Adventures in Drywall
The Unshaken Foundation of the Spirit
As anyone who reads this column knows, we rarely take ourselves seriously. At the writing of this particular column, however, our nation has just endured acts that defy grammar. We don't portend to be worthy of making sense of what has transpired, but it's difficult to find humor in much of anything lately. Yes, we will laugh and hope to make you laugh again, but it won't be soon.
Few folks can understand the rubble at the World Trade Center more than building professionals. When they were completed in 1973, the two 110-story towers, 1,362 and 1,368 feet high, were more than 100 feet taller than the city's other world-height record holder?the Empire State Building. In a bitterly ironic press conference at the ceremonial opening of the concrete and steel titans, World Trade Center architect Minoru Yamasaki was asked, "Why two buildings? Why not one 220-story building?" His tongue-in-cheek answer, "I didn't want to lose the human scale."
Excavation of 1.2 million cubic yards of earth and rock yielded $90 million of real estate for the Port of New York Authority. Instead of being trucked off for disposal, spoil was used to create 23 acres of fill in the Hudson River adjacent to the WTC site. It had since been developed as Battery Park City.
The best in mind and bodyThe twin towers had the world's highest load-bearing walls. Each tower was 208 feet by 208 feet with a column-free interior between the outer walls and the 79-foot-by-139-foot core. Eighteen-inch steel tubes ran vertically along the outside, which provided much of the buildings' support. Essentially, this was pre-fabricated steel lattice.
The project involved more than 700 contracts through Tishman Realty and Construction Co. of New York City. The towers held the height record only briefly. Even as they neared completion, work had begun on Chicago's Sears Tower, which would reach 1,450 feet.
There has and will continue to be endless speculation as to why the collapses occurred as they did, and ample hindsight has and will be offered regarding the safety of the interior column design. The infinite tons of debris have been given extensive coverage by the press. But what seems to be forgotten are the men and women who gave seven years of sweat to the construction of these monuments.
There was undoubtedly a sense of pride amongst the subcontractors whose bids were accepted for this historic work back in the '60s. The economy of the day was coincidentally one of wartime, the construction period of the buildings paralleling the America's most intense Vietnam involvement. Their challenge was unheard of at the time: provide 12 million square feet of floor space on a lot that was barely 16 acres to house anyone and anything connected with world trade. And do it on a budget of under $500 million in an area with one of the highest wage scales in the country.
Those who trudged off to work on Aug. 5, 1966, couldn't possibly have imagined the enormity of their task or the way in which the world would change while they went to work every day. By the time the ribbon was cut for the opening ceremony on April 4, 1973, along with several job site casualties, the country had witnessed the assassinations of Robert F. Kennedy and Martin Luther King, the Detroit riots, Kent State, Watergate and tens of thousands of Vietnam casualties.
The coffee-break talks of the day were probably no different on the days following each of these cataclysmic events than they are today. It was difficult to get out of bed, to go to work; to try to function in a normal capacity when people were surrounded by madness. The impending sense of uncertainty, the lack of ability to grasp what had happened. How would this affect their children, their spouses, their ability to pay the rent or mortgage? The feeling that everything they had predicated their lives on, good's triumph over evil, was wrong.
But people kept going to work. The Trade Center buildings forged ahead, and some might suggest it was simply the robotic pursuit of a paycheck that drove each of the thousands of construction workers to grind it out every day. Sure, many of the faces changed over that six-and-a-half-year period, but many saw the process from start to finish. And just as it is today some contractors made money and lots of it, while others lost their shirts. Some workers honed their trades to perfection while others suffered career-ending injuries. In short, for better or worse, life went on.
Just keep moving onWhich is what it must do now. New housing starts are down and unemployment is up. Economic uncertainty abounds. But buildings will be erected and possibly destroyed again. Few contractors haven't experienced going into a home or building after a fire, for instance. It's a ghostly feeling, but the work instinct can take over pretty quickly as it did at the WTC. Removal of the debris, whether it's ripping out charred board and studs or a caravan of trucks removing refuse, it's the first step to recovery. Then the reconstruction assessment process takes place. In time, though the personal losses can't be reversed, a new wall, room or building emerges.
The Statue of Liberty, the monument that, until Sept. 11, shared the same skyline with the Twin Towers, stands for just that: new beginnings. Many of the workers on that building were immigrants or sons of immigrants, trying to build a foundation for their progeny in a new country. Construction work at the Trade Center afforded legions of them their first opportunity in the United States.
There have been and will be debates in architectural circles as to the sanity of replacing the twin towers, the sheer defiance, the safety, the cost, the design, etc. Is it important to rebuild a symbol of our financial superiority in defiance, or should it be a monument to the thousands who lost their lives? What is certain is that something will occupy that space. In Pearl Harbor, the site of what was previously the worst domestic destruction, stands a pristine museum and barely a hint of what happened there 60 years ago. The twin towers neighbor, the Empire State Building suffered a plane crash in 1945, and the building shows no scars.
It is partly our national pride and perhaps egos that won't allow symbols of destruction or waste to last long. But mostly it's the sense of teamwork. We tip our hats to the Bronx drywall equipment supply outlet Kass Industrial Supply, for donating generators and work gear to the recovery crew at the World Trade Center. We know there are many others within our industry who have shared in both the suffering and the salve of this time, and we salute them as well.
We close with eerily prophetic words to live by from the architect of the twin towers. "The World Trade Center should," Yamasaki said, "because of its importance, become a living representation of man's belief in humanity, his need for individual dignity, his belief in the cooperation of men, and through this cooperation his ability to find greatness."
Drywall was just one component of the buildings, and will in all likelihood be a part of what eventually follows. And hanging and finishing it will again be someone's job. But it won't just be a job. It will be a monument.