THE TALLEST BUILDING IN LOS ANGELES has 1,500 stairs. The first one begins at street level, just inside the emergency doors that have been carved, almost imperceptibly, from the granite facade. The rest rise eight inches at a time, jagging around freight elevators and service bays, past the rear exits of some of the nation’s most prestigious lawyers and accountants and consultants and developers, before finally spilling onto the rooftop 75 stories above. Nobody, tenants included is supposed to set foot on them. Motion sensors and security cameras stand guard. If you find yourself on these steps, either something bad has happened or you are practicing for that day.
Once a year the rules are suspended during the first weekend of October when the Ketchum-Downtown YMCA borrows the route for its annual “Stair Climb to the Top.” Several hundred people pay $25 to attempt the ascent, an act of bravado that invariably inspires cracks about “upward mobility” and the “corporate ladder” This year was different. The high-rise staircase—escape chute or death trap, depending on the direction—had lost its power to amuse. Rather than shy from the image, the climbers honored it. Some donned FDNY memorial T-shirts. Others worn pictures of Osama bin Laden with WANTED: DEAD OR ALIVE stenciled across their chests. A Los Angeles firefighter from Station No. 9 was determined to make the hike as he would in a true disaster—in a soot-stained yellow jumper and rubber boots, with an oxygen tank stropped to his back. “At this time I ask that you all join me in a moment of silence for the fallen heroes of September 11.” an announcer at the starting line beckoned. He bowed his head. How about a round of God Bless America for this great country?”
THEN WE WERE OFF, TWO AT A TIME, STAGGERED EVERY 30 seconds to avert a pileup. The first few floors were a snap, adrenaline alone. If the building were to be laid on its side, the course could be covered in two or three minutes by even the flabbiest of contenders. Approached vertically, though distance becomes elevation; every step is a fight against gravity, a tether that threatens to yank you back to the bottom each time you lift your shoe. Within a couple hundred feet, all but the most elite athletes were gasping. Throats burned. Thighs cramped. Those who were skipping steps began taking them one at a time. Some tugged at the handrails. Others buckled on the landings. What had been a race was now a crawl, a slow, painful, dark, lonely exercise. “Don’t try to read the numbers at each floor,” a veteran climber had cautioned us at the start. “Just keep your head down.”
Everything in the windowless passageway was industrial gray except for the braids of red sprinkler pipe, studded with gauges and padlocked knobs. Fan belts rumbled, blasting the corridors with invisible gusts, alternately steamy and cool. Fluorescent tubes flickered from dark to light. Wherever there was a door, there was also a sign that warned DOOR NORMALLY LOCKED. The crackle of walkie-talkies echoed off the concrete, as YMCA volunteers kept watch for anyone who might need an escort out. From several stories below came a woman’s voice, wheezing, “I don’t know why I did this.” Slogging up ten steps, turning to the right and slogging up another ten, then turning to the right and slogging again and turning again, it was easy to imagine how unsettling this trek could be under different circumstances, how the stairs could swift into a vortex, winding you up or down, with no end in sight. By using them for sport, were we somehow trivializing their function? Or had we found a way to reclaim them, defying those who would make us cringe?
One race was held Friday afternoon for emergency workers and corporate teams, another Saturday morning for everyone else. Saturday’s winner, a triathlete from Santa Monica, made it to the top in 11 minutes. Most of the rest of us were clustered around the 20-minute mark, heaving and dripping as we stumbled onto the roof. Yellow police tape guided us back to the elevators, keeping the ledge at a merciful distance. Down on the 23rd floor, there was a reception. Racers were invited to share their feelings on a wipable easel. The largest letters spelled out WAKE-UP CALL FOR EVERYBODY.
THIS IS JUST A GUESS, BUT IF YOU WERE TO ASK TEN ANGELENOS to name our tallest building, at least seven would fail.
Unlike most U.S. cities, L.A. stakes little of its identity on downtown. We are too vast and horizontal, too balkanized by class and geography, to seek our reflection in a central district, much less a single edifice. For much of the city’s history, downtown had no skyline to speak of, anyway; until 1957, earthquake codes prohibited structures of more than 13 floors, and it was not until the 1970s that the 50-story mark was even broached. By the ’80s most high-rises had corporate names, and by the ’90s a good number of those corporations had been cannibalized, so that any architectural tour of downtown also required a Fortune 500 scorecard to keep track of the changing logos. L.A. is probably better known for its retro and vernacular design—City Hall, the Watts Towers, LAX’s Encounter restaurant, Tail o’ the Pup—than for its soaring monuments to wealth and ambition.
Yet those who inhabit the Library Tower have never been more conscious of their topmost status. To the extent that the skyline has a signature building, theirs is it—an elegant cream-colored spire, at once square and circular, twisting up a matrix of honeycombs to a glowing 1,018-foot crown. The next tallest building is 160 feet shorter, and the next 108 feet shorter than that. The Library Tower is the tallest building not just in L.A. but west of the Mississippi. Before September 11 it was the ninth-tallest in America. Now it is seventh.
Within an hour of the World Trade Center attacks, the Library Tower was evacuated. When it reopened the next day, the three revolving doors that face 5th Street were sealed off. So were the entrances to Starbucks and the Herman Miller show, room. Visitors were stopped in the lobby by a phalanx of security guards—a staff that surged overnight from 34 to 54—demanding photo ID, company affiliation, and a destination within the building. A month later, after President Bush ordered the aerial assault on Afghanistan, those security guards had repositioned themselves outside the lobby, signing in visitors before they had a chance to enter the doors. A few steps away, right down the middle of the sidewalk, there was now a roadblock of ten concrete barriers, each weighing 8,000 pounds. Laid out two deep, edges overlapping, they looked like the bulwark of a U.S. embassy in some hostile, far-off land.
The terror inflicted on New York already had touched many of the building’s occupants. Charles River Associates, a small economic consulting office on the Library Tower’s 22nd floor, had been expecting a visitor from its Boston headquarters, an office services manager named John Jenkins. On September 11 he boarded American Airlines Flight 11, bound for LAX. It was the first hijacked plane to strike the World Trade Center. The Library Tower’s maintenance company, American Building Management, also held the World Trade Center’s custodial contract; 17 workers remain missing—12 janitors, three engineers, two window washers. Several other Library Tower tenants lost offices in New York, including financial printer Bowne & Company (14th and 15th floors), whose employees managed to evacuate the World Trade Center’s south tower just before its collapse; Salomon Smith Barney (34th floor), which had a branch in No. 7 World Trade Center; and investment banker Nomura Securities (68th floor) and German-owned Commerzbank (66th floor), both of which did business at the World Financial Center, a block from ground zero. “A couple of times I actually found myself standing at the window, fantasizing about what it must have been like for those poor people,” a secretary on the Library Tower’s 42nd floor says. “You know, cussing the photocopier one minute and being blown to smithereens the next. The first week I needed to leave the building three or four times a day just to calm myself.”
In the weeks that followed, talk teetered between nervous speculation and gallows humor. Lawyers joked about stashing parachutes under their desks. Paralegals refused to let go of their cell phones, even in the bathroom. Some tenants walked around the perimeter of the building, trying to calculate their odds of survival based on which side a plane would be most likely to hit. Others held full evacuation drills, with those on the top floors advising employees to bring sensible shoes for the descent. “Why do we build buildings so high?” asks Kristin Ozawa, who runs the Fiore flower kiosk at the Library Tower’s base. After nine years, she still dreads venturing in to make deliveries. “Loss of control,” she explains. “It’s such a monstrous feat of engineering. Like a target sticking up in the sky.” Hollywood, as it often does, had already imagined the unimaginable. When aliens invade in the 1996 hit Independence Day, the first thing their spaceships vaporize—before the Empire State Building, before the White House—is the Library Tower, consumed by a black-and-orange fireball that rips from roof to ground.
“It doesn’t matter how much security you have—if someone wants to get you, they will,” says a Sprint E-Solutions employee riding an elevator up to the 58th floor.
“Not me,” says her coworker.
“The nice are the first to go!”
Although most have pictured it and some have planned for it, few tenants really worry that a catastrophe on the scale New York suffered would ever befall their building. In a purely logistical sense, the Library Tower is not as ostentatious a feature of the skyline, nor as isolated and accessible. In symbolic terms, it is hardly a citadel of American capitalism, or Los Angeles glitz. As we learn to play guessing games with the terrorist mind, the specter of another imploding high-rise has become almost too predictable, too passe compared with what might come next. If you dismiss the possibility, are you being naive? If you take precautions, are you being alarmist? If you look to fate, does that make you defeatist or realistic? “Do you want to be in the number-one signature building in any major city two weeks after what happened in New York?” asks John E Walker Jr., an attorney with Latham & Watkins, one of the Library Tower’s marquee tenants, with 700 employees. If I had to make that decision, I’d probably defer it. People aren’t thinking straight right now.”
When Latham & Watkins moved into the Library Tower shortly after its completion in 1989, Walker was the managing partner, the one who decided that such a “strong, prominent, beautiful building” validated the firm’s growing stature. He signed a lease for a dozen floors in the middle of the tower, even ascending to see the final girder, adorned with a ceremonial pine tree, anchored atop the roof. But on September 11, as he watched the World Trade Center disintegrate on TV, Walker’s first thought was, “These ego monuments are going to be harder to build in the future.” His own comfort level, he hastens to add, was unshaken. “You know, I’m going to be 60. I’ve been through a lot of shit.” The best and brightest young law school graduates, on the other hand, may be less enthusiastic about hitching their star to a firm that boasts one of the most conspicuous addresses in the city. “That’s the irony,” Walker says. “Prestige becomes vulnerability.”
THE FOOTPRINT OF THE LIBRARY TOWER IS NOT MUCH bigger than the square footage of Bill Gates’s mansion, yet the building’s population tops 3,000—a self-contained city, turned skyward. A staff of 169 runs the place like a cruise ship. It has a full-time painter and a full-time locksmith, an on-site elevator technician and its own transportation director. A concierge named Gigi offers free video rentals—and anything else, from vacation planning to birthday shopping, that a busy executive might demand. The chief of security is a former captain of the Cypress Police Department. Two engineers do nothing but lights; it takes them six hours to change the 96 fluorescent tubes in the crown, since September 11 a beacon of red, white, and blue.
The corridors are a microcosm of L.A. life, from seven-figure lawyers to strike-hardened janitors, Swiss investment bankers, Japanese aerospace officials, MBAs, CPAs, men in Brooks Brothers, women in Ann Taylor, couriers with pierced eyebrows and tattooed ankles. Some pull their Benzes and Beemers into the underground garage, where $400 a month buys a reserved spot. Others take the bus from Pico-Union and South-Central, carrying lunch in a brown paper sack. A few are famous: Boxing champion Oscar de la Hoya keeps an office, filled with jewel-encrusted title belts, on the 67th floor. Three flights above him former Los Angeles County district attorney Ira Reiner practices civil law. “We’re now the top law firm in L.A.,” says Reiner, who sometimes peers through an antique brass telescope, hunting for his Hollywood Hills home. “There’s nobody higher than us.” A few are famous only within the building: Papa, aka Richard Mitchell, who is 72, arrives by 6:30 every morning to open the $4 shoe shine stand; if tips are good, he calls his bookie and puts the extra cash on a horse. Not far away, behind the Starbucks counter, Odette Matarico explains the meaning of her last name, “kill the rich” in Spanish; it does nothing to discourage her, how, ever, from writing sweet notes—”Have a good day, honey”—on her customers’ grande latte cups.
Nobody can make it to work without passing through the elevators, which split off from the lobby like Metro lines. One bank goes to floors 2 through 19, another is reserved for 20 through 32, a third heads to 33 through 45, and yet one more provides service to 46 through 72. The final bank is a bit misleading; no elevator makes a direct trip to either floor 46 or 72. Instead, those cars head to a “sky lobby” on the 54th floor, where three more routes branch off, to floors 46 through 53, 55 through 63, and 64 through 72. Even at top speeds of 1,400 feet per minute—swift enough to make your ears pop—the system can be cumbersome. If someone on the 70th floor wants to grab a cup of coffee at the second-floor Starbucks, the round-trip requires six elevators.
Conversation during these journeys tends to be restrained, but occasionally snippets of chatter slip out: She’s working on the closing … You’ve paid your dues … The office is imploding, and he’s out playing golf… About a year and a half ago a Latham & Watkins secretary found herself riding down with a Salomon Smith Barney broker. He was wearing jogging shorts and a tank top. “Our firm just adopted business-casual attire, too,” she teased. They have been dating ever since, “If he’s going to propose to me, he needs to do it in that elevator,” she says. Years ago another group of Latham employees stepped toward the parting doors, only to look down an empty shaft. The scare turned into an episode of L.A. Law—spiced up with a plummeting body—after a couple of Latham attorneys began working for the show.
Latham & Watkins is not just one of the largest tenants in the Library Tower but one of the few to occupy the building all 12 years of its existence. When it debuted as First Interstate World Center, the 1.3-million-square-foot structure was more than 80 percent preleased; in a matter of months L.A. began spiraling into a recession, and the downtown market crashed. As corporations merged and contracted, sometimes fleeing the city altogether, the tower became a glaring victim, losing not just First Interstate in 1996 but also the bank’s logo of golden I’s that had made a bill, board of the crown. The Library Tower’s management office insists that the occupancy rate never faltered and that it today tops 90 percent. But many tenants admit, a bit sheepishly, that what first lured them to the building was not so much prestige as a bargain-basement price. “Honestly, we took advantage of some other organization’s catastrophe,” says Michael Collins, executive vice president of the Los Angeles Convention & Visitors Bureau, which nearly ten years ago assumed the 60th floor.
From his perch Collins sees an L.A. that few ever glimpse, a city far less mysterious and chaotic than it appears from the ground, more logically shaped by the contours of its canyons and coast. With the San Gabriel and San Bernardino Mountains on par with his line of vision, he has come to cherish their face as a seasonal barometer, sometimes brown, sometimes green, sometimes white. “When the time changes and suddenly we’re at the office more in the dark, that first hour just after the sun has set—when all the cliches about a glittering city apply—is nothing short of spectacular,” Collins says. “I’ve learned to keep just a lamp on, instead of the overhead lights.” On the south side of the suite, outside Farrah Zamani’s window, a peregrine falcon nests on the ledge. She sees it when she arrives for work every morning, then again, usually in the afternoons, as it swoops back with dinner in its beak. “Everyone stops by my desk to stare at it,” says Zamani, who works in the bureau’s international marketing department. “Twice a day it’s always in the same spot.”
Held up by a core of reinforced steel, most floors radiate outward in concentric circles, with secretaries and support staff in the interior rings, CEOs and partners against the far edge of carpet-to-ceiling glass. Because of the building’s irregular bulges, some floors have eight corner offices instead of four; at the top they narrow into 9,000-square-foot discs—an impractical use of work space, but one that offers the panorama of a flying saucer. Tenants gather at the windows for Fourth of July fireworks and, during the last two years, for Laker victory parades. They peek down at the swimming pools of the Westin Bonaventure and the Wyndham Checkers. They watch the metallic curves of the Walt Disney Concert Hall take shape and the dirt fields of the Belmont Learning Complex lie fallow. When news copters hover outside the building—a shot that has become a staple of the morning shows, at least until September 11 turned downtown into a no-fly zone—workers some times scrawl greetings and press them against the glass.
Although it has 75 stories if you count the roof, and 73 stories if you go by official guidelines, the Library Tower’s highest occupied floor is the 72nd. The original tenant was Joseph Pinola, chairman of First Interstate Bancorp. He snatched the space even though his company already had its own building, the 62-story First Interstate Bank Tower, and even though he already inhabited its top floor. When Wells Fargo swallowed First Interstate, the penthouse went to CommonWealth Partners, a real estate company formed by several of the building’s original developers. “Probably much can be said about various oedipal kinds of things, but really we’d be just as happy on the ground floor,” says Michael Croft, CommonWealth’s CEO. His protestations ring a bit hollow, given that he was already on the 56th floor and did not hesitate to move up.
He soon discovered one quirk: an infestation of moths, fluttering around his office as if in a scene from a Gabriel Garcia Marquez novel. The culprit was the tower’s crown, which had drawn them a fifth of a mile up to its light. Engineers had to seal gaps with wire screens and foam spray to get rid of the bugs.
“Does this building do anything for you?” asks a 22nd-floor tenant, waxing rhetorical. “Does it give you a lift? Do you feel closer to God?”
“It works with the chicks,” quips another on the 39th floor. “You know what they say about guys in tall buildings …”
People approach almost every day, asking if they can look out from the top. The Library Tower has no observation deck. It has no sky-high restaurant or rotating lounge. It is, in fact, one of the tallest buildings in America not to offer public access to its best views. Rogue parachutists are said to have leaped off the roof, a tale that could be true, or just as easily an urban myth. “I think I’ve heard that about Library Tower,” says Robert F. Maguire III, the developer most responsible for its construction. As soon as the frame was finished, he took his children to the top and tossed off paper airplanes. The building’s management office will occasionally cater to a special tenant; Mike Croft, for example, was allowed to host a party on the roof when the Russian space station Mir plunged back to earth earlier this year. “We took the firm up with binoculars and watched it reenter, which was kind of fun,” he says. But the Library Tower otherwise functions like a gated community, with magnetic key cards required for most floors.
Some firms add to the exclusivity: On the sixth floor Latham & Watkins keeps an attorney dining room, the only commissary in the building. Before a merger forced it to vacate, utilities giant Pacific Enterprises built a spiral staircase of brass and glass, creating a private link between the 46th and 53rd floors. “It really is the City of Quartz deal,” says Jack Williamson, an economist in Charles River’s 22nd-floor office. He is referring to historian Mike Davis’s 1990 polemic, which argued among other things that L.A. has two downtowns—the gleaming fortress of Bunker Hill and the seedy if considerably more colorful flatlands around Broadway—separated not by poor planning but by careful design. “At the end of the day, the people in this building drive home to San Marino, pour themselves a stiff one, and practice their putting,” says Williamson, a Silver Lake resident. “Corporate America’s full set of filters is very much in place.”
The counterargument is the Bunker Hill Steps, a terraced staircase that meanders around the Library Tower’s western edge, connecting Hope Street to the Richard J. Riordan Central Library on 5th. Modeled after Rome’s Spanish Steps, with a stone stream gurgling down the center, it has been widely hailed as one of the tower’s defining elements—a pedestrian-friendly bridge between the modern downtown and a beloved cultural landmark. Where once a concrete wall blocked traffic there now is life: tourists, shoppers, bibliophiles, joggers. McCormick & Schmick’s, which is housed in the tower’s fourth floor, celebrates happy hour on the patio. Exiled smokers form congregations along the way. Yet this ostensibly public space, like so many of downtown’s plazas, remains a private domain. Library Tower janitors sweep and scrub away imperfections. Surveillance cameras beam pictures back to the building’s central command. A plaque embedded in the ground warns RIGHT TO PASS BY PERMISSION, AND SUBJECT TO CONTROL, OF OWNERS.
One of the Library Tower’s most passion, ate admirers, a fixture of the building’s social and economic life, plays a cat-and-mouse game here all day. Her name is Donna the Downtown Hostess. She is only 39, but already her teeth are missing and her face is marked by stubble and crags. In one of the intimate rituals of downtown, the homeless lay claim not just to streets and corners but also to buildings, at once annoying and comforting and manipulating and humoring their occupants. For the past six years Donna’s building has been the Library Tower. “The building, to me, gives me a good feeling, a freedom kind of feeling,” she says. “It’s so high. It’s not just the tallest in L.A. Ifs the tallest west of the Mississippi.” She has been adopted by a number of tenants—lawyers, bankers, secretaries, even the boosters at the convention and visitors bureau. Some give her regular payments, say, $20 every Monday morning. Others share their phone numbers, in case of emergency. In return she provides receipts—for food or medicine or the boardinghouse where she sometimes stays with her twin teenage daughters.
If she lingers too long, however, security guards shoo her away. “One day when I get fixed up, I plan on getting up in there,” says Donna, who has never entered the building. “I’ve been on the bottom. I’d like to see what it’s like at the top.”
THE LIBRARY TOWER DID NOT start out to be L.A.’s tallest building. The man who built it would have been just as happy—maybe happier—if the superlatives were reserved for what it would accomplish.
Its namesake across the street, the ornately tiled, Moorish-style Central Library, had by the early ’80s grown shabby and cramped. As was often the case in that era, officials looked to the wrecking ball for a way out. “I told them, `If you do that, you’re going to lose the heart of the city,'” says Rob Maguire, the powerful and politically connected real estate mogul who probably did more to shape the face of downtown during the late 20th century than any single developer. To make his case, he helped fund a $300,000 study aimed at preserving and expanding the 1920s structure. His civic-mindedness was not without self-interest; his firm, then known as Maguire Thomas Partners, was also buying up property on the north side of the street, drafting plans for a 50-story office tower.
The idea was to pay for the library’s renovation with tax revenues from the new building, a common redevelopment strategy. But as negotiations with the city dragged into years, the library’s price tag soared. Two arson fires, destroying 400,000 books, pushed it well over $100 million. The only way to raise those funds, Maguire insisted, was to increase the height of his tower. Under city density rules, that would have been impossible. But Maguire negotiated to buy the library’s air rights—the potential height to which a structure could rise on that property—and transferred the extra density to his own site. In the end the library was saved, and Maguire was allowed to build not only the city’s tallest building but also its fourth-tallest, the 52-story Gas Company Tower, a block east. “The deal was ungodly complicated,” says Maguire, who paid for both the Bunker Hill Steps and the library’s Maguire Gardens. Some critics accused Maguire of exploiting the library, using it as leverage to win approval for a behemoth that otherwise never could have been built. On the other hand, some city officials—desperate for a world-class skyline—urged him to build higher. “He’s not like Donald Trump,” says the Library Tower’s architect, Henry Cobb, a partner in the I.M. Pei firm. “The 73 stories is merely a result, not an objective.”
With location, height, and square footage essentially determined for him, Cobb faced a formidable task. He wanted to create a building that was commanding and distinctive. Yet he also needed to be respectful of its older neighbor, strong and spare and low to the ground. “It could not be just one enormous shaft—and here I’m going to refer to the sad, departed World Trade Center, which was two monoliths almost without scale,” Cobb says. “You want the very tall building to dignify the smaller building rather than squash it.” Everything about the Library Tower’s shape is a response to that dilemma: the faceted curves, the tapered setbacks, the glass prisms at its crown and base, which echo the library’s pyramid-shaped cupola. Maguire liked the taller building more than the early design, which he once compared to “a stuffed Polish sausage.” Many people think of the tower as a stack of rotating corncobs; some see an elongated wedding cake—and indeed, most of the Spanish-speaking janitors know it only as “El Pastel.”
In engineering terms, the building has been described as being more like a buoy, or a toilet plunger. Designed to withstand an earthquake of 8.3 magnitude—the tallest structure in the world to meet that requirement—the Library Tower relies on a rigid core and an elastic perimeter, formed by 26,000 tons of steel and 44,000 cubic yards of concrete. Rather than glide atop underground rollers, as some early L.A. high-rises do, the entire building flexes; its most pliant upper reaches can be expected to sway as much as four to five feet without toppling. During the Santa Ana season, it creaks and moans like an old ship. During the worst storms, the chains on the window shades slap against the metal and glass, a ghostly chime. The one thing the building was never intended to withstand was a terrorist attack. “There were no discussions about blast resistance,” says P.V. Banavalkar, the project’s Houston-based structural engineer. “Those were more innocent times.”
From the 73rd-floor chiller room to the fifth-floor electrical plant to the subterranean pump station, a secret world of drains and ducts and fans and condensers chugs along 24 hours a day, all kept immaculate by chief engineer Chuck Scroggins, a former LAX Jetway mechanic. Emergency generators can produce enough juice to power several hundred suburban homes. A 125,000-gallon reserve of water guarantees that fire sprinklers will never run dry, even if city pipes are cut off. A taco truck pulls into the loading dock at 10:30 every night—lunchtime for the custodial staff, 43 of whom work graveyard. Their toughest job is the plush carpeting, which has to be vacuumed in a herringbone pattern. They also fret about two floors, one in the thirties, another in the sixties. “Supposedly you can hear footsteps,” says Jose Chias, a night foreman. “I think they hear the echo of their own feet.” In the rear of the loading dock is a giant Ram Jet trash compactor. Panicked tenants routinely come down to hunt for a missing treasure, sometimes a ring or a watch, once a set of false teeth. Another kind of digger occasionally comes by—private investigators offering $20 or $30 for a bag of garbage from a certain law firm or bank. The janitors are under strict orders to refuse. But just in case, a company called the Shredders also pays regular visits.
Three times a year the Library Tower’s windows are washed. It is usually done after dark. “In the hot sun the glass will dry before you can even clean it,” says Willie B. Wharton, the dean of the building’s skywalkers. Unlike most boxy high-rises, which can be cleaned from a stage that hangs straight down off the roof, the Library Tower requires a customized rig that telescopes in and out like a cherry picker, allowing its operator to navigate the building’s ledges and insets. It takes about eight hours for two people to go from top to bottom, cleaning a swath four windows wide. To make it all the way around, the process has to be repeated 26 or 27 times. “When I first started washing windows, I would get a bit dizzy,” Wharton says. “I still don’t really understand how I got over it. I think it was just a matter of me having to make a living.”
As the tower was being readied for its debut, before all the custom equipment was in place, a window-washing cable got lodged between two slabs of granite. A worker climbed out on a 48th-floor terrace and tried to break it free. When it sprang, it also flung him off. “I always tell everybody that J.C. be sitting up there on the boom, watching over me,” says Wharton, who at 67 has had a lifetime of close calls. He still washes windows but relinquished his Library Tower spot about a year ago to a younger, hungrier crew. “I don’t really miss it,” he says, “especially now with all the things going on.”
A TOP THE LIBRARY TOWER there is one final staircase, with 24 steps. They rise from the roof to the building’s pinnacle, an emergency-only helipad that is unofficially counted as the 76th floor. For obvious reasons the YMCA’s “Stair Climb to the Top” ended before reaching this point. But the building’s executive staff will sometimes invite people up, hoping to dazzle them with the view. “I have to tell you,” says Michele Reibel, a manager for Maguire Partners, “most people beg for this opportunity.”
Standing on the roof is not so daunting; a wall is to your back, and to your front, a shoulder-high retaining ledge keeps the void at bay. Climbing to the helipad is another thing altogether. The steps are on the exterior of the building. They are made of metal and at first seem to lead in the wrong direction—away from the tower’s center of gravity—before reaching a small landing and cutting back in. “Keep walking up until you can’t walk up anymore,” Reibel says. Soon the stairs dissolve into a concrete platter, maybe the size of a boxing ring. The ability to gauge dimension, though, shuts down at this point. Nothing is left to offer perspective. The pad has no fence or parapet or lip. Not a single man-made object in urban L.A. rises to the height of your eyes.
If you were to fall, you would drop only a dozen feet or so, onto the rooftop below. But from the middle of the helipad you cannot see that. All you know is that you are suspended in space, hovering in the white glare and brown haze. People who are usually good with heights confess that the experience has left them queasy. For people who are not, the fear is cold, stark, and irrational. The world spins and weight evaporates, as if your mass has lost its power to keep you stuck on the planet. The edge mocks you, ready to turn a clumsy or impetuous step into an irreversible plunge. You want to drop to your knees and hug the ground.
In her study of high-rise architecture, The Tall Building Artistically Reconsidered, Pulitzer Prize-winning critic Ada Louise Huxtable wrote about the duality of the skyscraper—its capacity to both inspire and repulse. Tall buildings can be at once marvels of engineering and self-congratulatory freaks, tributes to the human spirit and temples of greed. Often bland and standardized, they still form the skylines that make cities charismatic and recognizable. “The skyscraper is Olympian or Orwellian,” she wrote, “depending on how you look at it.”
Like airplanes, tall buildings demand faith, promising to function safely even if few of us understand the technology that makes that possible. They offer stunning vistas in hermetically sealed comfort yet also ask us to suppress our primal mistrust of places we cannot exit at will. To succeed, they depend on each day being much like the last one; they gamble that the power will not fail, that the elevators and air conditioners will not stop, that the earth will not shake beyond its acceptable latitude, that fire will not spread faster than it can be doused. Every building takes precautions to insulate itself from those calamities, the Library Tower more than most. But because of the skyscraper’s very nature—its height, its density, its stacking of people and machinery—every problem is magnified, just as a small malfunction on a plane can be many times more serious than one on a car. “We all know we’re in a house of cards,” says Chris Kelly, an attorney with White & Case, a firm on the Library Tower’s 19th floor.
Even before September 11, building tall had been falling from favor. Led by the dot-com and telecommuting revolution, American corporations fled to the exurbs in droves during the 1990s, trading high-rise stature for windows that open and stairs that are an option, not a last resort. Among them was Sears, Roebuck & Company, which left behind its 110-story Chicago headquarters—the tallest in the nation—for a campus where no building tops six floors. With L.A.’s office market spreading to places like Santa Monica and Burbank, the economic impetus to continue building a vertical downtown has also been waning here. If that someday changes, and another skyscraper seeks to reign over the city, the Library Tower’s architect believes an important question will have to be resolved. “Do we really want to have these emblems, and if so, what do they represent?” asks Cobb, whose New York offices are only a mile from where the Twin Towers once stood. “This is not just a question about the imagination of architects. It’s about the much more fundamental issue of the way the culture, of the way the society, imagines it, self. These are value judgments. And it’s going to take quite a while for that debate to work itself out. Everyone’s in a state of shock.”
To descend from the Library Tower’s summit, you go down the stairs you came up. That should be simple, but it is not. You must begin walking toward the edge before the first step is visible, and you must take several more before a handrail rises high enough for you to clutch. If you look down at your feet, you will appear to be marching into oblivion. The people from the management office are practiced in this routine. One takes your hand and another grips your shoulder, whisking you across the most vertiginous gap. It is humbling. But at this altitude, and under these circumstances, there is something about a human’s touch.