World Trade Center bus shelter poster 1986

In the 1980s I taught calligraphy/lettering at the metro campus of the New York Institute of Technology, located a few blocks north of Columbus Circle. One of my colleagues was John Bloch whose primary job was as an art director at the advertising agency McCaffery & Ratner. The firm had the World Trade Center account and in 1986 John was in charge of creating a bus shelter poster to promote the Observation Deck.

In Letter and Image, a book by the French graphic designer Massin, John had seen a portrait of a French general composed entirely of writing. He asked me to do something similar for the twin towers. I was skeptical that the idea would work since the general’s head had contours, shadows, and various shapes while the twin towers were just large rectangles. John found a photograph for me of the towers taken from an angle that showed some of the sides. He also gave me a list of 300 or so words to write out (provided by one of the agency’s copywriters, possibly Sheila McCaffery?). The text described what one could see from the Observation Deck of the South Tower: other states, mountains, rivers, landmark buildings, etc. Unfortunately, when I wrote out the text calligraphically it only took up half of one tower. To complete the two towers I ended up writing another 900 or so words. I listed everything I could think of: streets, parks, museums, universities, sports stadiums, neighborhoods, churches, and more. To indicate the sides of the buildings and the mechanical floors I changed my nib size so that the letters would be darker.

The size of the towers was so large that I had to work on several bristol boards which John and I taped together to make the final mechanical. It was so big, that I did the calligraphy on my studio floor. The artwork was statted down and the cut marks retouched with white paint. After it was done, the Port Authority of New York & New Jersey, the owner of the World Trade Center, decided they wanted the Vista Hotel included in the poster. That meant that I had to rip out some of the calligraphy for the tower on the left so that the words would flow seamlessly across it and the Vista Hotel in front. In the end I don’t think anyone ever noticed the hotel since it was at the bottom of the poster, partially obscured by the silhouette of the Statue of Liberty—and printed in lemon yellow! In 1993 the Vista Hotel was the object of a terrorist attack, a premonition of what eventually befell the twin towers in 2001.

I did my calligraphy in black ink. The rainbow colors of the poster were John’s idea. Although I can’t be sure, I don’t think they were part of his original concept, but something he came up with when he saw my final artwork and realized that the twin towers were visually boring.

The poster, which was printed on a very thick card stock, is extremely rare. The Port Authority refused to give any to McCaffery & Ratner, claiming they had printed only enough for the bus shelters. So the agency couldn’t give me one. However, I was able to get one from a friend who said they had “acquired” it from a bus shelter on the Upper West Side—no details provided.

I don’t recall signing the poster, though if I did my signature would be in the yellow area and difficult to read. Thus, to let people know I had done this huge job—I think it took me one hundred hours (but I was only paid a flat fee)—I printed up postcards with a reduced version of the design on one side and this copy on the mailing side: “This summer Paul Shaw scaled new heights for McCaffery & Ratner Inc. His innovative lettering and calligraphy can do the same for your next design project.” I sent them to friends, clients and potential clients. The image below is from the postcard.

“New York Begins at the Deck at the World Trade Center”. Postcard derived from bus shelter poster (1986). Concept and art direction by John Bloch, calligraphy by Paul Shaw.

Somewhere in my storage space I have the mechanical (in parts) for the poster along with the purloined copy of the poster. I had totally forgotten about the job until May 2022 when Stephen Coles sent me photographs of it and asked me if I had done the calligraphy. After answering him, I forgot about the whole thing again until an episode of Antiques Roadshow aired the other night and I began receiving congratulatory emails.

To get to the good part of the show—the World Trade Center poster—fast forward to the 23:00 minute mark.