The Ethics of Citicorp Center

I am not writing about the financial bail-out. I am focusing on a real estate construction story that happened back in 1978 when Citicorp Center was built On Lexington Avenue in New York City.

Image by Trxr4kds
Image by Trxr4kds

A portion of the building was constructed on air rights to accommodate a building on one corner of the property. The design put the load-bearing columns in the center of each side instead of the corners. The structural engineer, William J. LeMessurier, designed a wind brace system arranged is a tiered V pattern on each side of the building to enhance the lateral stability.

The building code of New York City required testing of building’s resistance to perpendicular winds. But since the the support columns were at the mid-point of each facade, the building stability was at greater risk from diagonal winds. This problem was discovered after construction of the building.

This put more stress on the building than LeMessurier had anticipated. The problem became critical when the braces had been changed from the more-expensive welded joint to a bolted joint.

LeMessurier calculated that the building would only be able to handle a 16 year storm.  Basically, the Citicorp Center building could collapse in a moderate hurricane. It was July and hurrican season was approaching.

LeMessurier deatiled the mistakes in a document called “Project SERENE.” The acronym stood for “Special Engineering Review of Events Nobody Envisioned.”  LeMessurier convinced the building owner to weld on reinforcing braces. The repair was conducted under a cover story to prevent panic. panic that would surely come from the thought of a 59 story building collapsing in a heavy wind.

Among the courses of action he briefly considered was driving along the Maine Turnpike at a hundred miles an hour and steering into a bridge abutment without telling anyone else about the problem he had discovered. Another was silence. Few people knew about the problem.

By blowing the whistle on himself, he risked professional disgrace, litigation, and bankruptcy.

“It wasn’t a case of ‘We caught you, you skunk. It started with a guy who stood up and said, ‘I got a problem, I made the problem, let’s fix the problem.’ If you’re gonna kill a guy like LeMessurier, why should anybody ever talk?”

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