Originally created 05/05/04

Ground zero chapel hosts exhibit on aftermath of attacks



NEW YORK -- New Yorkers call it The Little Chapel That Stood.

Across the street from the World Trade Center, St. Paul's Chapel survived Sept. 11, 2001, while the twin towers fell.

Within days, the 18th-century church became a sanctuary for ground zero workers, who ate, slept, washed and wept in the chapel where George Washington once prayed. Outside, the church's iron fence was draped in tributes and flowers left by mourners.

St. Paul's opened a permanent exhibit Monday about the aftermath of the terrorist attacks. "The Unwavering Spirit: Hope and Healing at Ground Zero" recalls the rescuers who looked for human remains, the volunteers who nurtured them and the images and words of a world that grieved a shattered city.

"Objects don't speak, but they enable you to remember - and to experience both how scary and horrific it was, and the wonder of people's inner resilience and strength, the sense of community that was created," Edwin Schlossberg, an interactive designer whose firm, ESI Design, worked with the church to create the exhibit, said.

"This is an invitation to participate, to explore."

On display are hundreds of artifacts taken from the fence, including photographs, letters, drawings, flags, even such exotic tributes as strings of Japanese origami peace cranes. Some can be seen on digital archives, along with interviews of rescuers, survivors and volunteers.

St. Paul's fulfilled an array of human needs, from kitchen to therapist's couch to makeshift sleeping quarters to art gallery to doctor's office.

"What I think of most was all the love freely given to strangers by strangers," volunteer Ann Neary says in one video clip.

Today, banners sent to the chapel hang off the balcony of the pastel-colored, Georgian-style sanctuary. One is a huge American flag with white stripes made from paper cutouts of the hands of children at a public school in Cedar Springs, Mich.

One of the students, 12-year-old Kelly Fitzgerald, came to New York to see the exhibit and stayed with her mother on the 40th floor of a hotel overlooking ground zero.

"This morning, I got up and looked out the window, and I could see where the towers were," the sixth-grader said. "When it first happened, I didn't think it was real."

One photograph in the exhibit shows an exhausted firefighter curling up on a St. Paul's pew, clutching one of the many teddy bears sent by well-wishers. Another photo shows a rescue dog lying in front of the altar with its overwhelmed handler.

A third image shows a man flipping hot dogs from a barbecue set up behind the chapel's Ionic columns to grill hot dogs and hamburgers for ground-zero workers.

Volunteer podiatrists used a pew where Washington had prayed when he was America's first president, deeming the spot a fitting place to heal sore feet, since Washington once led troops so tired they could barely walk to Valley Forge, where they spent a desperate winter before entering battle again.

Blood oozed from the worn-out shoes of Washington's men, while some of the ground-zero workers returned to St. Paul's with their boots half-burned off their feet by the smoldering debris.

Besides the items on display, tens of thousands of artifacts from St. Paul's fill about a dozen rooms on the ninth floor of a building close to the church. More material is stored in a New Jersey warehouse.

Tangled rosaries are heaped in a cardboard box, near a mound of worn baseball caps bearing scribbled messages of love and loss. In the next room is a pile of wooden hearts, weathered and soiled. And there are boxes stuffed with teddy bears.

St. Paul's - part of the nearby Trinity Church parish - commissioned ESI for the exhibit after the overwhelming public response to a temporary exhibit mounted at the church in September 2002. Called "From the Dust," it brought as many as 20,000 people a day to St. Paul's, for a total of 1 million so far.

Visitors can wander to the chapel's other portico, overlooking the Revolutionary War-era graveyard - or go to ground zero, "which is a cemetery," Schlossberg said. "And if 'six degrees of separation' is true, we're connected to all these people."