William LeMessurier, now 72, is sitting in his Cambridge office telescoping his life.

He was one of the country’s most distinguished structural engineers when his firm was asked to be a consultant to the 59-story Citicorp Tower in New York City.

He had done it all, designed Boston’s State Street Bank, the Federal Reserve Bank, Boston City Hall, the Dallas-Fort Worth Airport, and the National Air and Space Museum in Washington, D.C.

He had graduated from Harvard, went to Harvard Graduate School of Design, and then earned a master’s degree from MIT in 1953.

In 1978, at the peak of his career, he had just been elected to the National Academy of Engineering. It was then, at age 52, that the Citicorp Tower in New York was completed. What LeMessurier did not realize was that a hurricane could knock his building to the ground.

The switch

The contractor for the Citicorp Tower offered the owner a savings of $250,000 if bolted joints were used instead of welds. LeMessurier okayed the change and supplied the forces for the contractor to use in designing the bolts.

But in June 1978, a month after he learned of the switch, he got a phone call from an engineering student in New Jersey, who said his professor had said that LeMessurier put the building’s four supports in the wrong place. LeMessurier assured the student that there was a design problem which led to his deliberately designing it that way. “The student didn’t alarm me at all,” he says.

At the time, though, he was teaching structural design at Harvard and decided that that design dilemma would interest his students. He did some computations to discuss in his class, calculating the forces of the diagonal winds. What he realized was that the switch from welds to bolts did create great danger. If a storm pulled a joint apart on the 30th floor, the whole building would collapse.

Very worried, LeMessurier and his wife that weekend went to their house on Sebago Lake in Maine, where he went through all the data. “I made all these calculations, then stopped and said, ‘This is real bad.’ I made up my mind right then and there, I’ll have to do something about it. I cannot live the rest of my life just waiting for this building to fall down.”

The whole story

On the last day of July in 1978, he called the lawyer for the architectural firm that hired him and then called his insurance company. He told the whole story. Then he informed the Citicorp chairman and executive vice president, who agreed to the repair proposal.

“I just didn’t give them a choice. I said this thing has to be fixed. And I had spent my time up in Maine deciding how to do it.” The building would be easy to fix engineering-wise, but it looked like it could cost him his career. He worried how Citibank leaders, city officials, and the public would react.

But LeMessurier set his worries aside. “You have a social obligation,” he said at the time. “In return for getting a license and being regarded with respect, you’re supposed to be self-sacrificing and look beyond the interest of yourself and your client to society as a whole.”

He had to explain the story to city officials. He expected blame, but instead got great cooperation. “The thing that scared me,” he says, “was there was this plan to evacuate all the people who lived within 10 blocks. The plan involved 2,000 emergency workers provided by the Red Cross.”

Next he had to tell the press. The last thing he wanted was for it to be in all the papers. A press release went out saying only that new wind data unavailable at the time of the original design, indicated it was worth strengthening a few joints. But a few reporters grew suspicious and began calling LeMessurier. As luck would have it, though, the next day there was a citywide press strike which lasted the whole summer.

Welders were brought in immediately. Repairs began at once. The work was done at night and went fast. The whole problem was solved without panic. Today the building exceeds its originally intended safety factor.

Had to do

Throughout it all, LeMessurier wasn’t thinking about integrity, he says. He simply knew what he had to do. “Look,” he says. “If your child is drowning in the ocean, you’re going to dive in, aren’t you? This was my baby. I really believed that if something wasn’t done, it really was going to fall down.”

By mid-September, Citicorp notified LeMessurier that it expected to be reimbursed for the repairs and sent him a bill for $4 million. His insurance company agreed to pay $2 million, which Citicorp accepted, and they agreed to find no fault with LeMessurier’s firm.

He did expect the insurance company to raise his premiums, but they lowered them instead. His actions, they said, had enhanced his reputation.

Last May, LeMessurier received an honorary degree of Doctor of Engineering from Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute. They praised him for his “international renown as a visionary designer, his insistence on integrity, proving that a good name is the firmest foundation and a reputation the strongest mortar.” It pleased him immensely.

“I never talked about this for years. Finally, I started talking about it in my classes at Harvard. I think it’s terribly important for architects to learn that they have professional responsibility to the public. You are professionally obliged to solve problems and to take responsibility for your mistakes. You don’t feel better or worse by sitting around examining your soul, but of course, you do feel good if you behave yourself.”

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