By tragic default, the Empire State Building has regained its rank as the tallest building in New York City. The restored status, of course, results from the cataclysmic terrorist attack that obliterated the World Trade Center in September. The earth's tallest structure from 1931 until the 1972 opening of the first of the World Trade Center's twin towers, the Empire State Building not only altered but defined New York City's skyline.

Although other construction projects in this country and abroad subsequently stretched higher into the sky, the Empire State Building remains in the company of the Great Wall of China and the Eiffel Tower as one of the most recognizable structures on the planet. In Empire, completed before September's attack, author Mitchell Pacelle delivers a thrilling history of the mythic building, which has drawn its share of suicidal souls and was the site of a 1997 shooting rampage by a Palestinian visitor.

The leveling of the World Trade Center by two aircraft recalled the day in 1945 when the Empire State Building itself was struck by an Army Air Corps B-25 bomber lost in dense fog. That incident occurred on a Saturday, when the building was relatively empty. Fourteen lives were lost, the fire was extinguished in four hours, and the building opened for business two days later, thus erasing any questions about its structural integrity. Pacelle recounts these and other sensational moments in the life of the building, but the real strength of his book lies in the story of the infighting and negotiating for ownership of the skyscraper the stuff that might land on a newspaper's business pages rather than on the front page. In much more than a simple story about ambitious architecture, Pacelle, a Wall Street Journal reporter, describes what the Empire State Building's 3.8 million annual visitors cannot see from its observation decks, and some of his disclosures are bewildering. For instance, real estate tycoon Donald Trump finagled half-interest in the partnership that owns the building without putting up a nickel. The owners have no clout in operating the building and receive only a puny percent of its income, most of which goes to a lease-holding group controlled by Trump rival Leona Helmsley.

For most of the last decade, nobody knew who really owned the skyscraper. Trump's involvement traces to Hideki Yokoi, an entrepreneur with an unsavory background who built a multi-billion dollar empire in Japan's post-war boom. In a day when cramped, two-bedroom apartments in Tokyo were selling for $1 million, Yokoi went on an international buying binge and acquired the Manhattan colossus the ultimate architectural trophy for $42 million. Kiiko, his illegitimate daughter, scouted and nailed down properties for Yokoi around the world, but a series of acquisitions ended in a feud in which he accused her of stealing the 102-story structure from him. Yokoi, who ordered his trousers sewn with the wallet pocket in the front to foil pickpockets, saw his dynasty collapse in Japan's financial tailspin before he died in 1998 at age 85. But the animosity between Helmsley and Trump, who had been enlisted by Kiiko in a failed attempt to break Helmsley's lease, continues to this day. Few principals emerged unscathed some were jailed from what Empire carefully documents as a story of greed, ego and vengeance in "the world's largest Monopoly game." In the hands of another writer, the financial and legal maneuverings a complicated but critical part of the building's history might confuse the reader, but Pacelle, mercifully, has made it easy for those of us without accounting or law degrees to understand. Some day the story will demand a sequel, and Pacelle, winner of the NewYork Press Club's Business Reporting Award in 1999, is the one who ought to write it.

Alan Prince of Deerfield Beach, Florida, is an ex-newsman and college lecturer.

 

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