Note: The following is an automated transcription of the interview that I did with Lee DeCarolis, a New Jersey architect who claims to be the young student who contacted Bill LeMessurier, the structural engineer of the Citicorp building, to let him know that his building may be structurally flawed. The interview was conducted on July 17, 2014.
Steve Silverman: Welcome to the Useless Information Podcast. My collection of fascinating true stories from the flip side of history. My name is Steve Silverman and today we’re going to revisit a story that I originally wrote back in the late 1990s on the Citicorp Tower. And that will be followed by an interview with my first guest.
But before we do that, let’s start with today’s Question of the Day. And just like today’s main story, today’s Question of the Day is also related to the Citicorp Tower.
You see, when it opened in 1977, the building ranked as the seventh tallest in the world, but it no longer is. So my question is where does it rank among the tallest buildings in the world today? And since it would be nearly impossible to get the correct answer, just pick the closest answer from the following choices. Is it around the 50th, the 75th, the 100th, the 125th, or the 150th tallest building in the world?
Again, is the Citicorp tower around the 50th, 75th, 100th, 125th, or 150th tallest building in the world?
As always, I’ll let you think about this for a bit and I’ll tell you the answer at the end of this podcast.
So let’s move on to today’s story on the Citicorp Tower, which I had originally written for my website in the late 1990s, and then it later appeared in my first book, Einstein’s Refrigerator.
Now, rarely do I ever go back and revisit a story, but right before this past Christmas holiday, I received an email from someone who had played a significant part in the story. He agreed to be interviewed, which I’ll play for you in a bit. But first, let me give you a summary of the story, for those of you who may not be familiar with it.
The building that’s the main topic of today’s story is known to most people as the Citicorp Center, although since Citicorp no longer owns it, its official name is really 601 Lexington Avenue. When it opened back in 1977, this 59-story structure was considered to be an engineering marvel. And that’s because the tower had a very unusual feature to it, and that resulted from the fact that Citicorp was unable to purchase all of the property that was needed to construct their new World headquarters.
You see there was an old, dilapidated church – that’s Saint Peter’s Lutheran Church – that was located t the northwestern corner of the block that was to be occupied by the new tower. The church refused to sell the land, but they did allow Citicorp to purchase the air above the church. In exchange, Citicorp would build Saint Peter’s a brand-new freestanding church. It couldn’t touch the tower in any way.
As bizarre as this deal may sound, the building’s designers had a simple solution to occupying the air over the church: They would simply cut out one of the corners of the building for the first nine stories. From the 10th story to the very top, the building would simply cantilever out 72 feet (22 meters) over the church. Now, this is really going to sound crazy, but somewhere during the design period someone came with the brilliant idea to cut out all four corners of the tower.
Now, common sense tells us that the supports for all buildings should be at the corners, but the Citicorp Tower would defy logic. Its supports would be at the center of each side of the building. I like to think of it as a tall square building that sits on a giant nine-story plus sign.
Coming up with an unusual design is the easy part but getting it to actually work becomes the task of the engineer. And the man hired to figure this all out was one of the best structural engineers of the day. A man named Bill LeMessurier. And his solution was ingenious. He designed a series of multi-story steel chevrons that would transfer the incredible weight of the perimeter of the building to those central supports.
LeMessurier wanted these chevrons to be on the outside of the building, but the architects insisted that they be placed on the interior, and that’s a fact that would later be a blessing in disguise.
The tower was designed to meet all the building code requirements of the day, and it performed extremely well when the models were subjected to wind tunnel tests. And everything was great until about a year after the building opened. That’s when LeMessurier received a call from a New Jersey college student who was writing a research paper on the Citicorp Tower.
Near the end of their discussion, the student mentioned that his professor thought that the columns were placed incorrectly. You know, they needed to be at the corners of the building. So LeMessurier explains to the student the rationale as to why they’ve been placed in the center and their conversation eventually ended.
Unfortunately, the name of the student was never recorded, but his one phone call set into motion an amazing sequence of events that were somehow kept secret from the public for nearly two decades.
You see, when LeMessurier hung up the phone, he started to think more about his discussion with the student and something else that he had learned about the building just a few weeks prior. You see while designing a new tower in Pittsburgh, LeMessurier learned that during the construction of the Citicorp Tower, its builder, which was Bethlehem Steel, had opted to switch from the welded joints that LeMessurier had specified to bolted joints to save money, and when LeMessurier first heard of the change, he didn’t give it a second thought.
But, somehow, that phone call got him thinking and he did some number crunching. And his calculations were alarming. Substituting in the bolts for the specified welds greatly increased the chance of the building blowing over when it was subjected to quartering winds. Those are the winds that come in at a 45-degree angle to the face of the building and therefore it hits two sides at the same time.
Get this: it was determined that if a 70 mile per hour (113 kilometers per hour) blew on the building for five minutes straight, the building had a 50% chance of falling over. Now that wind speed typically occurs every sixteen years or so in New York City, and that would be during hurricane season. Keep in mind that this is pre-9/11, so the thought of a modern skyscraper collapsing was just unheard of.
But clearly, something needed to be done, and since the 1978 hurricane season was just about to begin, it needed to be done immediately.
For the sake of brevity, I’ll skip a lot of the details here. You’ll hear many of them during the interview, and I’ll get right to how they solve this problem. Each night, workers would enter the building after everyone left, they’d rip the sheetrock off that surrounded those unique steel beams that made up the chevrons, then they would weld a 2 inch (5 cm) thick H-shaped plate on for strength, seal the wall back up and finally cleaned it all up before the workers entered the building the next morning.
All of the repair work on the building was secretly finished within a short period after that, and the story of its fatal flaw went untold until Joe Morgenstern’s 1995 article that was titled a 59 Story Crisis, which was published in The New Yorker. And to think that it all started with a phone call from one student.
Which leads me to my first guest on the show who unknowingly played a big part in the story. I asked him to introduce himself. So, let’s take a listen.
Lee DeCarolis: My name is Lee DeCarolis. I am an architect and I live in New Jersey. I went to the New Jersey Institute of Technology. And I found out that I was the person involved in this strange occurrence through reading Steve’s book Einstein’s Refrigerator.
Steve Silverman: So, you had no clue about this till you found my book?
Lee DeCarolis: None at all.
Steve Silverman: I find that kind of surprising. I mean not that the story is well known, but my book. I mean, maybe it’s sold like you know, 35-40 thousand copies at this point, so I’m kind of surprised that it ended up in your hands.
Lee DeCarolis: I could tell you a little bit about that, which was strange how that happened too. I’m kind of a believer sometimes, and things happening for strange reasons, perhaps for a reason. You know, kind of mystically, so. And maybe this is what happened here.
So, I’m working in Morristown at the time. And this is now about maybe six years ago, I think, and it’s kind of an engineering construction company. I was very friendly with the secretary Cindy, and she was very well-read, and we like to talk about books here and there. Her brother is a bit of an author too. So, one day she brings me this book, Einstein’s Refrigerator, I guess because, you know, she knew I was an architect and might be interested in some of these scientific-technological incidents.
So, okay, I started reading it and looked at the table of contents and I saw the Citicorp and, boy, that that’s the building that I did a structural report on in architecture school. I said let me read about that and so I started reading it and that’s when I discovered that I was involved in it. was very. It was very strange.
Steve Silverman: I mean, really, you’re the catalyst that started this whole chain of reactions, you know? I mean, if you didn’t make, if you didn’t contact them, they may have never known that the building was in danger of falling.
Lee DeCarolis: Maybe you know I, I think. I think that. I don’t know. It’s hard to say. You know, perhaps it would have taken them longer, perhaps never, I don’t know.
Steve Silverman: So, do you remember what you were? What were you doing in college at the time that you got involved with this, that you were working on the Citicorp Tower?
Lee DeCarolis: Well, what happened was we were all required to take a structural design course, a basic structural design, and my professor was a great guy. His name was John Zotos and he asked us all to pick a building that we were interested in that had perhaps an unusual structural design. And I’m reading architecture magazines and found this building, the Citicorp building, which was really unusual. Had a very cutting-edge design and I thought. In addition, it was in New York City so I could go see it in person and I thought it was, it would make a really good candidate for my report and that’s what started it. So, I started getting into it and analyzing it.
Steve Silverman: So, here you are. You’re a student and you’re reading about this and writing a report. When you called LeMessurier, did you realize there’s a problem with the building? Or were you just concerned, you wanted to find out more about it?
Lee DeCarolis: Oh, I had no idea there was a problem with the building whatsoever. I take no credit for that at all. I was just naive architecture student. I was just trying to do a report. The one thing to my credit, I guess, is that I was a little brash, and as I was the only one whoever who called the architect or the structural engineer on the project that they were doing a report on.
And it started by me calling the architect. I was so, you know, uneducated about the entire architecture-construction process that I thought to call the architect first, and then when I got somebody there at the firm they understood what I wanted to do and they gave me LeMessurier’s number to call him and talk to him about the structural design.
Steve Silverman: And you spoke directly to him?
Lee DeCarolis: Yeah, it was amazing. You know when I called the architecture firm I got, you know, some gentleman who was, you know, I guess way down the totem pole. And, but then when I called LeMessurier, they put me through to Bill LeMessurier. He actually got on the phone with me. It was, I was shocked. You know, being an architecture student, these guys are like you know, star baseball players to a baseball fan. So, he got on the phone with me and talked for a while. And you know a lot of things, he said, you know, I struggled to understand.
But then he said he had to go into a meeting and he asked for my phone number and he would call me back. And so I did that. And you know, I’m thinking he’s not going to call me back. But then you know, a while later, like half an hour later, he did. And we talked for a while longer. And the one unusual thing, and he talks about this too, is that I did mention to him that my professor questioned the structural design of the building. It kind of annoyed him. So I think that was important that he became a little annoyed about that.
Steve Silverman: But he didn’t seem concerned at all. I mean, he just was annoyed, you know, that he’s being questioned on basically because he designed this building to have these unusual, the unusual feature that it had.
Lee DeCarolis: Yeah, of course, you know, I’m just a naive lowly architecture student and he’s a world- famous structural engineer that could do things that not many other structural engineers could do at the time, and so anybody that would look at the building now you could see the highly unusual placement of the columns. It is a scary building. If you go there and stand under it or even look at pictures of it online, it’s a scary building.
So, my professor was concerned about it and, you know the reason is not just like “Hey put the columns in the right place” kind of thing. It’s kind of stupid, but just that as a structural engineer or an architect your first concern is life safety. You know you want to design a beautiful building, an exciting building but first and foremost, it’s got to be safe.
So, when Professor Zoltos saw that he became concerned, thinking hey, maybe this guy just went too far. You know, with the structural design so.
Steve Silverman: And history is certainly filled with examples of where they’ve pushed design too far. And of course, it’s failed.
Lee DeCarolis: Yeah, no. It you know there are some examples here and there. Where a bridge collapses or there were structural failures. You know we had that structural failure and can I think it was Kansas City where the major balcony fell in an arena. Killed a lot of people so.
Steve Silverman: That’s actually mentioned in the video. I mean the way I learned of this story was in the mid-90s. There was a show on A&E and that’s where I saw the interview with LeMessurier and just the discussion of how someone called and set this whole chain of events. This whole sequence of events into place, and in that video it is mentioned about the Kansas City disaster.
Lee DeCarolis: Yeah, that’s why we have to be really, you know, conservative about structural design.
Steve Silverman: You know there’s a woman named Diane Hartley and she was an undergraduate in engineering student at Princeton at the time, and she claims that she’s the one that contacted Citicorp. Now based on what I read online in various interviews with her, is that although she contacted LeMessurier’s office, she never spoke directly to him. She only spoke to a junior engineer.
And she was sent blueprints and some engineering calculations and she’s the one that claims that you know, she figured out that the building couldn’t withstand the quartering winds. Now, how are you sure that you’re the one who actually set this thing in motion and not her?
Lee DeCarolis: Well, number one, I never even suspected that I had any kind of involvement in this thing till I read your book and then did my own research and saw I how the whole thing transpired. And how will LeMessurier himself said that it was an architecture student that he had talked to from New Jersey and then I immediately, you know, recalled, like, well, I had the conversation with him, you know. And as I did this, you know, report, a structural report on the building. Clearly, it was me.
No question about it. And then, as you said, I looked into the whole scenario and saw, unlike Wikipedia, that there was this Patricia Hartley, is it?
Steve Silverman: Diane Hartley.
Lee DeCarolis: Diane Hartley from Princeton that felt that perhaps she was involved with it. I looked at that and, you know. The thing is, you know, in my opinion, that number one an engineering student, even a brilliant engineering student with which Miss Hartley may well be, you can never really understand the design of a building like that. A building like that is highly sophisticated.
The structural design, the details are hidden from view. Even in an engineer coming to look at the building built and surmise what is underneath there. You’d have to really have the drawings, all the details. If for some reason wanted to do a detailed analysis on it, suspect something and then indeed find something and the amount of work that would be involved in reanalyzing the calculations is enormous.
Steve Silverman: Right, and I’m assuming LeMessurier had an entire staff that did this, not just him himself.
Lee DeCarolis: Right. There are a number of people that work on a building like this to get things right. The calculations you know could fill a book. So, number one, no human being could really suspect that there was anything wrong with this building. I did not, you know, I had no idea there was anything wrong with that building. I just thought it was an interesting building . So that’s why I think that her story doesn’t, you know, hold water. And furthermore, when I wrote to LeMessurier’s company after I found your book and, you know, I wanted to talk to Bill. Unfortunately, he had died.
Well, to cut a long story short, the gentleman in charge there, Eric Hines, he then contacted me and wanted to have the same discussion with me that you’re having. Because there was this information about the engineering student and he wanted to kind of clear it up and see you know if you can make heads or tails of it.
So, I told him the same story. He seemed to agree that it was me because all the details came together. The architecture student from New Jersey and the fact that I told him that I didn’t know anything was wrong with it. You know? Instead of trying to say that yeah, I suspected there was something wrong. But forget it, man. This building is incredibly complicated. You would have to be intimately involved with it to see that there was anything wrong with it. Like LeMessurier was. He finally looked at it again and found the flaw.
So that’s my story.
Steve Silverman: Since you are an architect and certainly have done building inspections and so on, is there any nightmare of a story you can tell? I mean something that really comes to mind that’s bizarre. Because that’s basically what my podcast is. It’s unusual stories that nobody has ever heard of.
Lee DeCarolis: I’ve had my incidents of, you know, problems in construction and nothing hair raising like this one. This is about the really unusual, bizarre, most bizarre thing that I’ve ever been involved with. You know things like you know contractors just not putting in required structural steel that I asked for sometime and I showed up on the site and I found it wasn’t there. It becomes a problem. Then you gotta tell the owner and it’s hard to put things back in order once it’s built. So no, but nothing to compare to this one. No. I don’t have anything for you.
Steve Silverman: Yeah, this is. I mean when I heard the story. This is in the early days when I started. You know I had a website and the web was very small in those days. I mean, you know. I remember when I created my first web page, I didn’t even know what a web page was. There was nothing to look at.
And I was really, I really was just taking stories that I had been sending my friend by email and just pasting them in and for the lack of a better title I called it Useless Information. And it just kind of, you know, exploded very, very quickly. And then the books and stuff came from that. But I was very early into my days of writing and really had no set focus. But when I heard this story on TV, it just really like wow. How could no one know about this?
And that actually leads to another question I have here is that this involved a lot of people that were engineers, the Citicorp management certainly knew about it. City officials knew about it. Certainly, all the construction workers working there at night in secret. I mean, do you think today that they could keep a secret like that? I mean with the Internet and everything else. I mean, what is your opinion?
Lee DeCarolis: I think so, you know? Yeah, I do. Even at the time. What they went through to keep this thing secret was, you know, really amazing and it required the mayor of New York City, Ed Koch, at the time. City agencies. There must have been, I can only guess, a thousand people. At least 1000 people who knew what was happening and everybody kept their mouths shut. And thank God they did.
Steve Silverman: Yeah, it would have been panic. There’s no doubt about it.
Lee DeCarolis: Yeah, you know we keep things secret in this country when necessary. On all levels of government, I think.
Steve Silverman: Of course, unless you’re the White House. Somehow, they always have leaks there, but that’s another story.
Lee DeCarolis: Yeah.
Steve Silverman: I understand that you are in the process of writing a play on what happened, and I guess my question is why a play and not a book or an article? Something, you know, that may get more widespread viewing.
Lee DeCarolis: Yeah, it’s a good question. Number one because a play I felt was easier to write. I’m not a writer by profession, although in the last ten years, you know, I’ve written lots of reports about buildings. So that’s kind of helped me to at least be able to communicate well.
But my wife, Joanne, she’s involved in the theater heavily and producing plays, you know, here and there, locally and acting. So, I kind of thought like, you know this might be good fodder for a play. And if I wrote it and turned out reasonably well, maybe we could get it produced. And I thought that would be just a great way going about it. And like I said, I felt it was. It proved to be easier to write that way.
Steve Silverman: I’m curious, unless I misread it, you don’t mention yourself in there. You yourself another name.
Lee DeCarolis: Yeah, I did. Artistic license. I just didn’t feel right about putting my name in there. I didn’t think my name sounded that good to begin with. Just that put a better sounding name, something more symbolic. You would have to read the play to understand what that means. So, I just thought and also you know why? Because I didn’t want it to be felt to people to see the play and see my name in there and feel it was like trying self-aggrandizement. You know, he’s trying to promote himself or something. So, I wanted to remove that entirely from it. And it’s not about me, you know?
Steve Silverman: Why don’t you tell everyone the name of the play?
Lee DeCarolis: We came up with the name of the play after going through a lot of different names and finally called it The Serene Secret.
Steve Silverman: And besides writing the play, have you received any kind of, has any newspaper picked up on this? Or is it just kind of, you know, just among friends and family?
Lee DeCarolis: Nobody. Not at all. I quite don’t know what to do about it. Sometimes I feel strange like, you know, okay, so I was involved with this thing. I didn’t know there was anything wrong with it. I was just in the right place at the right time. A catalyst, you know. I don’t want to take credit for saving the building. It was LeMessurier. He did all the stuff.
Steve Silverman: Right.
Lee DeCarolis: So, I quite don’t know what to do about it and, you know, it’ll be nice. Yeah, yeah.
Steve Silverman: Maybe someone will hear this and you never know. You never know where it will lead. So, what did your friends and family think when they first found out, when you found out about this and you told them. What did they think?
Lee DeCarolis: They were pretty stunned. You know, some when I tell the story, they’re like is this, are you feeling okay? They look at me like have you had too much to drink or something? Or are you just like, you know, you just tricking us, you know, coming up with some crazy story for Thanksgiving. So, it’s pretty weird. And when I come out with it and tell him this story and then you look into it a little bit. And most of them they don’t even know it happened is the thing. I don’t think I’ve ever talked to anybody about it that already knew the story of the Citicorp building, which is amazing. we.
Steve Silverman: Right.
Lee DeCarolis: And even to boot, we’re working on this big building now that we want to build. Our contractor is a big contractor from New York City and I was in there recently in their offices and I just mentioned if they knew anything about the Citicorp building, having a structural problem years ago. Nobody knew anything about it. So, the story is not really out there in the public.
Steve Silverman: I think part of that is because it was kept secret for so many years. When did this happen? In 1978 and it wasn’t until, you know, the early 90s that the story started coming out. And even then it was a show on A&E and how many people would have seen it?
Lee DeCarolis: Right. People aren’t really hope looking to publicize it. Certainly, Citicorp isn’t. There’s nobody has an interest to publicize the story, so. That’s why it’s quiet.
Steve Silverman: So, do you have any additional information that you’d like to share with the listeners that may not be known, you know, widely?
Lee DeCarolis: Well, if you look at the A&E special, I guess you’ll see a lot of stuff. But what was so interesting and scary about the whole thing after LeMessurier found out about the problem and then how they had to fix it and keep things quiet and then. The next obstacle was that it was getting a little bit of publicity because the people would see lights, the welding torches in the building. Somebody called the New York Times and a New York Times reporter wanted to interview LeMessurier about it and the whole thing would have been blown. And then luckily for him and everybody else, the newspaper went on strike. All the newspapers in New York City went on strike the next day and he didn’t have to return the call and so he was able to keep things quiet again and evade that problem. And then the next and final problem was when they were, I guess, about 70% done a hurricane started coming up from, you know, from the South. And had this hurricane come much farther, you know, they would have had to notify people to evacuate. It would have been a panic, a disaster.
Steve Silverman: The one thing that people don’t realize is that you know. I mean, having the tallest, I mean the Citicorp Tower at that time I think was a seventh tallest building in the world. Everybody has, you know, seen over and over again the pictures of the World Trade Center collapse. But this was actually going to fall over. It was going to be like dominoes, and it would just go building after building.
Lee DeCarolis: Topple over just like you said. Right. So, they had Mayor Koch, developed in concert with the Red Cross, an extensive evacuation plan to get people out of the area for blocks and blocks. And you’re probably talking about, you know, hundreds of thousands of people and my goodness. Well, they were able to avoid that when the hurricane went out to sea. So that was the last problem and they were able to fix the building and keep it quiet for twenty years.
Steve Silverman: I find that amazing. So, as you know, in every podcast I have a Question of the Day and I thought I’d ask that to you.
The Citicorp Tower was the seventh tallest skyscraper in the world at the time back in 1977 when it opened. D you know what it ranks today? And here are your choices and you just have to get it. You don’t have the exact number, just tell me which number you think it’s closest to is the 50th tallest building in the world, is it the 75th, 100th, 125th or 150th? Which one is it closest to?
Lee DeCarolis: And you know the answer to this?
Steve Silverman: I do know the answer. Wikipedia has all the answers, as you know.
Lee DeCarolis: Wow, you know what? Wow, you what? What was the second one?
Steve Silverman: I gave you 50, 75, 100, 125, and 150.
Lee DeCarolis: I’m gonna say 125.
Steve Silverman: That’s very good. It actually ranks 133rd today.
Lee DeCarolis: Lot of buildings. A lot of buildings built.
Steve Silverman: And just out of curiosity, I happened to write this down. I was killing a few minutes before I called you and three former number one buildings, that would be the Sears Tower, the Empire State Building, and the Chrysler Building. Sears Tower is now ranked #11. That was built in 1973. The Empire State building now ranks 23rd tallest in the world. It was built in 1931 and just prior to that the world record was held by the Chrysler Building, which now ranks #59, which was built in 1930 as I said.
Well, I want to thank you very much for being the first guest on my podcast. I really enjoyed this and I wish you the best of luck in your play, that it is successful and in your architecture career and whatever else you’re pursuing. I really do want to thank you. Thanks for being on.
Lee DeCarolis: Yeah thanks. I enjoyed it too. It’s my first interview like this and I enjoyed it as well. Thank you very much.
Steve Silverman: You are very welcome. Thanks for being on.