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The rise of downtown's Columbia Centre

27 stories

While the two men were busy working with the first beam, the second one swung on the cable above their heads, banging and bumping against the frame.
  • While the two men were busy working with the first beam, the second one swung on the cable above their heads, banging and bumping against the frame.
  • Image by Robert Burroughs

We’re standing on the corrugated steel decking six floors above Columbia Street, and Joe Silva, the welding supervisor, is shouting. “There’s no heroes here!” he yells over the incessant clattering of a nearby impact wrench. “Don’t dramatize this!” All around us, above and below, ironworkers are busy erecting what will be the tallest high-rise building in San Diego.

Columbia Centre is a steel skeleton eight stories above ground level, growing out of a deep pit bounded by A and B streets on the north and south. State and Columbia on the east and west.

Columbia Centre is a steel skeleton eight stories above ground level, growing out of a deep pit bounded by A and B streets on the north and south. State and Columbia on the east and west.

Just behind Silva orange droplets of hot metal shoot down in a bright shower, and the crackling buzz of frying steel descends from a welder perched on a beam two floors up. “They’re just men doing an honest day’s work!” Silva continues, eager to press his point that ironworkers have been glorified in the past.

Cong Wan Kim:  “My wife hate me for it. I worked all the weekends and all the nights."

Cong Wan Kim: “My wife hate me for it. I worked all the weekends and all the nights."

Silva’s red hardhat turns to the left as he glances out toward the giant crane squatting in the pit and revving black smoke into the morning. We watch it hoist a five-ton beam up to the eighth floor. “Don’t make a fairy tale out of this!” he shouts. “This is no fantasy. This is real life! And you know, when you think about it, real life is very dull!”

McCormack had been using slow, precise hand signals to direct the crane operator in the bottom of the pit.

McCormack had been using slow, precise hand signals to direct the crane operator in the bottom of the pit.

Silva stops talking and we both wince at the high-pitched pounding of a steel hammer on a steel girder. The noise vibrates through our skulls and thuds sharply behind our eyeballs. Silva holds my attention with a raised hand. Meanwhile sparks hop, smoke drifts, winches wail, men bellow. Silva clenches his fists and jams them down into the pockets of his overalls. The building in downtown San Diego booms.

Inside the highrise, the first seven floors will open out into internal space, the first atrium in San Diego,

Inside the highrise, the first seven floors will open out into internal space, the first atrium in San Diego,

Several skyscrapers are going up around town, including Parkade Towers, at Seventh and B, the new Bank of America Building at Fourth and B, the Wells Fargo Building at First and Broadway, and this one, Columbia Centre. Joe Silva has something to say about it all, and during a momentary break in the din, he pushes his stubbled Portuguese face closer to mine and begins anew. “We look at the Greeks, the Egyptians, the Phoenicians, their structures, and we marvel at ’em and wonder, ‘How could they build that with their crude equipment?’ ” The man-lift, a temporary elevator attached to the side of the steel frame facing State Street, halts behind Silva on the sixth floor and a group of men struggle to lift a heavy pump out of it. “Five hundred years from now,’’ continues the old welder, “when they have much better equipment, they’ll look at these buildings” — he sweeps his calloused hands out to include the Bank of California Building (eighteen stories), the Chamber Building (twenty-three stories), and Central Federal Tower (twenty-two stories) — “and they’ll wonder how we could put one of these things up with the equipment we have now.” I ask him if this building, Columbia Centre (twenty-seven stories), will last 500 years. “Why shouldn’t it?” he yells. “There’s plenty of 500-year-old buildings around! Look at the Romans, the Egyptians. They built what their culture was, the buildings themselves. We’re building what’s our culture today.”

Yelling aside, Silva has a point. A civilization’s buildings are symbols of its culture. And highrises, be they pyramids, totem poles, or modem skyscrapers, reveal much about their builders. There are those who say that modern skyscrapers symbolize our alienation from ourselves, from our brothers, from nature. Some see i only walls of chilly steel, opaque glass, shiny aluminum; nothing organic, nothing natural, a feeling that people are superfluous. Others believe that skyscrapers, in the hands of the right architects, engineers, and builders, can be great works of art, encompassing style, function, beauty, and structural virtuosity. Skyscrapers certainly are good fodder for intellectual ruminating, but that’ll go on for centuries. My question relates more to the dirt, the machines, the rusty iron, the sweating men, and it won’t wait 500 years. How do we go about putting up a skyscraper?

At this writing, Columbia Centre is a steel skeleton eight stories above ground level, growing out of a deep pit bounded by A and B streets on the north and south. State and Columbia on the east and west. Though you won’t know by looking at the finished structure, there will actually be two buildings on the block — a low-rise that stair-steps back from B Street in a series of terraces and connects to the high-rise tower at the sixth floor. A seven-inch “seismic expansion joint” will separate the two structures, allowing them to react independently to an earthquake. Underground, spanning the length and width of the whole lot; three levels of parking will accommodate 500 cars. Inside the highrise, the first seven floors will open out into internal space, the first atrium in San Diego, a kind of indoor plaza with a fountain, benches, and a few stores. The outside skin of the building will be glossy aluminum and reflective glass. The four corners of the square high-rise tower will be shaved off, giving it an octagonal shape, and the top seven floors will be terraced on the southwestern edge, allowing future occupants to walk out onto long balconies. Ground was first broken last June, and next year at this time the $70 million project should be complete. The first steel went up last December 12.

That was almost exactly one year from the day Chong Wan Kim, director of design and planning for the Hope Consulting Group, was asked to design a tower for the site at Columbia and B. Kim, a forty-two-year-old Korean, educated as an architect at U.C. Berkeley, seems to be constantly battening down an irrepressible urge to giggle, which he translates into a compensatory kind of enthusiasm. He explains quickly that the building’s owner, Torrey Enterprises, supplied Hope with three design criteria: the structure had to be exciting, economical to build, and energy responsive. Nothing new about that. Make it a place tenants clamor to occupy, get it up quickly, and don't let it cost a bundle to heat, cool, and illuminate. Kim had to come up with two possible schemes and present them to the client on January 11, 1980. There were two four-day weekends in that short period because of Christmas and New Year, but Kim could take little notice of holidays. He and his staff of architects worked practically around the clock for a month, producing finished renderings for two possible structures. Kim, whose enthusiasm also compensates for his self-consciousness with the English language, probably exaggerates when he says, “My wife hate me for it. I worked all the weekends and all the nights. Sometimes 1 wish I was single. It's easy to create ordinary work. But to create superior, extraordinary work — you can’t do it on an eight-to-five schedule.”

Kim presented the two proposals to Torrey Enterprises chief Doug Manchester on January 11. One was the more conventional highrise, the upright Kleenex-box design of most skyscrapers. The other was the square shape with the comers flattened and all the terraces, the one Kim hoped would be chosen. It was.

“Why not engage with nature,” Kim asked me rhetorically as we sat in a booth at Ten Downing Restaurant and sipped Natural Light beers. “This is the sunniest city in the country, and how many buildings here utilize outdoor decks?” Kim smiled and drank and smiled again. “People think buildings are lifeless. I tried to put life in it, make it responsive to the surroundings.” Kim illustrated how to-day’siirchitects have to be as responsive to a building’s potential tenants as they are to its setting. While the upper floors and terraces and the lopped-off comers of the building provide for maximum views of the skyline and harbor, the first six floors don’t have much of a view at all because of the terraced low-rise section stretching out toward B Street. “So we created the atrium, making an introverted view for the first six floors,” Kim explained. “The fountain in the atrium makes for a water view inside. Good views sell better.”

Kim’s lunch of shrimp arrived but it didn’t slow him down. The main purpose of high-rise buildings, he continued, is to maximize the value of the property beneath them. Torrey wanted to build as high as possible, but because of the proximity of Lindbergh Field, downtown airspace is regulated by the Federal Aviation Administration. Structures in the area of Columbia Centre that rise more than 380 feet above sea level encroach into a zone considered risky by the FAA, due to nearby air traffic, so the City of San Diego prevents buildings from poking up into that airspace. “Without the height limit, we’d have done a one-hundred-story building,” said Kim. At twenty-seven stories, it’ll still be the tallest building in San Diego. From the bottom of the pit, which is at sea level, the roof will be eleven inches below the height limit.

“It’s very adjustable, very responsive to the area,” Kim continued. “The curtain wall is reflective, so the look of the building will change with the weather. The lower decks come down to street level and a more human scale, so it’s friendlier. It faces a brick building [Columbia Square across B Streetl, so we used a lot of brick and wood inside for continuity. And all the decks terrace down to meet the convention center [planned for the block to the southwest].” Unlike most of the other highrises downtown, Kim contended, you couldn’t take Columbia Centre out of San Diego and plop it down in some other city like Chicago or New York. Kim said it is a building tailored explicitly to its specific location.

From the sixth floor of the skeletal frame, Joe Silva and I look out over the harbor to the west, where two huge, black-and-red freighters bob at anchor, and tuna clippers dot the docks. Silva used to be an engineer on the tuna boats, and for a while he traveled the world for Rohr, welding on satellite antennas in Asia, Hawaii, Chile, and Africa. But years ago he returned to San Diego and Ironworkers Local 229, and he’s since worked on many of San Diego’s large buildings: the black Bank of California Building behind us. Central Federal Tower, the Metropolitan Correctional Center to the south, and several local hospitals. “It’s a different world up here,” he remarks, surveying the view and some of the buildings he’s helped construct. Silva has time to reflect because he’s now a supervisor, in charge of the crew of nine welders who are all working up on the eighth floor as we talk.

The welders have progressed from the second parking level, welding the connections where the structure’s twenty-eight-foot-tall vertical columns join on all the even-numbered floors. The columns around the periphery of the frame are designed to absorb all the force of an earthquake or of high winds. These massive, H-shaped lengths of steel vary in weight from eight to twelve tons and are bolted together with four one-and-one-quarter-inch bolts. Each of Silva’s welders then works all day on a single column splice, slowly and laboriously spreading layer upon layer of steel over the joint. These splices provide flex points that will allow the building to bend and twist. Each splice receives between eighty and one hundred pounds of weld, making the columns one solid piece of steel all the way to the top of the building. On their way up, the welders have also been welding the horizontal beams to the columns on the periphery of the frame. These outside beams, called headers, are much larger and heavier than those on the inside of the frame, owing to their duty as the main carriers of lateral stress. The internal beams support just the weight of the floors above them, and are bolted, not welded.

The tower structure has a total of nine rows of vertical columns running north and south. From the first row, which runs along A Street, the men have welded their way five rows of columns to the south, toward B Street. When the welders are finished on the eighth floor, they’ll drop down and weld the horizontal header beams to the columns on the odd-numbered floors, between the first row of columns and the fifth, until they reach the ground. Then they’ll start up again on the even floors, welding the column splices and the header beams from the fifth row of columns to the ninth. When they reach the top, they’ll reverse themselves, descending on the odd-numbered floors and welding between the fifth and the ninth row of columns.

But before the welders can lay down the molten steel, the bolt-up gang has to go through and “rattle up” (tighten) all the bolts. The impact wrenches used by the bolt-up gang are calibrated to torque the nuts to 2150 foot-pounds on the peripheral connections. Inspectors check every one of these bolts. The smaller, one-inch bolts used inside the frame are torqued to 800 foot-pounds.

But even before the bolt-up gang can tighten all the bolts so the welders can weld the joints, the columns have to be plumbed to perfectly vertical positions by the plumb-up gang. If the columns are allowed to be bolted and welded together while they’re as little as one inch out of plumb, the building will be crooked, making it increasingly dangerous to construct and nearly impossible to complete without permanent flaws.

Roy Schichler, head of the plumb-up gang, stands on the B Street edge of the pit and speaks into a walkie-talkie. Across the pit, on the other side of the huge 165-ton crane nestled where the low-rise structure will eventually be rooted, Schichler’s three men on the fourth floor respond to his instructions. Hailing from Cologne, West Germany, Schichler speaks in lilting, clipped sentences and moves his rangy body in quick jerks. Before him is a transit, a sophisticated telescope used by surveyors to demarcate straight lines, and Schichler alternately peers through it and instructs his men. The three of them are framed in a bay formed by two columns, and stretched diagonally in an X between the columns are one-inch-diameter cables that extend crosswise from the bottom of the fourth floor to the bottom of the sixth. Schichler’s men are using a crowbar to tighten the steel turnbuckle attached to one of the cables. As the tension increases, the cable pulls the opposite column into a more vertical position, “truing it up,” as Schichler says.

Over the intermittent roar of the crane, which is busy unloading steel girders from a flatbed truck, Schichlerand I talk money. The work has never been more plentiful for ironworkers in San Diego, he says, and nobody is complaining about the wages — $16.50 an hour. With the other compensations, such as a retirement fund and vacation allowance, journeymen ironworkers are making more than twenty dollars an hour. “A good ironworker, if he works steady, can make twenty-five to thirty thousand a year,” says Schichler as he squints one eye and peers through the transit with the other. “But once the tax man gets through with you, it ain’t all that much.”

Schichler’s transit is set up above a mark on the pavement that is twenty-four inches east of the ”F-line,” which denotes the third column in from Columbia Street. The columns along the east-west plane are marked by letters, just as those along the north-south plane are marked by numbers. He sights through the transit at a metal target his men attached to the F-line column, and which juts out to the east exactly twenty-four inches from the column’s center. The vertical cross hair in the transit must split the orange-and-white checkers on the target. “One more good turn oughta do it,” Schichler tells his men through the walkie-talkie. “From a dollar-fifty [an hour] raise last spring,” Schichler says to me as he looks through the transit, ”1 took home an extra twenty bucks in a week! Now you figure that one out, eh?”

The vertical alignment of the frame can change from hour to hour for any number of reasons: additional weight from added girders, the tightening of cables in another section, or heat from the sun. But once a section is plumbed. Schichler notifies the bolt-up gang, which quickly hauls up their air-driven wrenches, and the welders follow.

The welding technique used on the frame is called innershield, because the welding flux is contained inside the welding rod. The flux is a powdery substance that allows the rod to melt and flow evenly. Since the flux is inside the one-eighth-inch-diametcr steel rod, the rod can be rolled into large spools, which are connected by hose to the welding gun. A trigger controls the flow of rod through the gun, which is also connected to a source of electricity. When the rod touches metal, the electricity arcs, melting the rod and flux, allowing the welder to lay down a continuous flow of molten steel, which is actually stronger than the parent metal.

The welders sit in steel chairs slung off the side of the frame or stand beside a column all day long and apply layer upon layer of weld until all gaps are filled in. Between each application of weld, they use an air-driyen chisel to chip off the slag, the black, solidified flux that coats the weld. An inspector using ultrasonic sound waves comes by later and ensures no slag bits or air pockets are left in the weld. Through their eye shields, the welders watch the electric green glow of melting steel move slowly from left to right, left to right. The crane revs, the slag guns sputter, the hammers clang, the men shout, the sparks jump.* And all day, every working day, behind the steel face masks with their tinted rectangle of glass, the burly welders stare at the iridescent electric green glow of fusing metal.

A few blocks to the east, in the six-story building that houses the Hope Consulting Group at Sixth and Beech, six men are watching iridescent green glows of a different sort. They sit before computer keyboards and video screens, or CRTs (cathode ray tubes), on which the electric green glow draws out layers of building plans. This is where half the plans for Columbia Centre were produced, about 120 finished drawings.'Hundreds of smaller drawings were made by the electronic draftsmen and remembered and drawn by the computer during the yearlong process of putting the whole project down on paper. The six men at the CRTs, all young, clean shaven, pale, and sport-shirted, sit in comfortable padded chairs over Navy-blue carpeting that contrasts nicely with the tan walls. The room temperature is a perfect seventy-two degrees. The light level is kept low and you feel an urge to hold your voice down.

Only about a dozen architectural design Firms in the U.S. have the capability of using computers to assist in building design and drafting work. Dale Switzer, the head of computer graphics at Hope, says his department was involved in every stage of the project, from the design phase to production of finished working drawings. During the early, “schematic” phase, architects sent down rough drawings and hand sketches, which were entered into the computer by the men drawing the pictures on the video screens. In the next room, a plotting instrument produced formal drawings of what the architects were envisioning. The architects made adjustments and changes, sent down new sketches, and the computer sent back more formal drawings. Last March one of the First drawings the computer did was a series of three-dimensional views of the building which plotted the path of the sun in winter and summer, illustrating how it would strike the building at different times of day. The computer also showed architects how the structure’s shadow would fall on surrounding buildings.

At the end of May a subtle shift of emphasis began within the planning group. The project started to move from the design phase, where architects decide exactly how every inch of the building will look and feel, to the technical phase, in which structural, mechanical, and electrical engineers begin translating architectural ideas into practical plans. The computer graphics department, as well as human draftsmen, produce basic drawings of the floor plans which undergo constant revision within the separate disciplines. The early shift toward the practicalities of constructing the building, even before all the designs were completed, was a procedural leap that has become common these days. Like many other large building projects today, Columbia Centre was designed and is being constructed using an approach called “fast tracking.” This is a method of speeding up and organizing the process — actually beginning construction before the final plans are drawn — in a way that saves the owner as much as a year in development and construction time. The sooner tenants occupy the building, the sooner rent money is collected, the less is lost to inflation. Within the planning group, fast tracking requires that the first priority be the structural steel frame and its foundation. By the time the drawings for the rest of the project were completed, early this month, ironworkers were already erecting the giant derrick on the eighth floor of the steel skeleton.

Steve Ermenkov, the structural engineer on the project, says that between January and May of last year, the building’s designers came to him for advice only occasionally, “so they could be dreaming along practical lines.” Architects have a general working knowledge of structural, mechanical, and electrical engineering, but their know-how in those areas is relatively shallow. In late May of last year Ermenkov became immersed in the project after a two-hour meeting with C.W. Kim and after looking over the structural renderings. Ermenkov, who was also the structural engineer on San Diego Stadium, the Federal Building downtown, and Sharp and Scripps hospitals, made some immediate determinations just by looking at the renderings. He saw that there really needed to be two separate buildings, with a seismic-expansion joint between them, because in an earthquake the high-rise tower had to react to the movement of the earth, not the movement of the low-rise. Low-rise buildings vibrate in an earthquake, highrises sway.

Ermenkov knew he was under tight time constraints. Morrison-Knutson, the construction management firm on the project, had set December 15, 1980, as the day the first steel was to be raised. In June the site was already cleared and the excavation was underway. From June to mid-August he and his staff of engineers had to come up with the Final drawings for the foundations, the steel frame and connections, and the parking ramps. Ermenkov says it took about two weeks to make the basic decisions. "I sat down by myself to decide how to set up the columns, how to deal with the lateral forces,” says Ermenkov, who was born in France and educated in Paris, and still speaks with a French accent. “I decided to put 1 the lateral forces] on the outside of the frame.”

Several factors entered into the decision to transfer the lateral loads from wind and earthquakes to the outside perimeter of the frame, but one of the main ones was the requirement to include the maximum number of flexers within the allotted height. The frame has the big, husky beams and columns placed around the perimeter, with smaller ones used inside. If it had been designed so that the forces were absorbed within the internal parts of the frame, the inside beams would have had to be much thicker, thus reducing the number of floors that could be squeezed within 380 vertical feet.

The columns are set up on concrete foundations — footings — laid out in a square around the perimeter of the frame. The footings are fifteen and one-half inches wide and four feet deep. Three separate strips of concrete foundation run the length of the. building inside the square. Out of a complicated amalgam of knowledge. experience, and specific requirements, the columns ended up twenty-eight feet apart. (This just happens to be a perfect gap for three parking spaces.) The columns taper as they ascend, one atop another. Some of the bottom columns weigh as much as 600 pounds per linear foot, while the ones that form the twenty-seventh floor weigh only sixty-one pounds per linear foot. What determined the size of the columns and beams was the amount of movement Ermenkov wanted to allow the building under wind and seismic forces.

An earthquake moves the ground both up and down as well as laterally. Ermenkov says the up-and-down movement is not a great concern, but the lateral movement of the earth requires that the building flex on all four sides, and also twist. When the ground shifts one direction, Ermenkov explains, the top of the building doesn't move simultaneously. The size, placement, and splicing of the steel allows for about three-fourths of an inch of displacement between floors when the earth moves, which means that the twenty-seventh floor can sway as much as eighteen or twenty inches off center. The amount of time it takes for the top of the building to come back in line with the bottom is called the “period.” Structural engineers calculated that an acceptable period for the highrise would be anywhere between three and a half to five seconds. Shorter than that and it would be damaged because it would be too stiff and the occupants would be in grave danger because of the sudden jerk; if the period were longer than five seconds, too much displacement would occur, causing the tower to whip back and forth. Also, a balance had to be struck in a “comfort zone,” ensuring that it wouldn't be such a flexible structure that when strong winds blew, occupants would get seasick, which has happened in a couple of highrises in New York City.

When the structural engineers had their basic calculations worked out, Hope hired a special earthquake consulting firm to run computer checks on the action of the frame during a temblor. After some minor adjustments, a final determination was reached: in an earthquake, the top of the skyscraper will sway for 4.8 seconds before realigning with the base.

Meanwhile, Ermenkov’s staff was wrestling with the placement of the parking ramps, which were shifted all over the ground floor as the San Diego City Council mulled the builder’s request to change a portion of Columbia Street to one-way traffic, going north. The design finally had to go forward under the educated assumption. one of many, that the two ramps would best be placed at Columbia and A and State and A, and that the street would be one-way. It proved a good bet. Another assumption that had to be made was that the calculations for the amount of steel supportable by the foundations were accurate and would meet with city approval when the permits were applied for, well after the foundations were in the ground. One of many other safe gambles was letting the structural steel construction out for bid when the structural plans were only about eighty percent complete. Steel has to be ordered at least five months in advance so it can be rolled and cut and tooled to the proper lengths. Western States Steel got the contract and ordered the material in July, even though the plans for the frame weren't Finished until mid-August. (The price fluctuations of steel are a good argument for the Tasr-track approach to building. Between July of last year and February of this year, steel has risen thirty-five dollars a ton, meaning the steel for Columbia Centre, if purchased today, would cost $250,000 more than it did last summer.)

The steel contractor employs its own engineers to make the detailed drawings of each particular girder, and these were sent from Western States Steel to Ermenkov’s department for final approval. After the steel was fabricated at a mill, the contractor stored it at its Stockton yard, and it is shipped down to San Diego by truck and train a few pieces at a time as it is needed.

The construction boss. Bob Hill, took delivery of the first load of steel last December 12. Torrey Enterprises’ officers and a few politicians performed a little ceremonious steel-arrival rite, and the steelworkers from local 229 put on their gloves and got to work. They had steel up that night, three days ahead of schedule.

Hill, who is fifty-three years old. has been an ironworker for more than thirty years, and he looks it: the nicked, calloused, grease-lined and dextrous hands, the short, hard frame, the dark, squinty eyes in the leathery face. Hill commutes to San Diego three days a week from his small ranch (where he keeps and trains race horses) in San Dimas, near Pomona. Tuesdays and Thursdays he stays out at the Circle 7-11 Hotel in Mission Valley, but before he heads out there after work in the evening, he usually has a drink at Soledad’s across B Street from the site. That’s where we are now, and Hill is explaining how to build a skyscraper. “The first thing you do,” he says, “is go down there and set shims or jam nuts on the bolts sticking up out of the foundations.” On top of these big nuts, which were leveled by the plumb-up gang, huge, five-inch-thick baseplates were bolted down. The raising gang connected vertical columns to the baseplates in two rows running parallel along A Street. Horizontal beams were raised and connected between the two rows, and then the big header beams were connected along the perimeter. Then concrete was poured in the gap under the baseplate and allowed to harden for a few days. The next line of columns was set up. the beams connected, and then another two lines of columns were connected on top of the original two lines. The frame grew in increments like this, and in two months the first phase was complete: the first eight floors (and the three lower parking levels) of the high-rise tower now loom in the afternoon haze out of the window as Hill explains his work. I ask him about the job of connecting, which requires that a man work and move delicately on narrow beams at nose-bleed heights.

“Connecting iron takes a lot of finesse,” says Hill, sipping on vodka and soda. “The steel doesn’t always fit together perfectly. A six-, eight-, twelve-ton girder comes your way, you’ve gotta work it, and you’re a little hundred-and-forty-pound guy up there. You learn little tricks.” Hill says that the only time height ever bothers a good connector is when he comes onto a job that’s already well underway, where he has to work up high in unfamiliar surroundings. “Height doesn’t matter. You never think about height, you just think about the job. because an ironworker doesn’t even have one chance. Not one.” He lights up a Marlboro. “It’s a glory job. It takes a lot of skill and it’s dangerous. But height doesn’t give it any status. To be a good mechanic is the status thing. Just a real good mechanic.” Hill says about eighty percent of the supervisors in high-rise construction started out as connectors, but like most ironworkers, they learned to do almost every job related to putting up giant steel frames. The highest accolade an ironworker can receive from his peers is to be called a “bridge-man,” w hich means he can handle himself competently on the steel in any capacity required. I ask Hill if he qualifies as a bridgeman. “You’re goddamn right!” he barks in his deep, buttery voice as he reaches for another Marlboro.

Hill began acquiring his credentials and reputation in the late Forties, when he went to work as a “punk,” an apprentice riveter, for a company building steel overpass bridges around San Francisco. That was long before welders replaced riveters, who fastened together sections of steel with seven-inch, white-hot rivets. Hill’s job was to transport manually 200-pound boxes of rivets to the “heaters,” who worked below the riveters on the steel frames. The heaters tended coal-burning crank forges and knew exactly when to take out a glowing rivet with a pair of tongs and toss it up for a catcher to grab in a steel catch can, sometimes one hundred feet above the heater. The hot rivet would be jammed into the steel flanges of the girders and the riveters would smash both sides of it flat with air guns. “It’s kind of a candy-ass job now compared to w hat it used to be then,” says Hill with a smirk. “It used to be tough.” This is a joshing poke at his current connecting crew, and Hill suggests that they may have a different perspective on the job.

The next morning at seven sharp, as the last faint tinge of orange fades from the tufts of cloud overhead, thirty ironworkers stash their lunchbuckets and metal thermoses and walk down into the pit or up inside the steel web. Nearly as many laborers and carpenters descend to the second parking level and the ramps, deep down in the pit, to continue pouring concrete. The raising gang, composed of six men. splits into two groups of three, the signalman and two connectors climbing the ladders to the sixth floor, and the hook-on man, tag-line man, and pusher (the group foreman) walking down the steep dirt slope to the bottom of the pit. Jim McCormack, the pusher, had the raising gang unload steel from a flatbed yesterday afternoon, and all the beams and columns have been lined up in a particular order on the ground. His crew has put up as many as ninety-five pieces of steel in a day, but this morning only three columns and a few beams need to be connected to complete the eighth floor and make it ready for the big derrick to be set up on the top. (Any high-rise tower taller than nine stories is constructed with the help of a derrick, which is made of a mast and a boom, held by a circle of guy wires to whatever the top floor is at any particular time. The derrick hoists the steel up from the ground and flies it into place after the building has gone too high for the conventional crane to be of use.)

McCormack has a set of working plans that are delineated by floor, a separate page for each level. Every column and beam has a number written on it that corresponds to a number in the plans. “It’s just like a giant jigsaw puzzle,” McCormack had told me earlier. “If s not simple, but it’s not the hardest thing in the world, either., Each piece goes in a particular place at a particular time, facing a certain direction.” McCormack, 32, was a connector for about ten years. He lives in Los Angeles and has been a pusher off and on for the last couple of years. This is his first pushing (supervising) job on a building higher than nine floors. His connectors consider him just a little green.

McCormack turns from his plans, which were laid out over a group of rusty girders, and indicates to his men which column to hoist. The crane operator drops its cable into position and the hook-on man and tag-line man slide the shaft of a shackle through the large flange hole at the top of the column. The shackle, a big U-bolt, has a hundred-foot-long rope (the tag line) attached to its shaft. McCormack signals the fiber-glass hardhat, skier’s sunglasses. To his left is the open pit. nothing but 150 feet of space separating him from the bottom. To his right is the descending grid of steel. Schultz signals with his fingers, hand, and wrist, standing alone about twenty feet from the two connectors, who wait for the eight-ton column to drop close enough to grab, pull, twist, and shove into place atop the stub of another vertical column. Ron DeBenedictis, 33, and “Super” Sammy Stuckey, 23, intercept the girder crane operator to hoist up the column, and with a loud rev and a blast of black smoke, up it goes.

On the sixth floor Tim Schultz, the twenty-six-year-old signalman, stands atop the one-foot-wide header beam and signals the crane operator with a gloved left hand. Schultz wears the standard connector’s attire: filthy Levi’s tumbling down into the open tops of his disintegrating, eighty-dollar Redwing boots, dilapidated flannel shirt, sleeveless rawhide vest.

and muscle it into position as Schultz gives the last delicate hand signals. The connectors pull long, tapering “sleever bars” off their equipment belts and shove them through the holes in the end of the new column, aligning it with those on the bottom column’s flange. Stuckey leaves his bar in the hole while DeBenedictis pulls his out, replaces it in his equipment bett, grabs a big nut and bolt from pouches attached to the belt, shoves the bolt through the hole, and spins the nut on the other side. Stuckey does the same thing with his sleever bar and a bolt and nut, and then they both put another bolt and nut on the other two holes in the column joint. When it is secured upright. Schultz grabs the tag line and walks gingerly along a series of beams, cutting left, then right, then straight back, until he is about fifty fee directly behind the connectors and the new column. The three men banter and kid as the signalman yanks, w hips, and jerks on the rope; trying to free the shaft from the shackle. It finally gives, allowing the crane operator to pull the cable away.

Earlier Schultz had told me the three men on the connecting crew knew each other well and could anticipate each other’s reactions. Watching them move around in close quarters on a narrow beam, manipulating eight tons of vertical steel, it was easy to see why they needed to be able to communicate with a grunt, a yelp, a flick of the eye. The three of them glide along the beams and columns with the ease of monkeys, the confidence of invincible children on a massive Jungle gym. As the building gets higher, the beams get narrower and the connectors move even faster. “That way, if you fall,” explained Stuckey between swallows of Budweiser after work one day, “you’ll fall forward and you’ll grab something on the way down. If you walk real slow like a cunt, you’ll fall sideways.”

Both Bob Hill and the raising-gang pusher, Jim McCormack, had said that connecting was a young man’s job, and over beers after work in the parking lot, Sammy Stuckey explained the reasons for that. “There ain’t no harder work,” he said, illustrating his point by telling me that connectors can wear out a pair of Levi’s in a week, destroy a pair of boots in a month. “You buy $200 worth of Levi’s at a time,” he said, popping another beer. “The iron has mill scale [sharp pieces of steel] all over it that just eats up your clothes.” The other reason it’s a job for young men is to allow the older ironworkers, the ones who can’t connect anymore, to take the easier tasks. “You just don’t take the gravy jobs,” declared Stuckey, spitting Skoal. “The younger ironworkers carry the older ones; we take care of the older ones. We’ll be there, too, someday.” Besides, connecting is extremely dangerous, and very few older men are willing to risk a fall, from which they will almost certainly not return. Ron DeBenedictis, Stuckey’s connecting partner, is an exception.

The thirty-three-year-old DeBenedictis, short, broad, and agile, hit town back in August, 1971, and like any competent ironworker in almost any town in the country, he had no trouble finding work. He had been connecting for just three days on the frame of the Security Pacific Bank Building, going up at Third and B streets, when a beam knocked him off the fifth floor and he fell eighty-eight feet down into the basement. “Man, it was bright stars forever!” he exclaims now, remembering that day. “I free fell sixty feet, hit my head on a piece of metal — about bent it in half — did three full gainers, and landed flat on my back in a pile of soft dirt that had just been dumped there. Man. 1 hurt for about four months.” He wasn’t injured seriously and was back on the steel in a few days.

Which is right where he is now, waiting for the next column to be hoisted up. Just one more after this, then a few more beams in this southwestern comer of the frame, plus two or three back in a tricky place inside the atrium area, and the connectors will be done on the highrise for about a month. The tower will go up, using the derrick, only after the first eight floors have all been welded and the concrete poured on the bottom three floors so that the structure will be stabilized. During that period, DeBenedictis will take the job of pusher on a raising gang at a site out in El Cajon. He’s at that age when a connector begins to shift into other jobs. Twenty-three-year-old Sam Stuckey, on the other hand, says he’ll never be a pusher, a boss. “A pusher makes enemies,” he says flatly.

Down below, on the second level of what will be the parking area, twenty-five laborers are busy laying concrete. All members of the Laborer’s Union, these men have been called on intermittently the last few weeks to pour concrete on certain sections of the parking ramps and parts of the second parking level. The concrete is pumped down from trucks on the street, and it shoots out the end of a long, heavy hose. The men spread it out, leaving a bed of concrete five inches thick. Inspectors take samples of the concrete at intervals of 150 cubic yards, and allow it to harden for differing lengths of time. Concrete never stops hardening, even after a hundred years, but building codes say it must attain a certain amount of strength within a specific span of time. In about a month, testing engineers will check their samples to make sure the concrete withstands pressure of 4000 pounds per square inch. If it fails the test, it must all be ripped out and poured again. It’s happened before.

The concrete inspectors were also involved in the excavation of the hole, which was completed back in October. To make maximum use of the site, the hole was dug with sheer walls, requiring a shoring system to guard against cave-ins of the soft sand and clay. The first step was to dig fourteen wells around the perimeter of the site, sinking four each along State and Columbia, three along A Street, and three along B Street. The water table is about one foot above sea level in that area, and sea level was the exact elevation specified for the bottom of the hole, thus, without the wells, the bottom would have been very wet. The wells will continue to pump out water for about three more months, then the building’s own de-watering system will take over, periodically pumping water out of collection pits beneath the ground floor and sending it into the city’s drainage system.

After the wells were sunk, fifty-foot-deep holes were dug eight feet apart all around the perimeter of the site. Steel “soldier beams’’ were inserted into the holes, which were also filled with grout. Then the actual digging began, dropping down at increments of twelve feet, the pit extending right up to the soldier beams. Wooden planks were then slipped down in the slots formed by the lips of the beams, creating a kind of fence against the dirt. At the first twelve-foot level, right up next to every beam, a big drilling rig drilled an eighteen-inch-diameter hole at a thirty-degree angle under the sidewalk, stopping at fifty feet. Three cables, five-eighths of an inch in diameter, were fed into each hole, and the holes were filled with concrete. After the concrete had set up, a huge jack was attached to a fitting that had been welded to the end of the group of cables sticking out of each concrete plug. The jack pulled back on the cables with a load of 160,000 pounds and then slipped the steel fitting over the outside of each soldier beam, so the cables in the plug pulled into

the ground with a force of 160,000 pounds, providing perpetual tension back against the beams and planks, guarding against a collapse or cave-in of the earthen walls. This system of concrete plugs and cables was repeated twelve more feet down as the excavation progressed.

The excavation and shoring was completed late last fall, and in the ensuing four months the first eight floors of the high-rise frame have been erected. While the welders fuse it together and lightweight concrete is poured on each floor, stabilizing the frame, the low-rise portion of the building is being erected. When this is completed, sometime near the end of April, the ironworkers will begin construction of the high-rise tower from the eighth floor to the twenty-seventh. As the frame rises, the welders will follow two floors below the connectors. Concrete slabs will be poured on each floor after the welders move up. The fireproofers will be called in to spray a thick coating of flameproof material around all the beams and columns, beginning in June. The tower frame should be completed in late July, and then construction of the outside skin will start, along with' installation of the plumbing and electrical systems. Elevators and escalators will be brought in about midsummer, and after them comes the insulation, dry wall, masonry, and brickwork. By the beginning of next fall the finish work will have begun and the outside landscaping will go in just after the first of the year. The first tenants are due next March.

But right now it’s early morning, there’s a year of work ahead, and Jim McCormack, the raising-gang foreman, is about to hurl his hardhat off the eighth floor. McCormack had been using slow, precise hand signals to direct the crane operator in the bottom of the pit. They were trying to lower the crane cable behind one of the derrick’s guy wires and down into a narrow bay that led into the atrium area. A few days before, construction boss Bob Hill had told me that the atrium “was a royal pain in the ass” to construct and work in, and his gripe proved prophetic. As McCormack gave careful signals, the cable dropped slowly toward the guy wire until the hook on the end of the cable inexplicably swung back, literally grabbing and fastening itself to the guy wire. McCormack angrily tore the hardhat from his head and bounced it on the steel decking. It careened off the side and disappeared. He stood with thumbs looped in coverall pockets and looked up at the hook, dangling on the wire fifty feet up. After a few minutes of cursing and plotting, it was decided that the steel “headache ball” attached to the crane cable would be lowered to the eighth floor and Tim Schultz would wrap himself around the ball and be hoisted up to untangle the hook. As McCormack watched Schultz struggling with the hook, another ironworker asked McCormack, “Is it gonna be one of them days, Jim?”

“God, I hope not,” McCormack replied, still looking up at Schultz. “But it sure started out that way.”

Actually, the day before had ended that way. McCormack’s two connectors, Ron DeBenedictis and Sam Stuckey, had resigned at noon. They'd been working in the atrium area, connecting beams, which McCormack had been sending up two at a time. So while they were busy working with the first beam, the second one swung on the cable above their heads, banging and bumping against the frame. This is not an unusual practice, but the two connectors felt that in that particular instance, working inside a tight place among a web of steel, the swinging beam was a danger to them. And after a short argument with McCormack, they walked off the site.

This, too, is not an uncommon occurrence among ironworkers, who frequently disagree about construction methods. If a man doesn’t like his boss or thinks something isn't being done right, he just leaves the job and gets reassigned to another one by the union. There’s no such thing as loyalty to a particular job. Some thought the two connectors just wanted an afternoon off, and others felt they had a valid complaint. “There ain’t no loyalty when you’re talking about arms, legs, hands, and heads being squashed,” said one ironworker. McCormack was a good sport about the whole thing, able to take all the razzing being dished out by his fellow ironworkers. But he still felt he was right. I asked him why the two connectors quit. “They got tired,” he said.

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