Friday, February 5, 2010

A Row of New Tenement-houses Shoddy Built, Fall and Injure Many Workmen

frm our friend Ruth Barton in Vermont: Vermont Tribune, Ludlow, April 17, 1885

A Row of New Tenement-houses Shoddy Built, Fall and Injure Many Workmen

Eight five-story tenement-houses on West Sixty-second street in New York, built on criminally cheap principles, collapsed, Monday, and tumbled down, the wreck being complete.  Some 30 workmen were busy about the structures, and a part of them were buried in the ruins.  A large loss of life was rumored at firs, but now only six workmen are unaccounted for.  At least 18 were injured but none fatally.  Charles FRANCK, the master brick-layer, was arrested, but the builder, Charles  BUDDINSEIK, who has frequently been in bad odor with the authorities on account of the "skin" structures he has put up, drove rapidly from the scene to his house on East Seventy-seventh street, and disappeared; finally, however surrendered himself.

Charles FRANCK and Charles SWAGER, bricklayers, say the houses were built during the cold weather of the winter "imitation" mortar being used and the walls filled in with timber, left by the carpenters, to save bricks.  When the recent warm weather began, the walls began to weaken, and steps were taken to brace them up from both ends so that they would stick together until the roofs could be put on and the end walls rebuilt.

Monday morning it was seen that three houses at the west end were in imminent danger of falling.  The foundation had bulged noticeably, and the walls were shaky.  Builder BUDDINSEIK's attention was called to this and he set men to work to fix up the walls and foundation.  Four stone masons and 18 carpenters were at work on this when the crash came.  There were roofers, painters, lathers and plumbers numbering perhaps 30 at work about the premises at the time.

About 3:15 p. m., a shout of warning went up and the end building toward Eleventh avenue was seen to totter and then fall, with a noise of thunder. Both foundation side walls had fallen out, and the body of the house, deprived of its support, collapsed.  The building adjoining fell next. Then the whole row followed like a line of card houses.  There was a continuous roar, that seemed to last many minutes, as one after the other the tall buildings went down.  In a very short time an excited crowd had gathered whose threats of vengeance on the reckless builder filled the air.

When the heavy cloud of dust had cleared away, the people looked upon a heap of broken bricks and timbers which was piled only a few feet above the level of the street.  Men with broken limbs and bruised faces were struggling out from under the wreck and dragged themselves painfully away. Shrieks and groans were heard from one or two places and to these spots the people rushed.  Firemen, and all the available ambulances in the city were summoned to the scene.

Transcribed by Ruth Barton, Dummerston, VT


1. Our friend Christopher Gray, author of New York Streetscapes: Tales of Manhattan's Significant Buildings and Landmarks commented that, "Buddensiek ultimately went to the slammer, five or six years as I recall.  His name lived on as an epithet for two decades. "Skin" buildings was a widespread term at the time."

2. Shoddy construction has always been with us and continues to this day. The latest rage seems to be over sheetrock imported from China. This is what the public tends to see, it is in the news, but the situation of selection of materials, or substitution of one material for another, or outright waste of perfectly good materials in a market driven (induced consumer) building/construction environment is a whole lot more complicated than what gets into the news. Selection of appropriate materials that will perform as desired is an important element of the historic restoration process. As it is I spend a great deal of time paying attention to discussions regarding wood window restoration, the ills of vinyl siding, and the never-ending arguments over mortar mixes (lime vs. Portland cement).

3. Before there was a profession of "architect" there were only builders, some of whom were smarter, some of whom were more ethical than others. The history and rise of the American Institute of Architects was in part built up by a conscious campaign to educate the consumer that they needed mortar to be more than "imitation", more than sand.

4. When the construction/restoration/maintenance business is good, which it has not been, then a whole lot of people who would otherwise not have jobs are employed primarily because they have strong backsides and hopefully some experience, skill and training. To a large degree these are folks who not only did not go to college, they may not have graduated High School, in some cases they may not have even got to High School before they went to a life of physical work. I am not talking about places like Haiti, I am talking about our neighbors. Regardless, when it comes to work with their hands they prove out a tactile genius that is all too often undervalued. Then again, when hiring a usual practice is to ask questions, take a chance if they sound plausible, then send the mechanic out into the field to see what happens. It takes only a few seconds to tell if a person knows how to use a trowel or a hammer (it takes longer to figure out if they know how to use a pen). So this young fellow from Bed Sty Brooklyn answered a call for employement on a masonry restoration project at a church where we had a contract to repoint mortar joints. He came along all assurances forward that he had tons of masonry experience. You can imagine the instinct to chase after work. Unfortunate for him he did not know that when you mix mortar that it requires more than sand and water, that cement and lime needs to be added. The foreman after giving his instructions to mix a batch of mortar went about his rounds. By the time he got back to check on the young fellow the mason's were already complaning.

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