Context Is Everything

I’m mining HABS again today, and maybe for the next few days.

Apparently Montana is short on interesting buildings, as this is actually an entry: The Ryan-to-Rainbow 100 kV Transmission Line of the Ryan Hydroelectric Facility, West bank of Missouri River, northeast of Great Falls, Great Falls vicinity, Cascade, MT

But wait! There’s more:

Two Reads on Urbania: One Good, One Not

If you have have any interest in urban design, urban affairs, or transportation, read The Urbanophile. Consistantly great stuff…

On a different note, the Times just ran a piece on a guy intent on walking every street in NYC. My carefully-thought-out response: who cares? If he has interesting experiences, sees fascinating sights, has life-changing epiphanies, who other than him will benefit? There are plenty of ways to experience the city, not all of which are self-centered.

Also, that’s a lot of streets that are similar enough to become very, very boring.

Bonus Sullivan

I still haven’t got around to the projected series of posts on my favorite NY architects, but given the positive reaction to Louis Sullivan, here’s one of my favorite examples of how good he was: The Merchant’s National Bank of Grinnell, Iowa.

The front door:


Sullivan had his own style, but the best available architectural education of his era – at the Ecole des Beaux Arts in Paris – taught that the plan had to match the section and both had to match the elevation. See for yourself:

Bleecker Than What?

Louis Sullivan designed one building in New York: a mid-block loft building in what is now NoHo but was at the time an industrial area – the original garment district.

Sullivan used a great deal of ornament on his buildings, usually in terra cotta. His Chicago buildings tend to be covered with vaguely plant-like ornament, but he went a bit more traditional/bizarre for New York.

Say hello to the nice winged lady.

Little Known and Useless Facts

  • No one really knows what the fuck “the whole nine yards” means.
  • The perception that “boss” is an American word and not an English one probably comes from the Dutch colony of New Amsterdam.
  • Teddy Roosevelt’s clearest statement of his manly, interventionist, manly view of the world was made at the Sorbonne.
  • The man who arguably dominated Irish politics from independence into the 1970s was born in the Bronx.
  • There’s a decorative masonry pattern known as a diaper and architects train for years to say that with a straight face.


The demolition of a building with an interesting lattice-truss roof got very ugly today. The remaining portion of the building collapsed this morning, killing one man and injuring two others. There had been at least one violation on the demo work but no stop-work order. I’m not going to second-guess the Department of Buildings here. The simple fact is that demolition is difficult to perform safely and even more difficult to police.

The professor who taught me steel and concrete design (four semesters total) worked off-campus as a forensic engineer for insurance companies. In addition to giving him an endless supply of stories perfect for terrorizing student engineers, it gave him an interesting perspective on design. His position – which twenty-five years of practice has convinced me is my position – was that nothing collapses until several things are wrong simultaneously. We have safety factors built into everything we do, so one mistake, even a bad mistake, is unlikely to get the safety factor down below 1, which is failure territory. But if a few things are wrong, you’ll get failure. To use a well-studied example, the failure at the Kansas City Hyatt was a combination of a poor weld detail, a poor hanger design, a mistaken change in shop drawings, and a failure in review of the shop drawings. Four errors led to the failure.

Buildings are, obviously, destabilized during demolition. So the mere fact that a building is undergoing demolition may be enough to provide one or two or three contributing problems that help cause a collapse. Lateral bracing support may be removed from beams, columns, or walls; the weight of debris may exceed the design load of a floor; vibration may loosen old masonry; and so on.

It’s possible someone screwed up and that’s what caused this collapse. It’s possible corners were intentionally cut. But it’s also possible that the unknown – and to some degree unknowable – structural capacity of the building being demolished was less than it should have been. I have no reason to believe that the NYC DoB forensics unit won’t succeed in finding out what went wrong, as slight a comfort as that may be in the circumstances.

Art, Not Mine

My office administrator, who shall henceforth be known as G__H, works on a lot of art projects whenever she is unchained from her desk long enough to go home. Her picture from Monday, from the graveyard at Trinity Church, next door to our office:

The building on the left is 100 Broadway, AKA the American Surety Building, AKA one of the first steel-framed skyscrapers. The sun is flaring over One Wall Street. And for the corpse-fuckers economic-theory necrophiliacs out there, Alexander Hamilton’s grave is nearby.


One of the least known portions of the original IRT subway is its powerhouse. In 1904, in made sense for the IRT to make it’s own DC current just as it made sense to put the powerhouse next to the river for easy deliveries of huge amounts of coal and just as it made sense to have McKim, Mead & White – one of the premier NYC architecture firms of the day – design the powerhouse.

The end result? A huge building with a very fancy American Renaissance facade in terra cotta.

When the zompocalypse comes, this is where I’m going to hide.


I occasionally need a compass while working. I find myself in places where I usually don’t bring my cell because there’s no cell reception and where I’d like to be certain which way I’m facing. (Labeling field drawings correctly gives some credence to the conclusions I’m selling to clients…) I’ve been using a cheap piece of shit and managed to break it, so I decided to get one with some history.

W. & L. E. Gurley of Troy, New York, was founded by Rensselaer alumni brothers and I know their old factory building inside and out. Gurley made the U. S. Army compasses during World War II and, as of an hour ago, ebay has made me the owner of one.

Also: Gurley Precision Instruments. Hehehehehehe.

Another Weird One: JCM

I saw John Carter in a nearly empty theater today. Putting aside the fact that it’s going to be one of the worst all-time flops in economic terms, I’m ambivalent about it.

The book A Princess of Mars and its sequels are, simply, terrible. They’re racist, badly plotted, and over-written; fantasy with a badly-glued veneer of sci-fi. I loved them when I was 8 or so and didn’t entirely understand them, but even then the descriptions of the Tharks bothered me. The movie attempts to make sense of Burroughs’s meandering but still leaves its characters with some fucking idiotic dialogue.

Besides the impressive use of CGI and nice on-site shooting in some desert somewhere, the thing that stands out for me is the modern interpretation of Burroughs’s interpretation of Percival Lowell‘s vision of Mars. It is utterly romantic: the technically advanced people of a dying world building longer and longer canals to use the dwindling resources of water, knowing the whole time that they will lose their fight. I suspect that Lowell’s bad astronomy lasted as long as it did because of the romance of it.

The two leads are unimpressive. Carter is played by a man named Kitsch, who should by virtue of not changing his name qualify for the self-awareness version of a Darwin Award. Dejah Thoris is played by a woman who can’t necessarily deliver her lines but, to her credit, has triceps that make her look almost realistic when holding a sword.

Finally, if you’re a fan of HBO’s Rome and The Wire and AMC’s Breaking Bad, there’s a strange feeling seeing Julius Caesar, Marc Anthony, Detective Jimmy McNulty, and Walt White rubbing elbows as secondary characters.

Pronounced “Lah-tee-che”

Lattice trusses are what people build when they don’t feel like analyzing the truss. If you’ve got enough web members connecting the chords and enough connections between the web members…well something’s got to work, right?

An engineer in my office took these pictures of a building being demolished in west Harlem for the seemingly-endless Columbia U expansion.

The beams running left to right are purlins spanning between the trusses. The visible truss wasn’t the end of the building, but demolition to date has left it at the end.

Another bay of purlins is gone and the end truss is now freestanding. And therefore completely unstable, as often happens during demo.

The close-up shows the very simple connections. Easy to build, a pain in the ass to analyze, likely to be adequate for load, burn like a torch, empirically successful, no longer built.

How the 0.01% Live

The Stanhope (Fifth Avenue, opposite the Metropolitan Museum) used to be a high-end hotel. Now it’s a condo, with one unit left for sale. Asking $30,000,000.

I used to own a studio co-op in Manhattan that measured 250 square feet. Smaller than the “library,” roughly the same size as the 2nd bedroom. The master bedroom suite – everything to the right and down the screen from the service elevator – is roughly the size of the apartment I grew up in and which was the entire living area for four people.

Good news, though! This shit isn’t a sign of post-modern 2012 excess. In 1929 (pre-October, one must assume), Fifth Avenue penthouses might go for $300,000, to be bought by the wealthy. Those dastards.

The Name Is More Than A Clue…

…it’s the answer.

The Queensboro under construction, circa 1907*:

The Q is a cantilever truss. That’s a specific category but the name tells you the most important aspect of the category: the spans may look vaguely like the spans of a suspension bridge, but they are not continuous. There’s no such thing as half of a suspended span (unless you’re interested in looking at a collapsed bridge), but this picture shows you half a cantilever span. Half a span with a big-ass crane sitting on its end, to be exact.

What you can’t see is that the Manhattan tower is off to the left of the frame and its half of the span is also under construction, reaching out toward the Roosevelt Island** span half you see here, to anthropomorphize a bit.


* From the Collections of the Museum of the City of New York.

**The island was first called Blackwell’s, after a sea captain who owned it, then Welfare, because it was where the city’s poorhouse, asylum, and free hospital, then Roosevelt, after FDR.

Carpenter’s Trusses

From the attic of an 1868 school:

True engineered trusses existed in the U.S. in 1868, but a lot of buildings – particularly schools and churches – were still being built with more primitive undesigned trusses supporting roofs over auditoriums.

This isn’t a terrible design. Note the wrought-iron hanger rods extending down from the apex of the main gable and the secondary triangles. The doubled top chord is, depending on your view, useless or a sign of the carpenter’s inability to create a connection that would transfer load properly.

But let’s discuss engineering logic. Empirically, these trusses have performed well for over 140 years. That’s success.