Tricks of the House-Wreckers (Jun, 1930)

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Tricks of the House-Wreckers

by ALFRED ALBELL

Have you ever watched a huge factory chimney being leveled to earth with a charge of dynamite? If you have, you will have wondered how the wrecking crew was able to make sure in advance that the shattered chimney would fall to the ground in a spot where it would miss adjacent buildings. The trade of house-wrecking has its full complement of tricks which are explained in this fascinating article by Mr. Albelli.

MIGHTY edifices, more stubborn in their resistance than the walls of Rome which were stormed by the hordes of Attila the Hun, crumble every day in New York City before the crowbar onslaught of the house-wrecker. It has been estimated that during 1929 the devastation wrought by the army of 2,000 building annihilators in Greater New York amounted to $200,000,000. The most picturesque man in the building-crushing business in America today is Alexander Zinovick, president of New York’s Local 95, House-Wreckers’ Union. He has been in this field for nearly fifteen years, which represents a ripe old age so far as the dare-devil stunts of this unsung army go. The wrecking profession thrives in all parts of the country, but its center is in Manhattan where big structures are torn down to make room for still greater skyscrapers.

Zinovick figures out all his maneuvers with the caution and foresight of a generalissimo. Let us take the last three tall buildings in the center of New York and note how this man proceeded to reduce them into scrap-heaps.

He gave the once-over to the Knickerbocker and Casino theatres on Broadway. In the Knickerbocker theatre job he saw that not only would the show-house have to be destroyed, but also a seven and a twelve-story building which were adjacent to it. He looked over the entire layout and said to the contractors, “We’ll have that site cleared in forty days.”

Next he inspected the Casino theatre. It looked like a pretty tough nut to crack. All theatres are the bane and woe of the wreckers, for that matter, because they have a hollow interior and the dangers to the men are manifold. Zinovick said his boys would have it out of the way in twenty days. Two blocks away, at the corner of Broadway and West 41st St., the Continental Hotel, part of the Great White Way’s gay history, was marked for the wrecker’s hands next.

In addition to these central spots which would be minus buildings, it meant that two other principal locales in New York were without structures simultaneously. One is the scene of the former Waldorf-Astoria Hotel which was levelled to make room for former Gov. Al. Smith’s Empire State building, to be 85 stories and the tallest in the world. The other, the northwest corner of Fifth Avenue and 42nd St., was razed to make way for a 53-story tower for Walter J. Salmon.

Incidentally, Zinovick points out that the biggest job ever undertaken by his legionnaires was that Waldorf-Astoria wrecking. He kept 470 of his crack crowbar wielders busy on that enterprise for 100 working days. He also had to call in outsiders, crews of ironworkers and laborers.

“One of the strangest jobs we ever had,” explained Zinovick, “was the Pictorial Review building at 7th avenue and West 39th street. It was a 19-story building. It hadn’t been up ten years when I was called upon to rip it down. And down it came, all nineteen floors, to make room for a building suitable for the garment trade.

“But we don’t mind the size. For instance, we wouldn’t mind at all going to work on the Chrysler building which is now the tallest building in the world. That’s safer to tear apart and permits of some kind of system. We could have that down in nine months. The Woolworth building would take my army eight months to reduce to dust.

“We have our tricks, of course. I would call them tricks of the strangest trade on earth. We have to be prepared for any sort of job, from wrecking a church to a shed. Then again, we have to be resigned to any fate. House-wrecking is every man’s job. Great skill and experience are qualifications, but nerve and presence of mind are invaluable assets. The life of a building – wrecker has been averaged at twenty years. Two decades of the business and if you’re still alive you’ll be surprised. You will also surprise your house-wrecking brethren. They expect to go at any time. “You get a glimpse of a tall wall and the first thing that comes to your mind is one lusty blast of dynamite and the whole works crumbles down to rubbish to be carted away. But you cannot use dynamite in a large city, for other adjoining structures would be placed in jeopardy. You might wipe out a whole section with one explosion.

“Before I let my boys tackle a job I give that plant a thorough looking-over. I have to bear in mind the security of the adjacent buildings. Shoring often has to be installed, to support the walls of those other buildings when the one in course of demolition weakens the walls of those standing. And if the building to be brought down was destroyed by fire, flood, or explosion, the walls of this particular building have to be . propped before the wrecking operations can start.

“We use the standard system, employed throughout the country, in wrecking buildings. This consists of breaking through the roof first and then tearing down the structure story by story. So-called ‘bar-men’ take their posts on the walls and soften the walls by smacking them with heavy hammers. Then they pry away with crowbars and the debris falls to the floor below where it is carted away in wheelbarrows by ‘greeners,’ laborers, who allow the material to go down a chute leading to the sidewalk.

“In order to prevent the dropping material from picking up too much momentum, the chutes descend in a broken line. A stop-gate at the end of each chute controls the speed of the flow.

“Seldom are the walls broken down en masse. They are picked slowly apart, thus lessening the dangers, and increasing the salvage of material. Horse scaffolds, or stagings, are erected alongside of walls which are too thin or weak to hold men on them.

“After a few stories have been torn down, the iron workers go up to the top of the steel skeleton and burn the steel beams apart with oxy-acetylene torches. Derricks are brought into play. These beams are first secured by a sling attached to a derrick, so ¦ that they cannot drop or swing when they have been cut away from the other steelwork to which they were attached. Most of the steel thus salvaged is resold.

“While the iron worker is busy with his torch, the house-wrecker, armed with his hammer or crowbar or ropes, steadily razes the building to the ground. He has got a broom-swept job to do, that is, clear away the old building to the last brick.

“I recall that the steel forming the main arena of the old Madison Square Garden has been stored away. It might be used some day to erect another similar structure in another city. To my mind, I doubt it has any economic value in the face of changing styles in building.

“In reality there is little saving in my game. When we are called in to rip things up and down we don’t tackle the job with kid gloves. It’s a case of bare knuckles. Two years ago we had Judge Elbert H. Gary’s Fifth Avenue mansion to tackle. There was a famous marble spiral staircase in the home which the Steel King had paid $150,000 to install. This staircase was offered at auction, but there was no one to bid a single dollar. We junked it. • “The same thing was true of the Fifth Avenue palace of Senator William A. Clark, which became known as Clark’s Folly because of the extravagance put into it. It was all we could do to scrap the valuable staircase there. The pieces were dumped into the ocean.

“In one bank building we had to get rid of a huge vault which was burglar-proof and bomb-proof—and I venture to say they intended it to be house-wrecker-proof. It was earthquake-proof also. We had to use compressed jacks and hydraulic jacks to smash it down. Old Delmonico’s Restaurant was particularly difficult to demolish because of the singular bridge construction on the interior. This was forced down with huge pine timbers, made into battering-rams.

“Another stumper we had was the old Chemical National Bank. Here there was an arch of solid stone. It required four days to take three keystones out of the center of the arch. The old Seaman’s Bank at 76 Wall street was a difficult job because it had a cast-iron front and many vaults and safes. This was only a few feet from the elevated line trains. Great care had to be used so that parts of the building did not fall onto the trains.

“In clearing the way for the new Waldorf-Astoria Hotel at 49th street and Park avenue we had to get rid of the Y.M.C.A. and the Adams Express buildings. These were hazardous jobs because the New York Central railroad lines ran at the bases of these buildings, through tunnels.

“A short time ago we were working away at an 11-story building in Brooklyn. My men were pulling down a clock-tower by means of ropes, expecting the structure to ease off its base slowly and then we could chip it apart. But instead the ropes which were supposed to hold it snapped and it crashed through the roof and didn’t stop in its downward fall until it reposed in the cellar. Luckily, every man escaped injury.

“Out of my army of 2,000 men, twenty of them met their death last year in the course of their work. The year before twelve were killed. Considering the close calls to which they are exposed every hour of the day, it is astounding that the fatalities are not greater.

“There are two systems of demolishing buildings. One way is to clear out all of the floors first, leaving an empty shell, and then tear down the walls. The other is to mow down the walls and then work away at the floors at the same time. The latter is preferred by the workman because it is safer. Contractors like to get rid of the floors first. That system is swifter though more dangerous.

“Any day anyone wants to get an eyeful of thrills let them pause to watch the house-wreckers in their lofty perches. Sword-swallowers and lion-tamers have a snap compared to us. When we leave our homes in the morning, there is no telling if we’ll return. We don’t worry about it. Yet it’s our chosen trade. The pay is good.”

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