A small clothing store that became a makeshift shrine after the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center is now the centerpiece of an exhibit commemorating the fifth anniversary of the attacks.
The exhibition is a stark reminder of what happened on September 11. A thick layer of ash and debris cover what was once a clothing display from the The Chelsea Jeans Store in lower Manhattan, illustrating the desolation left behind when the Twin Towers collapsed in a cloud of dust that rained down over the entire area.
The New York Historical Society decided to exhibit the window display from that fateful day: rows of hanging clothes in an array of bright yellows, reds, blues, blacks and whites that were muted by thick layers of gray ash.
In the days following the attacks, the store, one block away from the World Trade Center complex, became an impromptu place of pilgrimage for thousands of mourners and tourists. They stopped just to look and remember.
The store closed in October of 2002, like many stores in the area that experienced an economic slump in the wake of the attacks.
Chelsea Jeans owner David Cohen says he was determined to preserve part of the store because of the memories held in the dust.
"I remember there was one lady who walked in with her son and they asked to take some the ashes," he explained. "I said 'sure, you're welcome to take some.' I mean the store was full with ash and she just took like a coffee cup filled it up with some of the dust from the ashes. And then I went in and I was like may I ask just why? And she said that her husband, the father of the kid, was in the buildings and they can't find him and they just want something to hold onto."
Moved by her response, Cohen decided to the leave display intact.
"I think we need to remember," he added. "There are things that it is very important to keep them the way they are because taking a history book in twenty or thirty years from now and looking at this or looking at pictures is never going to be the same as actually standing in front of it and seeing what happened that day."
The store display was moved in sections to the New York Historical Society and stored in moisture resistant crates to keep the fragile clothing materials from degrading. The display has been reconstructed as part of the fifth anniversary exhibit, Elegy in the Dust: September 11 and the Chelsea Jeans Memorial.
Historical Society Conservator Alan Balicki says this exhibit is a departure from other exhibits about September 11.
"Most of the other exhibits are photographs and they are artifacts as well found at Ground Zero, damaged material," he noted. "This is actually a time capsule and I think that differs dramatically from the other exhibitions."
In the wake of the attacks, the dust from the collapsed buildings was determined to be hazardous material. Exhibit Curator, Amy Weinstein, says the Society took great care to protect visitors.
"We designed a Plexiglas case which is sealed to the floor with silicon," she said. "It's Plexiglas. It's sealed so there's no air exchange. All of our visitors can feel comfortable, feel safe looking at the memorial knowing that they're not breathing in the dust."
Weinstein says the Society understands that the dust is not only historic, but to some, sacred.
"We don't know precisely what's in this small sample of the dust, but what we chose to do was treat it with a great deal of respect and reverence, because if nothing else, symbolically it stands for the 3,000 people, who lost their lives in the attacks on the World Trade Center," she added.
Photographs that portray the timeline and the aftermath of the September 11 attacks accompany the glass-encased display. A video also documents the removal and reconstruction process of the Chelsea Jeans display.
This exhibit is part of the History Responds initiative launched by the Society to help the public learn about, and learn from the September 11 attacks.