the World Trade Center site, brand-new metal bound for a place where 18 years ago ruined girders became symbols of destruction.

At some point in early April, truckers will haul the 374,000-pound, 34-feet-long, 12-feet tall beam over the George Washington Bridge and down the West Side Highway under a police escort. It has been lying on its side on a trailer in a parking lot in New Jersey. One of the trucking-company executives involved in the move said the tolls would probably cost about $700.

When it arrives in Lower Manhattan, it will play an important role at a performing arts center, holding the place up — literally. It is to be the linchpin of a building that will have three theaters close to 1 World Trade Center, so close that the beam will be fitted into two slots in the concrete foundation of that 1,776-foot-tall tower.

The designers say the beam and six smaller ones already in place will act like massive stilts, distributing the weight of the new arts complex, officially known as the Ronald O. Perelman Performing Arts Center.

The beam has a name. “Big Boy, we sometimes call it,” said Maggie Boepple, the president of the arts center. “Who was the Greek god who held up the world? Big Boy is our Atlas. Unfortunately, he’ll be in the dark very soon. He will be covered by concrete and very expensive fire-retardant paint and some foam.”

Ms. Boepple was so excited about the beam that she went to New Jersey for a first look with colleagues on the arts center team. “I spent two years looking at things thing on a piece of paper,” said Matthew Wilson, the construction manager. “It’s good to see it.”

Ms. Boepple said she was “almost weepy, and I’m not like that.”

Unlike the office towers and the Cortlandt Street subway stop on the No. 1 line, which was buried under debris on Sept. 11, 2001, the arts center is not a replacement for something that was destroyed. The trade center complex never had an arts center.

But Daniel Libeskind’s 2003 master plan for the site called for one, and the architect Frank Gehry did two mock-ups, a building that was a series of rectangular shapes, like shoe boxes stacked atop one another. There was talk of possible tenants, including the New York City Opera, the Signature Theater and the Joyce Theater.

The City Opera filed for bankruptcy, the Signature moved to West 42nd Street, the Joyce stayed put in Chelsea, Mr. Gehry’s blueprints were put aside and the arts center seemed slow to evolve.

Ms. Boepple said it could not have taken shape sooner, because it will occupy space that had been used for a PATH station until Santiago Calatrava’s World Trade Center Transportation Hub opened in 2016.

But according to Frank Sciame, the chairman of the construction company that will build the Perelman structure once the beam is in place, it had an influential champion: John C. Whitehead, a well-connected former investment banker who was the chairman of the Lower Manhattan Development Corporation, a state entity that was given the mandate to rebuild the trade center site.

Mr. Sciame said that when stakeholders were wrangling over real estate and federal aid, tax breaks and insurance payments, Mr. Whitehead told him, “Do not touch the performing arts center. Without the performing arts center, ground zero and Lower Manhattan will never be revitalized.” (Mr. Whitehead died in 2015.)

The current plan was eventually created by the Brooklyn-based firm REX and its principal, Joshua Ramus, who was formerly a partner of Rem Koolhaas. The marble-skinned cube will be a flexible performance space with maneuverable walls that can be joined in different ways, forming three small-to-medium-size theaters, or a single 1,200-seat one. There are 13 possible combinations.

When the project is completed in 2021, there will be a restaurant and cafe in the lobby. Ms. Boepple said she had heard from people who work in the office towers at the trade center that “what they wanted was a place to come and hang out and get away from the corporate atmosphere.” She said she was borrowing “the whole concept of hanging out” from the Young Vic Theater in London. “It’s open all day long,” she said, “and it’s always full.

So far, the center has raised 84 percent of the $390 million construction cost. Mr. Perelman, a billionaire, jump-started the project with a $75 million donation in 2016, less than a year after he stepped down as chairman of Carnegie Hall, where he had clashed with its staff and other board members. (He said in 2016 that his donation was not related to his departure from Carnegie Hall.)

Last year, the center hired an artistic director, Bill Rauch of the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, who has a reputation for commissioning intriguing projects. Some arts executives say one challenge the Perelman could face is standing out, considering the competition for audiences from spaces like the Shed, in the new Hudson Yards complex.

The project is unusually complicated because the theater will sit not on the ground but on top of a structure owned by the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey. Ms. Boepple said it houses nine kennels for Port Authority police dogs and a messenger center for 1 World Trade Center, among other things.

For the beam, the New Jersey parking lot, down the road from a landfill and a truck-overhaul garage, is a stop on a journey that began in Columbia, S.C., where it was fabricated. John McCafferty of J. Supro and Son, the company that will carry the beam into Manhattan, said it had taken eight weeks to negotiate a route. City agencies turned down several possibilities, he said, and the clearance on some turns will be tight.

“There are times where you’re talking about an inch,” Mr. McCafferty said.

Ms. Boepple walked around the beam in the parking lot, delighted. “Over and over, the structural engineers did these calculations, and we had all the naysayers — ‘Can’t be done, can’t be done,’” she said.

One batch of calculations showed that the beam could bear a load of more than 6,600 tons. Another, less essential set showed that 6,600 tons was slightly more than the weight of 900 elephants.

“Big elephants,” Ms. Boepple said. “We’re not talking about babies. Adults.”


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