Today, the world stands on the brink of a boom in international trade.... To realize itsrole in the new era dawning for overseas trade and finance, this country must marshal itsresources. One primary step in this direction would be to establish a single center,planned and equipped to serve that vital purpose.
-A Proposal for the Port of New York,
by the Downtown-Lower Manhattan Association, January 1960
The phone rang at 7 A.M.. in the four-story, red-brick town houseon East Sixty-fifth Street where David Rockefeller was just finishing up his breakfast before his commute to work. Rockefeller, the youngest grandson of America's first billionaire, liked to ride theLexington Avenue subway downtown to his office at Chase NationalBank, one hand clutching the dangling strap, the other a newspaperfolded lengthwise so that he could read it in the morning crush. As heswayed with the unsteady rhythms of the city's populist heart, he couldhave been any other executive on his way to work in Lower Manhattan.But the unexpected phone call on this day in February 1955 meant thatRockefeller would make his commute in the back of a gray Cadillac limousinethat carried two telephones, enough room for seven passengers,and license plates that read, very simply, WZ. Those were the initials ofWilliam Zeckendorf, the unpredictable, inventive, and stupendouslyenergetic real estate promoter-and an old Rockefeller family friend-whohad called to say he had an idea that couldn't wait.
Rockefeller was used to last-minute brainstorms from Zeckendorf, anenormous, moon-faced man who had been called the P. T. Barnum of realestate. Zeckendorf never thought small, and he could seldom be accusedof understatement. He ruled his real estate empire from within a hugearchitectural turret atop a skyscraper at 383 Madison Avenue. His loftychamber, designed by I. M. Pei, featured an igloo-shaped, teakwood-envelopedoffice on the first level and a circular, glass-enclosed diningroom on top. While visitors to his office struggled to get a few words in,Zeckendorf often fielded thirty-five calls an hour, furiously doodling trianglesas he spoke, at times getting haircuts in his office chair, negotiatingdeal after deal-for properties that in some cases he had never seen. (Hissecretaries would carefully file the doodles, because they often containednotes about deals among the geometric shapes.) This was the real estatemagician who had proposed turning the land under an East Riverslaughterhouse into the first home of the United Nations, a deal that theRockefeller family had swung by putting up $8.5 million to buy the property.Not coincidentally, that maneuver also adroitly removed from privatehands the only Midtown plot big enough to rival the Rockefellerfamily's own real estate venture, Rockefeller Center. Zeckendorf hadbought and sold interests in the Chrysler Building, the Singer Building, 40Wall Street, and dozens of other city landmarks. For Zeckendorf, doingthe deal was the important thing.
Zeckendorf had crisply summed up his philosophy in a saying thatbecame famous in real estate circles: "I would rather be alive at 18 percentthan dead at the prime rate." Since the prime lending rate was in the lowsingle digits, the declaration meant that Zeckendorf was willing to pay atremendous premium for the sake of consummating a deal. That habitwould ultimately lead him to a spectacular bankruptcy.
But for now Zeckendorf, with all of his ebullient showmanship, wasadvising David Rockefeller-an immensely powerful man who was serious,almost to the point of piety, about his city, his family, and his family'smoney-and Zeckendorf had come up with a sure-fire plan for buildinga giant new headquarters for Chase. He wanted to pitch it to Rockefellerduring the limousine ride downtown.
This was going to be one hell of a deal.
Zeckendorf knew that Rockefeller had just been named executive vicepresident for planning and development at Chase. The bank had beenlooking for a place to consolidate its sprawling operations for years now,and as one of his first big assignments, Rockefeller had been asked byChase's chairman, John J. McCloy, to help figure out where to build anew headquarters. In the last few decades, Chase had sopped up the assetsof more than fifty smaller banks, collecting in the process an awkwardlittle menagerie of nine downtown buildings. None of those buildingshad enough space-or stature-for what, through a merger with theBank of the Manhattan Company, was soon to be the city's largest andthe world's second-largest bank, with some nine thousand downtownemployees. It would have been all but impossible to find any suitablebuildings downtown, in the historic heart of the financial district,because no one had broken ground there on a big new skyscraper sincethe early 1930s. Instead, the corporate epicenter was moving north, toMidtown-a place so far away, in commercial terms, that it might as wellhave been a separate city. The new corporate showplaces in Midtown-withtheir enormous windows, wide-open floor spaces, and, perhapsmost glorious, central air conditioning-left the downtown towers lookinglike quaint but shopworn antiques.
So it must have seemed a sure bet that Chase would join corporatebrethren like Lever Brothers, Colgate-Palmolive, and Seagram's to ParkAvenue or the other glittering streets near Grand Central Terminal.But that would not have meshed with the deal that Zeckendorf had inmind, a deal so complicated that he would later refer to it in the style of achess champion as his "Wall Street Maneuver."
Zeckendorf's deal would turn out to be the first move in a much largergame. That game, and the shrewd masters of politics, finance, real estate,public relations, urban planning, architecture, engineering, and constructionwho played it, would produce a pair of towers that rose aboveevery other skyscraper in Manhattan and the world. Those towers and thehandful of lesser buildings clustered around them downtown, in the partof the city traditionalists still insisted on calling Lower Manhattan, wouldbecome known as the World Trade Center.
Decades after his limousine ride with David Rockefeller, Zeckendorf'srole in creating the trade center would be so obscured by later historythat it would be all but forgotten. "What's his name, the name of the realestate promoter who did a lot of that?" McCloy, the bank's chairman,would say after the trade center had been open for almost a decade andZeckendorf had died with his empire in ruins. "You know, the big fellow.I never thought I'd forget his name." But it is unlikely that anyone whoknew Zeckendorf ever forgot another of his signature lines: "I makegrapefruit out of lemons." That is what it would take to keep Chase frommoving uptown.
As Rockefeller started looking into the question, McCloy could nothelp thinking about his downtown neighbor National City Bank and itschairman, Howard Sheperd, who was also looking for a new building."Howard, what are you going to do?" McCloy had asked Sheperd at aboutthat time. "Well, I want to stay downtown," Sheperd replied. But soonenough Sheperd came back to McCloy: "Jack, I've got a lot of youngTurks over at my place who don't agree with the older hands. They thinkthey ought to move uptown." And they did.
But Zeckendorf could scribble another important bit of informationamong the triangles on his notepad. Rockefeller and McCloy werebankers with an iron focus on the bottom line-"Sentiment shouldnever be the basis for a business decision involving many thousands ofpeople and hundreds of millions of dollars," David Rockefeller wouldwrite in what, for him, counted as fiery language-but they also hadenough of a sense of history that they wanted to buck the trend. Theircramped headquarters, just north of Wall Street, overlooked the spotwhere the Dutch had first settled New York. Just across the street was thesite of Federal Hall, where the Bill of Rights had been adopted and whereGeorge Washington took the oath as the nation's first president. Andaround the corner once stood a buttonwood tree, under which twenty-fourbrokers had gathered in 1792 to form a marketplace that ultimatelywould be named the New York Stock Exchange. Still, the Chase boardwas stocked with some of the same industrialists who were leading themove uptown, and in that February of 1955, stockholders were far moreinterested in the bank's $7.5 billion in assets than the view from the windowsof its headquarters.
Here is where Zeckendorf came in. He had a little inside information.Within hours, he told Rockefeller on the limousine ride downtown, anold limestone office tower, right next door to Chase headquarters on PineStreet, was due to be sold. At fifteen stories, the 1884 building had beenoccupied by the Mutual Life Insurance Company of New York before it,too, left for Midtown. The building had been an architectural wonder inits day: arched windows, two-story porticos flanked by polished Quincygranite columns, and an entrance hall with Algerian onyx pillars and amarble frieze. But Zeckendorf had little interest in those flourishes. Stopthe sale of the building, Zeckendorf told Rockefeller, and then make thefollowing moves:
Buy the Mutual Life Insurance Building yourself.
Acquire the other buildings that Chase did not already own in thisimmediate two-block area. Sell off many of Chase's other downtown propertiesand find a new tenant for its current headquarters at 18 Pine Street.
Persuade the city to close off Cedar Street, which split the area containingthe existing Chase holdings and the Mutual Life Building into twoblocks.
Demolish much of those two blocks.
Use those two blocks as the base for a new skyscraper that would serveas headquarters for Chase.
In truth, the Wall Street Maneuver was not nearly that simple, since itrequired a dazzling set of side moves-which Zeckendorf dubbed "musicalchairs"-that shuffled major companies around at some of the locations.But if you believed in the man's ability to pull off the maneuver,the outcome would be a spanking new downtown headquarters.
It would never really be clear how easy it was to amaze the determinedlymild, doggedly unemotive Rockefeller, whose lifelong hobbywas collecting beetles. Whatever the threshold, the Wall Street Maneuvermade the grade. The audacity of Zeckendorf's proposal astonished him.
But the Zeckendorf magic also persuaded him. They got out of thelimousine and hurried to see McCloy in his fourth-floor office at 18 PineStreet.
"The Mutual Life site is under negotiation for sale and you have notime," Zeckendorf declared. "You have to bid for it today."
After Zeckendorf outlined the plan, McCloy became a believer too. Hephoned the owner of the company that was making the sale and got himto delay it for a day. Less than twenty-four hours later, Chase had purchasedthe Mutual Life Insurance Building for $4.4 million.
McCloy and Rockefeller knew that, as with any deal that passedthrough Zeckendorf's restless hands, there were some imponderables,some Zeckendorfian risks that the bank would have to accept. The mostobvious ones revolved around Cedar Street. Even after it purchased theland, the bank would need to go to Robert Moses, the city's powerfulredevelopment czar, for the special permits needed to erase Cedar Streetand create such a large plot. The famously dictatorial Moses would haveto agree to the plan.
In fact, Moses would do more than that.
He would make the next move in the much greater game that Zeckendorfhad set in motion.
* * *
From his bedroom window on the fifth floor of his boyhood home at 10West Fifty-fourth Street in Midtown Manhattan, David Rockefeller had alovely view south over the city. Although he could see the tops of somelow, aging buildings in the foreground, the near distance was commandedby the spires of St. Patrick's Cathedral, just around the cornerfrom his house, on Fifth Avenue. Farther away were the Empire StateBuilding and the gleaming Chrysler Building, both recently completed-hewas fifteen when the ribbon was cut on the Empire State Buildingon a hazy but cloudless May Day, 1931-and ruling with absolute authorityover the Midtown skyline. And if he looked past the muscularwestern shoulder of the Empire State Building, he could see open, unbrokensky for miles along the Hudson River shoreline toward LowerManhattan.
Soon the low buildings would be replaced by Rockefeller Center. Hisfather, John D. Rockefeller Jr., pushed ahead with the project through theDepression despite the obvious financial challenges and the withdrawal ofthe prime tenant, the Metropolitan Opera Company. With that perseverance,Mr. Junior (as he was called) would create one of New York's moststoried architectural sites and the single place most associated with thefamily name. But the family didn't stop there in its remaking of the city.During this same period, David's mother, Abby Aldrich Rockefeller,became one of the founders of the Museum of Modern Art, which in thelate 1930s would move to a complex built on the block that was partiallyoccupied by the family home at 10 West Fifty-fourth Street-which wouldbe razed to make way for the project. On an Upper West Side hill overlookingthe Hudson River, David's father had also helped finance the constructionof the neo-Gothic giant known as Riverside Church. In short,a simple tour of the city gave David Rockefeller a view of his family'sadopted role as New York's benevolent parent.
It was a fraught relationship, to say the least. It depended not just onthe family's energy and wealth and good intentions but on the city's willingnessto accept paternalistic advice from these self-appointed wise menand women. The United States, after all, is supposed to be a democracy,where each individual is born equal to the next. With the power ofmoney, big money, factored in, that theoretical equality was more than alittle suspect. But preserving the pretense of equality-that, too, was animportant American precept. Missteps by David's grandfather had madeall too clear what kind of backlash the family could expect if it ended upon the wrong side of public opinion. John D. Rockefeller Sr. had turned a$2,000 investment in 1859 into a corporation that by the 1890s marketed85 percent of the petroleum products sold in the United States. He righteouslydefended his high-volume, low-cost operation at Standard Oil bypronouncing that "we must ever remember we are refining oil for thepoor man and he must have it cheap and good."