Still standing

Civil Engineering Professor Nathan M. Newmark’s seismic design helped the 44-story Latin-American Tower survive two major earthquakes—one in 1957, the other in 1985. (Photo courtesy of UI Archives)
Engineering professor Nathan M. Newmark’s work on the Latin-American Tower helped it survive two devastating earthquakes

Engineering professor Nathan M. Newmark’s work on the Latin-American Tower helped it survive two devastating earthquakes

One eyewitness said that when she woke up in the middle of the night, things were shaking so badly that it felt as if she were trapped in a washing machine. Others described ceiling lights swinging, curtains swaying, windows shattering and closet doors flying open.

These people were riding the waves of a major earthquake that struck Mexico City on July 28, 1957 around 2:50 a.m.

When residents walked through the rubble-filled streets as morning dawned, they saw “many of their most famous structures in shambles,” reported John F. Sembower, a Central Press Association correspondent. Structures taller than five stories were hit hardest, but amazingly, the tallest building of all—the 44-story Latin-American Tower—was still standing. Not a single windowpane had been broken.

That accomplishment was the result of the work of legendary University of Illinois civil engineering professor, Nathan M. Newmark, MS ’32 ENG, PHD ’34 ENG, the building’s consulting engineer. The Latin-American Tower, or Torre Latinoamericana, “performed the greatest feat of standing up to an earthquake since architect Frank Lloyd Wright’s famous Orient Hotel survived the great Tokyo trembler,” Sembower said.

Newmark joined the faculty at Illinois after completing his Ph.D. in civil engineering in 1934. Years later, he served as chairman of the digital computer laboratory at Illinois from 1947-57 and headed the prestigious civil engineering department from 1956-73.

Considered a founding father of earthquake engineering, Newmark was known worldwide for his expertise in designing structures that would resist damage from forces such as wind, waves, blasts and quakes. His project portfolio includes dams, nuclear reactor facilities, the Bay Area Rapid Transit System and the Trans-Alaska Pipeline.

The Latin-American Tower remained Mexico City’s tallest building until 1984, and it set the standard for earthquake-resistant skyscrapers.

The Latin-American Tower still stands today in the heart of Mexico City.

Sources: The Christian Science Monitor, Sept. 6, 1957; The Washington Post, July 29, 1957; University of Illinois College of Engineering; John F. Sembower, Central Press Association; Steel Construction Digest, 1958; and the University of Illinois Archives.