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Before Running for President, Donald Trump’s First Gamble Was Building Trump Tower

Controversy, shady connections, immigration issues — no, we're not talking about Donald Trump's presidential run. In 1979, New York's real estate scion had an audacious idea: build a huge Fifth Avenue tower, thumb his nose at the establishment, slap his name on top. Repeat.

This story first appeared in the April 22 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.

When Barbara Res watches coverage of Donald Trump running for president, she says, “It sends chills down my spine.” For Res, who served as vice president of construction during the building of Trump Tower, seeing her former boss bull and bluster his way toward the GOP Convention takes her back to the early 1980s, when she watched him generate headlines and controversy while building the first skyscraper that would bear his name (and where, fittingly, he would announce his candidacy).

“It’s like deja vu,” says Res, who worked for Trump from 1978 to 1996. “He knows exactly what he’s doing. It’s all calculated to generate maximum publicity.”

More than three decades before he threw the GOP into disarray, Trump shook up New York in similar fashion by building a gleaming $200 million, 68-story skyscraper on tony Fifth Avenue that would vault him to international celebrity.

Trump came into his own as a developer in the mid-’70s after splitting off from his father Fred’s real estate business, which encompassed mostly middle-income housing in Brooklyn and the family’s native Queens. Trump fils aspired to more glamorous ZIP codes, and even before his first Manhattan venture — the successful conversion of the Commodore Hotel to the Grand Hyatt — opened in 1979, he had begun laying the groundwork for Trump Tower.

The East 56th Street entrance to Trump Tower, which was built on the site of the former Bonwit Teller department store. When construction workers destroyed limestone Art Deco reliefs from the original building that Trump had promised to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the head of New York’s Landmark Commission derided him as “not one of the more enlightened developers.”

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That same year, at the age of 32, he purchased for $10 million the 12-story building on Fifth Avenue between 56th and 57th streets that, for five decades, had housed the high-end women’s retailer Bonwit Teller.

One of Trump’s first head-turning moves was to put Res in charge of construction of the glass tower that the architect Der Scutt had designed. “It was ballsy,” says Res, author of All Alone on the 68th Floor: How One Woman Changed The Face of Construction, who was 30 at the time. “He told me he thought I was a ‘killer,’ and I took that as a compliment.” While charges of misogyny dog Trump’s campaign today, Res says that, at the time, he had no qualms about putting women in positions of power but expected them to be extraordinary. “He said one good woman was better than 10 good men.”

Intent on making a splash in Manhattan, Trump insisted that his architect, engineers and builders be innovative as well as efficient — at times ruthlessly so. With that dual mandate, trouble ensued. The entrance to the Bonwit Teller building was adorned by two large limestone Art Deco reliefs depicting barely clad women. Trump had promised the sculpted panels to the Metropolitan Museum of Art but then made the decision to have them demolished. When an outcry ensued, the Trump organization claimed that the reliefs were “without artistic merit” and that preserving them would have cost much more than their value. Then, like now, “[Trump] has never been beholden to anyone,” says Res. “He does whatever he wants whenever he wants.”

Then, like now, the controversies kept coming. The employment of a group of undocumented immigrants known as the Polish Brigade to demolish the original structure led to a marathon lawsuit (settled in 1999) and recently became a campaign issue given Trump’s tough talk about stopping the outsourcing of American jobs. (Trump repeatedly has denied he knew that the workers were undocumented.) Hired in lieu of union workers, the Brigade members, according to court testimony and subsequent interviews, worked grueling 12-hour shifts, often blinded and choked by dust in extremely dangerous conditions, without basic safety gear such as hard hats. All were paid well below union wages. In February, attorney Wendy Sloan, who helped litigate the suit, told NBC News that Trump Tower was “constructed on the blood, sweat and tears of the Polish Brigade.”

Designed by Der Scutt, the tower’s six-story atrium features walls of rosy Breccia Pernice marble, stacked-glass and polished-brass escalators and an 80-foot waterfall.

The skyscraper also was built with materials provided by contractor S&A Concrete, a company later revealed to be run by Genovese crime family boss Anthony “Fat Tony” Salerno. In 1986, Salerno was convicted on federal racketeering charges and again in 1988 for a scheme that involved obtaining payoffs for constructing concrete superstructures of 16 Manhattan buildings. (He died while still imprisoned in 1992.)

Trump’s alleged ties to the mob — which he always has denied — have come under renewed media scrutiny since he entered the presidential race, but Thomas Reppetto, former president of the Citizens Crime Commission in New York and an expert on the deep connections between the city’s developers, the construction industry and organized crime in the 1980s, tells THR he never saw any evidence that S&A’s relationship with Trump was different than those with other developers. “They controlled everything,” Reppetto says of S&A Concrete’s influence over the New York construction industry at the time.

Reppetto remembers Trump as an “extremely sharp guy — very smooth” — but says his relationship with the city’s established builders was much like his current relationship with the GOP. “They never really accepted him,” he says.

When Trump Tower celebrated its opening on Oct. 1, 1983, with a black-tie party that drew Mayor Ed Koch, it offered an unprecedented mix of high-end retail space and luxury condominiums. Trump and his first wife, Ivana, had sought out some of the top luxury fashion brands of the time, including Asprey of London and jeweler Harry Winston, to anchor the retail complex, and in the winter, the building’s doormen dressed like Buckingham Palace guards. Assessing the results, The New York Times’ architecture critic wrote: “Not the stuff of distinguished architecture, clearly. But if overbearing publicity and overdressed guards do not a good building make, neither do they a good building deny.”

Trump held a model of his namesake tower, which cost $200 million to build in 1983.

“It was all part of the opulence of the ‘80s,” says Andrew Burnstine, whose grandmother, the late luxury fashion retailer Martha Phillips, opened a boutique in Trump Tower in 1984 that catered to singer Diana Ross and socialites Gloria Vanderbilt and Brooke Astor. Burnstine says Trump Tower “set the bar higher” for other developers, who mimicked Trump’s strategy of mixing luxury apartments with high-end retail — the Time Warner Center at Columbus Circle, for instance.

Trump took the building’s penthouse as his own — likening it to a 20th century “Versailles” in his book The Art of the Deal — and, over the years, his neighbors reportedly have included Bruce Willis; Michael Jackson and Lisa Marie Presley during their brief marriage; Steven Spielberg; musical theater impresario Andrew Lloyd Webber; and Johnny Carson, who lost money when he sold his apartment in 1989. That year, the Times reported that lawyers attempting to recover some of the wealth that deposed dictator Jean-Claude “Baby Doc” Duvalier had looted from Haiti discovered that he owned a $2 million apartment there.

Celebrity purchases are fewer these days. International soccer star Cristiano Ronaldo reportedly dropped $18.5 million for a three-bedroom unit last year, but a broker familiar with the property says he’s rarely there. And though the building’s six-story polished-brass and pink Breccia Pernice marble atrium with its 80-foot waterfall remains a lavish symbol of the Trump brand, the posh retailers have given way to tourist attractions like the Trump Bar and the Trump Store, where a trucker hat emblazoned with “Make America Great Again” costs $20. “Now it’s just a nice building with an atrium, but at the time it was unprecedented,” says Res.

Trump, meanwhile, has left behind building skyscrapers to pursue the nation’s highest office, and Burnstine isn’t betting against him. He says he won’t forget how the developer courted his grandmother to open at Trump Tower until she submitted. Says Burnstine: “Just like today, nobody says no to Donald Trump.”