Lexington Avenue & 53rd Street

1 Aug

On October 17, 1975 Abe Beame, the mayor of New York, was prepared to declare the city bankrupt.  He had a statement drafted and ready for release, claiming, “I have been advised by the comptroller that the City of New York has insufficient cash on hand to meet debt obligations due today. This constitutes the default that we have struggled to avoid.”  It was a serious low point for the city (to say the least).  Beame didn’t have to release it though: the president of the teacher’s union, Albert Shankar, provided $150 million that morning, from the union’s pension fund, to buy municipal bonds and ensure the government would stay afloat, at least for one more day.  It was a move the mayor had been hoping for; and he had his sights set on a federal bailout as well.  President Ford had other ideas, declaring two weeks later that he would refuse any outright grant to the city, and prompting the pretty awesome and famous New York Daily News headline seen here.

Things got arguably worse from there, before they got better (eg: the 1977 blackout), but there were a few signs that could be pointed towards as at least symbolic of an approaching recovery.  One of them was the opening of the massive Citigroup Center in 1977, taking up the entire block on 53rd Street and Lexington Avenue.  Aside from symbolizing a return to economic strength for the city the building also represented a break from the International Style, ubiquitous in skyscraper design for at least the past quarter century.  The Citigroup Center’s intentionally asymmetrical angles paved the way for the postmodernist high-rises that would follow in the coming decade.

The most notable features of its design were its elevated base and its slanted, 160 foot roof (the entire building, at 915 feet, is one of the tallest in the city).  The base of the Citigroup Center rises on four gigantic pillars, and one central shaft, about 10 stories high, before the actual bulk of the building begins.  It’s a disorienting effect, making the structure appear to float above the street, made more disorienting by the fact that the four pillars are placed in the center of each side, not at the corners.  The elevated base was planned in response to one of the preconditions of the project.  Saint Peter’s Lutheran Church owned part of the site, having stood on the corner of 54th Street and Lexington Avenue since 1905, and before Citigroup could build they had to agree to rebuild the church in the exact same spot and ensure that it still had an unobstructed view of the sky (where god lives).  They also paid them $9 million dollars for the sale of their air rights alone.  Air rights!  What a city!

Elevating the base solved the problems raised by the church – allowing the corner of the skyscraper to cantilever over Saint Peter’s without blocking its view.  It also had the nice effect of freeing up space beneath the building, creating a sunken public plaza and giving me something to get excited about.  Public space in Midtown, right below a skyscraper!  You can actually leisurely hang out in a corner of the world who’s general design is entirely based around an equation that equals money.  I don’t know if you could get away with drinking here, but you should probably try it, and you know, think about things.

The slanted roof was designed for more aesthetic reasons than functional – a desire to break from the right angles demanded by the International Style.  The original plan envisioned mounting solar panels on the roof’s surface, providing an alternative energy source for the building, although it was never actually realized.  The same went for a plan to house residential apartments there.  A year after the building opened the debate over how to use the roof was solved when a troubling problem was discovered.  An engineering student studying the skyscraper for a graduate class called up the building’s engineer, William LeMessurier, with an observation.  Based on the student’s calculations LeMessurier discovered that the Citigroup Center wasn’t reinforced enough against strong winds – in theory a hurricane strength gust (something that hits New York on average every 16 years) could have caused the building to collapse.  The hasty, and secret solution, was to reweld large parts of the frame (at night when nobody would notice) and to install in the roof a tuned mass damper: basically a giant weight that could move to offset the swaying of the building.  The Citigroup’s tuned mass damper – the first to be installed in a skyscraper – is a 400 ton, 30 foot square concrete block that runs on a oiled track, guided by sensors.  Wild stuff.

Citigroup was actually named Citicorp at the time of their building’s construction, or maybe Citibank; I don’t know, I didn’t feel like getting too deep into corporate history this week.  Regardless, they got a federal bailout themselves, not too long ago, which was more than New York could manage – the first time around at least.  They were deemed “too big to fail,” but I mean, come on, what’s bigger than New York?  We’ve got floating skyscrapers, with giant concrete blocks in their roofs; what has Citigroup got?  Oh…never mind.

(Originally posted Apr. 16th, 2010 on Takethehandle.com)

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