Smashing Down Skyscrapers for Progress (May, 1931)

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Smashing Down Skyscrapers for Progress


Every day, wreckers in New York and other big cities crash down millions of dollars worth of skyscrapers which are still sound in construction and capable of many years of service. Why this seeming waste? Factors which pronounce death sentences on buildings are set forth in this article.

IF a census were taken of the skyscrapers of America you might well be astonished to find that the stanchest and sturdiest of structures is ready for the graveyard after twenty years. No matter how modern and formidable a skyscraper may be on the day its portals are thrown open, it will get whiskers with the passing of two decades and be ready to lie down and die, and another edifice, bigger and more solid, will rise over its debris.

This decay of skyscrapers has given rise to a race of skyscraper smashers whose daily toil is concerned with battering down tall buildings. The wrecking job which cleared the path for the new Irving Trust Company building at No. 1 Wall Street is a good example of the magnitude of the tasks which confront the skyscraper destroyer. The contract for this job was awarded to the wrecking corporation of which Albert A. Volk is president.

The mention of “contract” hints that the skyscraper-annihilators have a highly-organ- ized business, founded on a firm basis wherever it is carried on by big operators. It is by no means a fly-by-night adventure.

When three buildings were bought by the Irving Trust Company to be replaced by a 50-story structure, the contract for its construction was awarded to Marc Eidlitz & Son. The latter sent out notices to a list of building-wrecking firms, which they knew by previous experience or reputations, for bids.

Albert A. Volk proved the lowest bidder. One wrecking contractor would not do the job for less than $500,000. To be removed were the 16-story Chimney Building, the 24-story building at 74 Broadway, and the Central Union Trust building which was erected back in 1889, of fort-like solidity. Volk offered to clear away these bulwarks for slightly over $250,000.

“If we will examine minutely the various details which figured in this job, we will get some notion not only concerning the stupendous industry which building-wrecking has grown to be,” declared Mr. Volk, “but also we will get at the inside of the business angles which determine success or failure.

“In connection with the Irving Trust Company project let me say first that the wrecking business is a highly speculative one. It is far different from that of the building contractor who is able to calculate beforehand, rather accurately, just how much the job is going to cost and approximately the profit he stands to make.

“Although I intend to concentrate on the No. 1 Wall Street work, I shall draw from other experiences to clarify points involved in this business of tearing down so that others may build up. A building-wrecker cannot possibly determine from an inspection of a prospective structure just what encumbrances he will face when his men commence destroying it.

“Concrete buildings are particularly deceiving. It is essential that we know the kind of mortar which has been used in the masonry. More money has been lost by the wrecking contractor through his failure to gauge the hardness of the cement mortar than through any other miscalculation.

“The contractors who tore down the old Madison Square Garden almost cast their own resources into the debris because they had misjudged the size of the job. The steel frame-work which was preserved still is languishing in storage in anticipation of the day when it will be set up again in another city. However, the move has been considered doubtful economy lately, and the material may eventually wind up at the mills for resmelting.

“In that Central Union Trust Building we found walls ranging in thickness from eight to ten feet. You can readily understand what that waste of space would mean in the Wall Street district. No doubt that building was envisioned in the same light as the Egyptian Pyramids, constructed for posterity, if not eternity.

“On the other hand, what the original builders were not able to foresee was that the very tenor of business in this environment would undergo many changes in the course of time. They did not dream at what a premium space would be at the corner of Wall Street and Broadway. Such a building had outlived its economic life.

“I do not hesitate to admit that a $250,-000 contract for wrecking buildings for a site is a rather handsome one. Before the World war, I remember, wreckers would willingly pay for the privilege of salvaging a building. In those days I might have actually cleared over $100,000 on a job similar to that of the Irving Trust Company.

“The reason for this reverse in the financial status of the wrecking business is explained by the increased cost of labor. It has multiplied ten-fold. Barmen, men who use bars, are paid $1.35 an hour, and time and a half for overtime. It is strictly understood beforehand that they are going to have overtime. Should a contractor fail them in this regard, they will immediately desert him for one who will give them that concession.

“My method in drawing up my bid for the Irving Trust Company contract is typical of the usual procedure I follow. After a personal and thorough examination of the buildings to be demolished, I take into account the season of the year. Then I make my observations on the shape of the structure and its location as regards traffic. Tearing down skyscrapers becomes more difficult and hazardous in congested business districts.

“Then I take into consideration my implements at hand. Not only the seasoned workers available but also the efficiency of the machinery which can be utilized. In recent years the use of machinery, such as compressors, rock drills and derricks, has cut in half the time required for wrecking a building.

“Fortunately, I have twenty-six years of experience in this business behind me. Otherwise I am quite positive that I would be at a loss to compile figures which would represent a sane bid on any job. That is why this is one industry which necessarily must draw its leaders from its own ranks. Not only is the boss’s eye required constantly on the job, but he is the only one who can estimate costs. For an outsider it would mean ruination, and I have been witness to some disastrous episodes in that direction.

“Another clause which has entered into the wrecking contractor’s agreement is the bonus and penalty. It is stipulated at the outset that the wrecker will receive so much for each day that he completes the job in advance of the date agreed upon and he will be fined so much per day for every day he goes beyond the agreed date.

“We did the Irving Trust Company job in <32 days, which was five days shorter than the contract called for. Our agreement called for a $3,000 a day bonus, which netted us $15,000.”

Mr. Yolk’s army of wreckers took down nineteen 6-story buildings in seventeen days to make room for the Chrysler Building in New York City. This brought the Volk Company a bonus of $25,000.

“It is this swift clearing of sites which today has brought the value of salvaging materials down to a negligible point. As I said previously, in other days I could have cleared $100,000 from the salvaged materials alone in that Irving Trust Company project, apart from expenses. However, the total derived from the rescued materials amounted to $40,000.

“The $40,000 represents principally the steel which was taken from the buildings. Steel alone has any value for us today. Everything else is considered waste and use- less. The salvaged steel is scrapped and sent to the mills to be resmelted. There is a good market for this scrap metal. It is very much desired by steel manufacturers because it adds to the caliber of steel which is manufactured.

“The market for this steel by-product of the wrecking business resembles the regular steel market in many respects. That is, it fluctuates with the price of regular steel. This year we have received $8 and $9 a ton for it. In the past it has been as high as $17.

“There is quite a market also for granite. This is much in demand by stone-cutters and monument dealers who buy granite for graveyard markers. When we made room for the Standard Oil Building at 26 Broadway, we found a stone weighing nineteen tons at a height of 250 feet. I could never understand why any man ever wanted a stone like that way up there. That stone went to a number of graves.

“But in general we are only concerned with speed. The demand for it prohibits the salvaging of materials, therefore it is a big economic factor in not only the high cost of wrecking but also in the rise of construction costs in the big cities where sites are desired in definite localities.

“Since a building in a big city today becomes obsolete after twenty years, the sponsors of major building investments have to include in the calculations of operating expenses and yield the approximate cost of tearing the building down again after two decades.

“However, to revert to the matter of speed in demolition, the building contractor wants his site cleared as soon as possible. It may mean that a small fortune is wasted in keeping a site unoccupied and unproductive, even for a very brief space of time. It is for this reason that we have summoned every possible instrument of the machine age to our aid.

“When the building-wrecker of olis works today he is not conscious of the existence of objets d’art in some mansion, neither is he preoccupied with the hope that his bar or pick is going to uncover some hidden treasure. It is plain, downright smash, crash, tear down and cart off. Invariably, the whole kit and kaboodle of a structure we tackle goes gallivanting off to the ocean or to the meadows of Long Island to make fill. Only the steel and the granite remain as the salvage residue.”

“What is the economic point at which the tearing down of buildings becomes necessary?” Mr. Volk was asked.

“Various factors are involved,” he answered. “Progress of commerce in that particular vicinity may play a part in spelling its doom. Its lay-out and construction and deterioration may warrant a new structure to keep abreast not only of the progress around it but also of competition. Another tremendously important factor is the increased value of space high up, where light and air are in abundance. The higher a building goes nowadays, the higher the rental. This might well be a determining factor and most usually is.

“On the other hand, a building may be a misfit in its particular setting. Take the old Pictorial Review Building, a twelve-story affair in the garment district. Here was a building out of place. It was surrounded by structures which housed tenants engaged in the garment industry. Its floors were constructed so that they could bear 250 pounds to the square foot. That was more than twice as much as would have been necessary for sewing and cutting machines in the garment business. After a brief life of ten years, the Pictorial Review plant was replaced by a 30-story structure for the garment trades.

“The high cost of taxes in a big city like New York often makes it cheaper to tear down an old building and put up a new one in its stead. Take the case of the discarded Fifth Avenue mansions, for instance. Those structures are fast vanishing. The rental from such enormous structures which have been abandoned for country estates or co-operative apartments would not even pay for the taxes.

“Therefore, prudent real estate operators have bought up practically every one of these mansions available, and one by one they are being levelled to make room for the rise of big apartment houses, for which there has been a persistent and constant demand in recent years.

“On the other hand, vast demolition work is sometimes due to engineering and railroad activity. In paving the way for the Manhattan approach to the Fort Lee bridge, which will link Manhattan and New Jersey, nearly 1,600 structures have been razed to make way for about 250 apartment houses, whose rents will be in keeping with the real estate boom which overran this section.

“Between the years of 1913 and 1922, about 6,000 buildings were torn down in New York City. For the year of 1930, up to last Fall, over 3,000 structures were demolished.

“For every year since the war the average amount of contracts awarded for building demolition in New York City has been $5,000,000. This year there has been a slump, not out of line with general business depression, and it is not likely that the contracts will amount to more than $1,500,000.

“It is also interesting to note that $5,000,-000 in wrecking contracts during the past five years represents an annual destruction and demolition by the wreckers of $50,000,-000 in buildings each year. Although the figures do not apply strictly in every instance, generally speaking, a building which is built today at a cost of $200,000 will require $20,000 to tear down.

“One of the costliest buildings to wreck was the old Waldorf-Astoria Hotel. That was a $500,000 contract. Speed was a telling factor there also, as the interests which former Gov. Alfred E. Smith represented were anxious to get started on the Empire State Building. I consider that the wreckers did mighty well in getting $150,000 worth of salvage out of the old hotel.

“On the other hand, the salvage in that instance also included furnishings and other appurtenances which might be refurbished and re-installed in other hotels. However, the greater amount of that $150,000 was derived from the steel which it gave up.

“This particular cycle was completed by the erection of Al Smith’s Empire State Building intended to fill the needs of a revived business area, it having changed its complexion with the flight of years.

  1. Charlene says: August 18, 20119:40 am

    Albert Volk’s gravesite. According to his niece, the writer Patricia Volk, he was also an innovative cook.

  2. Stephen says: August 19, 20115:54 am

    I am interested by the anti-smoking ad on the last page. Bill boasts “I’ve stopped smoking. Gained six pounds in a week.” Nowadays this is thought of as one of the worst side effects for ex-smokers.

  3. Dianne Arias says: October 18, 20111:33 pm

    My Great Grandmother, Emelina Arias Volk, was married to Albert.

  4. Toronto says: October 18, 20111:53 pm

    The “Fort Lee bridge” mention must be the George Washington Bridge, which opened in 1931, and still looks like it was built with Erector Sets or Meccano.

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