There is a building that straddles a point of land between Broadway and Central Park West, with a sweeping overlook upon the 59th Street corner of Central Park, as well as the entirety of Columbus Circle.
The view is so fine that even from the thirty-third floor, we Paramount Pictures people could see that something violent had occurred in Columbus Circle during Joe Columbo’s June, 1971 Italian Unity Day rally — an event produced under the rubric of Columbo’s newly created Italian-American Civil Rights League. Not entirely coincidentally, Francis Coppola had begun shooting The Godfather for Paramount a few months earlier.
We didn’t see the shooting, i.e., couldn’t see the blood, but we saw a rapid orderless churning among those gathered to applaud Columbo and/or Italian-American civil rights.
I could tell you stories about The Godfather but this little tale isn’t one of them, although it too begins with an act of violence.
When three of us Paramount Pictures (heretofore PPC) secretaries (or assistants, if you prefer, as I would if I weren’t being thoroughly honest) to Stanley Jaffe, president, and Charles Bluhdorn, chairman of the board, moved from a great old building in Times Square to the executive suite in the brand new Gulf + Western Building…well, at least one of us cried.
It was that awful. On the walls was a sardonic attempt to create a sort of chair rail effect by the application of dark gray shiny wallpaper, already peeling at the edges. There were great stretches of useless nothingness covered in already stained carpet.
Here’s my sketch of our little empire (on my leftover personal PPC notepad, as proof I was really there). Below the sketch are identifications of the lettered areas in this, the executive suite.
A. A guest waiting room. When Charlie Bluhdorn, who was not happy with the decor or design, escorted visitors through his new building about which he had been so proud, he’d wave at A and say in his Austrian-inflected accent, “Here’s the Viet Cong interrogation room,” and then at…
B. “…and here’s where we interrogate the Viet Cong,” about the second guest waiting room.
C. Some wag called this long, thin empty space “the bowling alley,” and because the appellation was accurate in length and shape, the name stuck. There was nothing else it could be used for.
D. A ficus tree.
And there are the three desks which here represent the three of us, still friends after all these years, a demographic and cultural medley: Sue S. (WASP debutante), Elizabeth (Catholic) and me (non-religious Jew).
That act of violence I promised you somewhere above the sketch? A few days after we took dismayed possession of our new space, we came in one morning and saw the ficus tree had been under some sort of assault, denuded of many of its leaves. The earth-filled pot in which it sat had been churned up; earth had spilled onto the carpet.
I don’t know who arrived to inspect what remained of our pitiful foliage but whoever did reported this: “A rat.”
New York City gets a lot of strong winds, blasting off the Hudson and making merry down all the wider side streets. One day, soon after we moved into Gulf + Western Plaza and the rat ate the ficus, the building itself alarmed us. On a day of fairly strong winds, it started to groan loudly and creak, and sway so perceptibly we three also felt ourselves swaying. The sensation was uncomfortable enough so that even I couldn’t make fun of it.
We were on a big sailing ship in a storm.
Once, when I was on the phone, my elbow braced on the desk as the building rocked me slowly side to side, whoever I was speaking to said, “What’s that noise?” That’s how loud it was.
One of our executive pals did a comic bit while tottering down the long hall to our offices, tipping and regaining his footing along with the building’s movement. Some visitors, though, looked a little nauseous.
Then the heavens provided us with an explanation. One afternoon, the door on the extreme left of our office sprung open and an odd character entered the bowling alley. He was disheveled, his tie loose and crooked, his wrinkled shirt pulled partway out of his trousers. And his hair was uncombed. He came in without even nodding at us, and walked around looking up, down, sideways. He did not seem entirely compos mentis.
We three watched him in perplexity. Finally, one of us said, “Who are you?”
“The architect,” he said, as he made for the door on the extreme right.
Wait a sec, someone said. “Can you tell us why the building makes so much noise when it sways?”
“Cheap steel job,” he said, and exited.
Yes, that really happened. There is further architectural diagnosis. My friend, Sue T. was married to Allan, an architect. In the spirit of deeper research and future tranquility, I consulted with him. This is what I learned:
Tall buildings are engineered to sway in high winds. If they weren’t, they’d break off. Not only was the swaying nothing to worry about, we should be worried if it didn’t sway.
As to the groaning, creaking and “cheap steel job”: steel structures can be buffered by one or another soundproofing technique which would have at least deadened the noise, but such work was highly expensive. Whoever financed Gulf + Western Plaza had decided not to spend the money.
One Gulf + Western Plaza is now the Trump International Hotel. Do you think when the building was reconceived as a hotel Trump’s financier spent money to soundproof it?