Discover more from Understandably by Bill Murphy Jr.
Greatest thing you ever did
And maybe you don't even know it. Also, 7 other things worth knowing today.
Quick note before we start. Today’s newsletter was inspired by a Twitter thread by Luigi La Corte, a civil engineer in Toronto who posts about "the world's best construction” stories. (You can find him on Twitter, or else check out his new startup in construction tech, Provision.)
I asked Luigi if I could share his work—but then I got sucked into this story and did a lot more research on top of his. So, I’ve weaved some of his work in with mine, below.
Greatest thing you ever did
Around 1860, German immigrants built a Lutheran church at the corner of Lexington Avenue and East 54th Street in New York City.
It thrived for a while and then declined in the 20th century as people moved to the suburbs. Then, about 50 years ago, it was razed to the ground.
In its place today stands an 80-foot tall replacement church with modern design (at least by 1970s standards) and a coveted, valuable address.
However, there’s a catch. Rebuilding the church required revenue, and revenue required selling something. So, the church sold the air rights over its prime location.
The result is that starting around 1977, the new(er/ish) St. Peter's Evangelical Lutheran Church and another building have stood literally in the shadow of a 59-story skyscraper known today as Citigroup Center.
(If you don't know this story, you can look at the photo I included above to see what this all looks like. It links to a Google Maps image, so you can move the photo around a bit and see the context.)
Building a giant skyscraper on top of a church like this required some innovative architecture, including the fact that the building is built on oddly placed stilts.
The stilts meant less stability, and so architect Hugh Stubbins and structural engineer William J. LeMessurier “designed rows of eight-story V‘s as bracing,” as Luigi writes. “This design made the building light, so to prevent swaying he added a 400-ton concrete damper to keep the building stable.”
One day in summer 1978, Stubbins—or maybe it was LeMessurier; accounts differ—got an out of the blue phone call from an undergraduate architecture student in New Jersey.
She said she'd reviewed the building as part of her thesis, and she realized that with the right kind of weather conditions, the tower wasn't stable at all.
In fact, it would literally topple in the wind during a storm that could be expected in New York City once every 16 years, on average.
Keep in mind, this wasn't someone looking at the plans ahead of time. The building had already been built—the fifth-tallest in New York City—and a student who had yet to earn her bachelor's degree had called to warn it could collapse, likely killing thousands.
Stubbins and LeMessurier checked their calculations against what this 20-something student had told them, and they realized she was correct.
They worried how to fix the building without panicking the tens of thousands of people who worked there, and the tens of thousands or more who worked and lived nearby—to say nothing of their reputations.
Their solution was to conduct massive repairs in secret, with teams welding extra panels over all the bolted joints in the building during the middle of the night.
Fortunately for the builders (but not for the public's right to know), the dates they picked to do the work happened to fall during an 88-day strike that basically shut down New York's biggest newspapers. So the whole thing stayed quiet.
Also, in the middle of all of this, Hurricane Ella formed in the Atlantic and made its way up the East Coast—possibly providing that once-in-16-year storm. But, the hurricane veered to the north and barely affected New York City.
Anyway, all's well that end's well; the building was repaired, none of this story was reported for nearly two decades, and St. Peter's church thrived.
Then, in 1995, a writer named Joseph Morgenstern overheard something about the tower at a party. He wrote about it for the New Yorker magazine, but apparently didn’t include the part about the investigation being prompted by a phone call from an undergraduate student.
Years after that, the student still had had no idea that her tip had led to all of this.
But, she recognized her part in the story in a documentary about the building that had been inspired in part by the New Yorker article—and which credited "an unknown New Jersey engineering student for saving the building from potential disaster."
The documentary referred to the student as “he” several times, but she realized it was her story.
Without further ado, therefore, please meet Diane Hartley, the Princeton University engineering student who discovered the flaw back in 1978, and who didn't learn for decades just how important her discovery (and her decision to tell people about it) had been.
Morals of the story:
Remember that you’ve probably had positive effects on people you'll never learn about (or even remember doing).
As Hartley later said: "My husband told me, 'The greatest thing you ever did, you didn't even know you did!"
7 other things worth knowing today
Supreme Court clerks are reportedly upset that they're being asked to sign affidavits and turn over their cell phone records after the court's draft opinion overturning Roe v. Wade was leaked. Also, here's the next battleground, post-Roe: state supreme courts. (NY Mag, Pew)
The Uvalde Police Department and the Uvalde Independent School District police force stopped cooperating with the Texas Department of Public Safety's investigation into the massacre at Robb Elementary School and the state's review of the law enforcement response, after the head of DPS, Col. Steven McCraw, held a news conference that put blame on the local police for waiting so long to enter the school. (ABC News)
Twitter will pay $150 million in settlement after it admitted trying to get people to give up their phone numbers for 2-factor verification, and then targeted ads to them based on the phone numbers. (The Verge)
Out of a James Bond movie: Police in California say they've nabbed car burglars who equipped their vehicle with a device to flip over the license plate on the fly, so that it couldn't be caught on camera. Agent 007 had something similar on his car in the 1964 movie, Goldfinger. (NBC LA)
I keep seeing good reviews for Top Gun: Maverick; haven’t seen it yet so I cannot comment. But, speaking of 1980s movie sequels, have you heard about This Is Spinal Tap 2? (Variety)
I was hungry when I wrote this, hence the fact that we are including a list of the 23 best sandwiches in the world. (CNN)
I feel for this student, but: A Duke student’s graduation speech mirrored language in a Harvard address from a few years ago. The Duke student says she asked a lot of people for help, and hadn't realized some of them gave her passages that came from another speech. (WashPost)
Thanks for reading. Photo: fair use. Want to see all my mistakes? Click here.