Citigroup Center
New York City - March, 2011
Citicorp’s latest pride, the towering 59-story Citicorp Center with the slanted roof on 53rd and Lexington in Manhattan -- the seventh tallest building in the world at the time -- was completed in 1977. In 1978, the skyscraper’s structural engineer was thinking about suicide. The building he designed, he found out, will not withstand the winds of a storm that hits New York City once every sixteen years and will simply topple down into the neighboring buildings below.

How that can happen after all the careful planning not to mention the strict building codes to comply with was complex. But it all started with a church.

Citicorp wanted the whole block. But a church on the corner wouldn’t give up its spot. So Citicorp struck a deal -- it will replace the old church with a new one that matched the skyscraper’s architecture. It was a deal so good that the church jumped on it.

To clear space for the church, the four columns that supported the skyscraper -- normally placed at the corners of a building -- were placed in the middle of each side instead. The skyscraper was then raised nine stories above the four columns with one corner protruding over the church’s roof. In essence, the skyscraper was cantilevered on top of the church on four stilts. It was an engineering marvel that made the skyscraper seem to hover.

The unorthodox design did not escape a Princeton architecture student and his professor. The student called the building’s structural engineer challenging the building’s soundness in the face of a “quartering wind”. A quartering wind blows diagonally instead of perpendicularly thus hitting a building on its two sides at once.

Nonsense, was the structural engineer’s reaction. He sent the student material about the building’s design to lecture him on his unfounded fear.

But inside, the structural engineer was curious. He plugged the student’s numbers into his equations and found that, indeed, the student was right.

Still, there was no cause for concern. His design called for “welded” joints -- far stronger than a typical building’s “bolted” joints. There was also the “mass damper” on the roof that, although designed to attenuate a building’s swaying during an earthquake, could also lessen tension on the structural members during a quartering wind.

The mass damper, however, needed electricity. And the engineer knew that during a storm the city’s power could be knocked out.

To make things worse, when the engineer called the builders to confirm, he learned that, despite his specifications of welding joints, the builders opted to bolt them instead. The change was due to cost factors and was standard practice in the building industry. Welding was expensive and needlessly strong when bolted joints did the job just as well. The city’s Building Commissioner allowed the change because building codes only specified structural strength against perpendicular winds -- not quartering winds.

What the structural engineer faced was a nightmare. In each passing year, there was a one-in-sixteen chance that his one-hundred-seventy-five million dollar structure would collapse. Lives will be lost. Litigations would follow and lead to his bankruptcy. He would never again design another building. In short, at the pinnacle of his career he was no good at what he did. It was thinking these thoughts that he considered driving his car at 100 miles per hour into a bridge abutment to end his life.

But occasionally, a spark occurs inside one’s darkened mind. With the knowledge he now had of the building’s weakness came also the solution. And with only him knowing about the problem, he felt immense power in his hands in turning this story any way he wanted. So he decided to blow the whistle on himself.

He approached Citicorp’s Chairman. He approached the city’s Building Commissioner. He faced lawyers and insurers every step of the way. And each time he told the whole truth.

Everyone acted promptly. The Citicorp Chairman offered support for quickly getting it fixed. The city’s Building Commissioner certified the construction firm’s welders without delay. Links were established with the weather bureau and the Red Cross to coordinate weather patterns and evacuate the building and the surrounding neighborhood should the sixteen-year storm come while the building was being repaired.

Work started immediately. Power generators were installed on the mass damper. Welders worked seven days a week -- from dusk till dawn when the building employees were gone. Independent and top-class engineers all the while re-evaluated the whole skyscraper’s strength.

In two months, the fix was complete. The building, with bolted joints reinforced by welded steel plates -- a band-aid fix, in essence -- now stands even stronger.

Despite his initial fears, the structural engineer’s name wasn’t tarred. Instead, the Citicorp Center crisis of ’78 is now cited in engineering textbooks worldwide as an example of an engineer’s social obligation.

Looking back, had the structural engineer remained silent after the student’s call, the building surely would have collapsed -- it was just a matter of time. With all those years in college wasted and the lives lost forever tormenting him, ending his life now appeared inviting. Surely others have done so for less.

But instead he faced the truth. Being imprisoned by the prospect of career ruin, he wielded truth like he had nothing left to lose. As a result, his name was more than restored, it was enhanced.

I first heard about the crisis when, working in a nearby building in the 90s, I decided to read up on the New York City landmark. What it reminded me after reading was an age-old adage. Even in today’s world of powerful, complex, and materialistic institutions, the simple truth, when given the chance, can set a person free.

(source: center nychpgavin/ce131/citicorp1.htm)

Click on a picture to enlarge.
Citigroup Center (formerly Citicorp Center) on 53rd and Lexington, northwest corner. Saint Peter's Evangelical Lutheran Church is the small building with the slanted roof in front.
Citigroup Center's southwest corner. The skyscraper on
Citigroup Center's northeast corner.
Citigroup Center's northwest corner.
Midway through the repair, a major storm bore down on the city. But the structural engineer had prioritized repairs on the more vulnerable floors first and so, by then, he told the Citicorp officials, the building can now withstand a 200-year storm. Still, as if overhearing the conversation, the storm veered and headed off to sea.
Saint Peter's Church has occupied the corner since 1905.
Citigroup Center with Park Avenue traffic.
Fountains on Park Avenue with Citigroup Center in the background.
Citigroup Center, 53rd Street side.
Citigroup Center's slanted roof redefined Manhattan's skyline.
Cost of the repair was 8 million dollars. The engineer received notice from Citicorp for indemnification. In the end, however, Citicorp honored a conversation that took place early on between the engineer and corporate officers and without the presence of lawyers. The engineer's insurer offered to pay two million dollars and Citicorp accepted.
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