William LeMessurier, one of the nation's most distinguished structural engineers, served as design and construction consultant on the innovative Citicorp headquarters tower, which was completed in 1977 in New York. The next year, after a college student studying the tower design had called him to point out a possible deficiency, LeMessurier discovered that the building was indeed structurally deficient. LeMessurier faced a complex and difficult problem of professional responsibility in which he had to alert a broad group of people to the structural deficiency and enlist their cooperation in...
William LeMessurier, one of the nation's most distinguished structural engineers, served as design and construction consultant on the innovative Citicorp headquarters tower, which was completed in 1977 in New York. The next year, after a college student studying the tower design had called him to point out a possible deficiency, LeMessurier discovered that the building was indeed structurally deficient. LeMessurier faced a complex and difficult problem of professional responsibility in which he had to alert a broad group of people to the structural deficiency and enlist their cooperation in repairing the deficiency before a hurricane brought the building down.
His story was recounted in detail in "The Fifty-Nine-Story Crisis," which appeared in the May 29, 1995 issue of The New Yorker, and on November 17, 1995, LeMessurier himself went to MIT, from which he received his doctorate, to speak to prospective engineers about the decisions he had to make and the actions he took. In the video from that event seen below, LeMessurier discusses ethical dilemmas he faced with structural deficiencies in the design of the Citicorp headquarters.
All images displayed herein, unless otherwise noted, courtesy William LeMessurier.This page and supporting pages were created by Eric Plosky for Caroline Whitbeck at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
Author(s): Caroline Whitbeck
In 1978 Diane Hartley was an engineering student at Princeton, studying with David Billington who was offering a course on structures and their scientific, social, and symbolic implications (subsequently titled, “Structure and the Urban Environment”). This course interested Diane Hartley early in her engineering studies and led her to pursue her undergraduate thesis with Billington, a thesis titled “Implications of a Major Office Complex: Scientific, Social and Symbolic Implications.”
In her thesis, Hartley looked into the Citicorp Tower, which had been recently built and was interesting to her for a number of reasons, including its innovative design. That design not only allowed a preexisting church to remain at ground level, but, because it left more open space at ground level, was permitted to be taller than zoning laws would otherwise have allowed.
When she contacted William LeMessurier’s firm (the engineering firm that built the Tower), they put her in touch with Joel S. Weinstein in their New York office, at the time a junior engineer with the firm. Mr. Weinstein sent her the architectural plans for the Citicorp Tower and many of his engineering calculations for the building. She reports that, at the time, she thought it odd that she did not see initials of another person beside those calculations, because the usual practice was for such work to be checked and initialed by a second engineer.
When Diane Hartley calculated the stresses due to quartering winds (winds hitting one of the corners of the building and so hitting two sides of the building at once), she became concerned that quartering winds produced stresses that were significantly greater than those produced by winds hitting a single side. Although calculation of stresses produced by quartering winds was not required by the then current building code, she assumed those calculations would have been done for a building with a design as innovative as the Citicorp Tower, and asked Joel Weinstein for his calculations of the effects of quartering winds. He said he would send them, but she did not receive them. When she told Joel Weinstein of the increased stresses that her calculations showed for quartering winds, he reassured her that the building was safe and its design was, indeed, “more efficient.” Being an undergraduate at the time, Diane Hartley reports that she deferred to Weinstein and quoted his words in her thesis, although his judgment was inconsistent with her calculation of stresses due to quartering winds, which are also in her thesis. (David Billington, in his comments on Hartley’s thesis, questioned this inconsistency.)
What I do not know and cannot know is whether the load bearing calculations for the Citicorp Tower were done by Weinstein and went unchecked. whether calculations for the stresses of quartering winds were done but not included in the information provided to Diane Hartley, or whether the calculations were never done. In any case, such calculations, though not required by the building code of the time, would have been expected for such an innovative design. This is what Diane Hartley believes, but LeMessurier says he was prepared to argue (if Citicorp sued him or his firm for negligence for failing to consider quartering winds) that such calculations would have been unusual.
Recently a coworker (who was acquainted with David Billington) asked LeMessurier whether the student might have been a woman. LeMessurier responded that he didn't know because he had not actually spoken with the student. Perhaps the reason that the (unnamed) student from an engineering school in New Jersey (whom LeMessurier reports having prompted the examination of the effects of quartering winds on the Citicorp Tower) was mistakenly represented as a male because LeMessurier had never spoken with Hartley and incorrectly assumed "the student" was male. Initially this case may appear to be, in part, a matter of inadequate credit, but although Hartley raised the issue with the New York office of LeMessurier’s firm, she does not claim to have consistently pressed the issue of stresses due to quartering winds.
The story of the Citicorp Tower is at least a story of evaluating previously overlooked hazards to the public safety and marshaling resources to remedying them. It is also a cautionary tale about how new engineers may lack confidence in their own engineering reasoning to press their recognition of safety problems, and how readily (in the United States at least) females in engineering are overlooked.
 David Billington, Diane Hartley’s undergraduate thesis advisor reports that because the columns or “legs” of the Citicorp Tower were in the middle of each side, rather than at the building’s corners, he, too, had specific concerns about the effects of quartering winds. (Telephone interview June 30, 2010.)
 Diane Hartley, Implications of a Major Office Complex, senior thesis Princeton University, 1978. 377.
 For this observation, I am indebted to Diane Hartley, personal communication, June 15, 2010.
 The sex-stereotyping of engineers and engineering is not found in all countries. I recall in particular a talented engineering student from Mauritius telling me that it was only when she came to the U.S. that she heard that engineering was a male field.