The Kingdom and the Tower

After the music stopped, most people left the building; but others were free to roam around, and even wander up to the executive suite on the 14th floor, as I did, to get a final look at the exalted domestic quarters occupied many years ago by the publisher, the publisher’s mistress and the publisher’s valet. Although the beds are gone, I assumed that what I saw was pretty much as things looked a half-century ago, notwithstanding the fact that there are draperies sprawled along the floor, and the ornate chandeliers were dislodged from the ceiling, and a few plush chairs, tables and other furniture were scattered here and there and sometimes turned upside down. One object that remains in place, however, is an elegantly carved oak-wood grandfather’s clock that stands about 10 feet high and displays a medallion that marks it as a gift to Adolph S. Ochs from the citizens of Chattanooga, dated Dec. 8, 1892. This was when Ochs was publisher of the Chattanooga Times, and the clock was presented to him four years before he left the South to take over the failing New York Times, whose founding editor, Henry J. Raymond, had introduced The Times in 1851 with offices downtown at 113 Nassau Street. The clock is still ticking perfectly. It will not be available to the auctioneers, having been claimed by Ochs’ 55-year-old great-grandson and present publisher, Arthur Ochs Sulzberger Jr.

While the interior of this building at 229 West 43rd Street that the staff first inhabited in 1913 will soon be gutted by its new owner—an Israeli diamond billionaire named Lev Leviev who paid $525 million for the property, and might well convert the interior to profitable usage beyond anything imagined by the heirs of Ochs—the façade of the building will remain as it now is in accord with the building’s landmark status.

The Times’ new headquarters building on Eighth Avenue, a 52-story “shimmering tower of transparent glass” (words by Paul Goldberger), has already received much welcoming attention from architectural critics and has elicited few negative comments from members of the staff, even though the top editors were more prestigiously endowed when they were at 229 West 43rd—which is to say that in the old place anyone holding the rank of managing editor or above (be it Mr. Gelb, Rosenthal or Mr. Sulzberger) had offices with private bathrooms. But not in the new place. Not even Mr. Sulzberger will have one, as he apparently wishes to convey his egalitarian sensibilities, whether they truly exist within him or not, and at the same time he emphasizes his paper’s devotion to transparency by making it virtually impossible for any reporter or editor in this glass-walled emporium to enjoy a single moment of privacy—be it a furtive gesture of flirtatiousness expressed across the aisle toward a co-worker, or an upraised index finger in the face of an irascible colleague. But it behooves me not to enlarge upon my meanderings, for I have only briefly visited the new premises, having done so during the past weekend while accompanied by Mr. Gelb and two amiable Times escorts who deal harmoniously with Mr. Sulzberger.

Among the things that Mr. Gelb and I learned during our visit are the following:

Of the building’s 52 floors, only the lower 20 are being used by the newspaper, the rest being rentals.

While there were less than 40 conference rooms in the old building, there are 113 conference rooms in this new one, giving me the impression that Mr. Sulzberger is inclined toward a talkier Times management.

In the old building, especially when Mr. Gelb and I were employed there together during the 1960’s, we routinely mingled and associated with multitudes of fellow employees who were members of the working class: We sat among ink-stained printers in the cafeteria, and we knew the first names of many of The Times’ elevator men, the carpenters, the electricians, floor sweepers and so on—nearly all of whom, I believe, took satisfaction in being affiliated with The Times, and in their neighborhoods this affiliation no doubt bestowed upon them a prideful identity. But now in the 21st-century Times, the employment is largely monocultural, and while blue-collar workers abound on the premises they lack the old-time sense of kinship because they are sent in by outside contractors.

In the lobby of the new building, as Mr. Gelb and I headed home and thanked our escorts for showing us around, I noticed a bronze statue of Adolph S. Ochs that had held the pre-eminent position in the lobby of 43rd Street, but now in the new building it was positioned at an oblique angle behind the reception desk, with the statue’s foundation wrapped in packing cloth, and the imperial gaze seemingly adrift.

“Where’s that going to go?” I asked one of the escorts.

“We don’t know yet,” he replied.