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Early Predictions of Steel-Frame Deterioration: Permanency in High-Rise Construction

Authors:
  • Old Structures Engineering

Abstract and Figures

The possibility of corrosion reducing the life-span of steel-frame buildings was recognized during the first construction of such buildings in the 1890s. The same designers who worked on the early steel-frame build- ings stated publicly that this issue was a concern, but made no long-term effort to study the problem. After a 1903 report that steel at one such building was in good condition after five years in service, there was little dis- cussion until facade failures from corrosion became a concern in the 1970s.
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Proceedings of the Third International Congress on Construction History, Cottbus, May 2009
INTRODUCTION
Steel-frame skeleton construction had critics, like all new technologies, from the time it was first used and dis-
cussed in the 1890s. Some of the criticism came from knowledgeable sources and was based on sound logic:
steel framing was neither good nor bad simply because it was new or because it enabled high-rise construc-
tion, and architects, engineers, and contractors who worked with steel framing were capable of judging it on
its expected performance. Load capacity was a straightforward matter of structural design, but long-term per-
formance could only be addressed through speculation, since no such buildings had been constructed be-
fore. In New York and Chicago, the two cities with the largest collection of pre-1930 steel-frame buildings, fa-
cade-inspection laws introduced after 1980 and the subsequent repair campaigns have revealed extensive
corrosion damage to spandrel beams and exterior columns. Critics of steel framing had explicitly predicted
this form of damage before 1900.
Among architect critics, George B. Post stands out for his practical knowledge of steel framing. Post was a
New York-based architect whose work included the bearing-wall Western Union tower; the partial-frame Pro-
duce Exchange, World, and Havemeyer Buildings; and the skeleton-frame Sprague, Vincent, and St. Paul
Buildings, all constructed in New York between 1884 and 1899 except for the 1872 Western Union. In 1895, Post
stated in the New York Times an opinion he had previously discussed in professional journals: the common
practice of erecting steel-frame buildings with their exterior columns embedded in the facades was danger-
ous in the longer term. He believed that the columns could not be inspected once the masonry was in place,
and that one or two wythes of the masonry provided insufficient fireproofing to protect the columns against
the heat from fires in adjoining buildings and insufficient waterproofing to protect against long-term exposure
to the weather. Post ultimately argued against the use of steel framing in the form that was common in his
time, and for the use of steel in combination with heavy exterior walls. Postʼs comments echoed those of a
number of contemporary engineers.
In 1903, the five-year-old Pabst Hotel in New York was demolished to clear its site for subway construction. This
provided an opportunity for the building community to observe the ordinarily-hidden frame, and, as was re-
ported in the engineering press, the steel was found to be in good condition and was scheduled for re-use in a
new building. The issue of corrosion faded from discussion until masonry failures in the 1970s triggered ex-
ABSTRACT: The possibility of corrosion reducing the life-span of steel-frame buildings was recognized during the
first construction of such buildings in the 1890s. The same designers who worked on the early steel-frame build-
ings stated publicly that this issue was a concern, but made no long-term effort to study the problem. After a
1903 report that steel at one such building was in good condition after five years in service, there was little dis-
cussion until facade failures from corrosion became a concern in the 1970s.
Early Predictions of Steel-Frame Deterioration:
Permanency in High-Rise Construction
D. Friedman
Old Structures Engineering, PC, New York, United States
Proceedings of the Third International Congress on Construction History, May 2009
tended inspections of old high-rise facades and their supporting steel. Corrosion was found to be prevalent at
corner columns, roof-level spandrel beams, and spandrel beams supporting water-tables or balconies, al-
though it could occur anywhere on the facades. In short, the problem predicted in the 1890s was real.
PREDICTING ENDURANCE
Knowledgeable observers raised many concerns in the early days of skeleton-frame skyscrapers, ranging from
the most basic issue of whether tall steel-frame buildings were stable to the prediction that adjacent streets
would become hopelessly over-crowded. The structural fears were addressed by a combination of empirical
performance (no tall building collapsed as a whole) and the efforts of architects and engineers to provide
reasoned responses. This did not mean that the concerns were necessarily wrong as, for example, New York’s
existing street-congestion problems were made worse by the concentration of tall buildings in the downtown
business district. The same professionals who designed and built tall frame buildings addressed in writing and
through their buildings the various concerns that were published in both popular and trade journals.
Among the nineteenth-century professionals who stated doubts regarding the longevity of steel framing, sev-
eral were prominent in promoting the same technology: George Post, an architect originally trained in both
architecture and engineering who designed several of New York’s tallest buildings in the 1880s and 90s, and
the engineers William Sooy Smith, William Birkmire, William Freyer, and Joseph Freitag. All promoted steel-frame
technology in their work, either intentionally or by example, and all expressed their opinions in print. Birkmire,
Freyer, and Freitag published books in the 1890s with architects and builders as the target audience describing
the new technology of steel-frame buildings. Post was particularly conflicted on the construction of tall steel-
frame buildings, and spoke against their construction despite having designed tall buildings in New York since
1870. (Landau 1998, p. 110) In 1902, Post designed the Main Building for City College of New York with stone
and terra cotta bearing walls, retreating from the technology he had helped to popularize in the previous
years. (Landau 1998, pp. 131-135; Gray 1992).
In an interview with the New York Times in 1895, shortly before the completion of his 25-story high St. Paul Build-
ing in lower Manhattan, he expressed his concerns in so blunt a manner that the full headline read “Limits of
High Buildings – Views of Mr. Post, Personally Opposed to Sky-Scraping Structures. – The Dangers That Threaten
– Long-Continued High Winds and Exterior Fires Might Be Disastrous – Commercial Height 300 Feet [91m].” (n.a.
1895) In the interview, Post stated that he was “personally opposed for many reasons to the construction of
high office buildings” and then went on to describe his reasons: (1) long-term winds might cause side-sway
with “oscillations [increasing] with each swing;” (2) steel columns built into the exterior walls “are removed from
all possibility of examination;” (3) columns built within the exterior walls may be subject to thermal expansion
and warping during fires in adjoining buildings; and (4) the steel frame may corrode. While the specifics of his
logic may not exactly match forensic analysis of building failures over the intervening century, each point
agrees with known problems revealed since his time.
The first issue, increasing side-sway under constant load, is today known as one possible effect of resonance,
which is rarely found in buildings under wind load but has been observed in bridges under wind load (e.g., the
collapse of the Tacoma Narrows Bridge in 1940) and in buildings under seismic load. When a structure is sub-
jected to a cyclical load with a frequency near the natural frequency of the structure, the resulting stresses
and deflections may far exceed those caused by a similar-magnitude static load. However, as Post himself
described, engineers were learning to brace frames to reduce sway (and therefore damp out the potentially
destructive movements), and the load from wind is too small and its period too dissimilar relative to the stiff,
heavy masonry-walled buildings of Post’s era for resonance to take place.
The second issue, the inability to see spandrel columns built within exterior walls, has proven to be a problem
particularly when combined with the issue of steel-frame corrosion. Ordinary maintenance on high-rise build-
ings did not include removal of portions of the exterior walls until the post-1980 facade-law inspections so the
exterior faces of these columns were rarely seen, and the interior spaces abutting the columns are occupied
office or residential space with plaster finishes so the interior faces were rarely seen.
The third issue, the possible effect of fire, has been more of a problem inside steel-frame buildings than outside.
Fire spread from building to building was more prevalent when all buildings h ad wood-framed floors. The intro-
duction of new technology both in construction (e.g., terra cotta and other “fire-proof” floors) and in fire-
fighting (e.g., high-pressure hydrants and automatic sprinklers) in the late nineteenth century reduced build-
ing-to-building fire spread.
The fourth issue, the possibility of a gradual reduction in strength of the frame from corrosion of the steel, was
long forgotten but has proven to be the most serious problem Post mentioned. Waterproofing in early steel-
frame buildings was commonly a coat of paint, and th e curtain walls were mostly solid masonry with no inter-
nal waterproofing or means of directing water flow. As a result water may remain within the masonry for long
periods. Post was at his most prescient when he was asked if “the grandsons of engineers now living [will] ap-
preciate the dangers” of old buildings damaged by corrosion. His response was that
I think they will. These great buildings are not likely to come to pieces without giving competent engineers
ample warning, by cracks in the stonework or settling of beams, or some other sign of instability. The deter-
mination of causes for such defects rests upon principle which never change, and therefore will be equally
as good warning to our descendants as to ourselves.
Proceedings of the Third International Congress on Construction History, May 2009
Smith was a bridge designer, but helped popularize steel over wrought and cast iron through his work. His ex-
periences with maintenance and repair of steel bridges led him to a conclusion that was as grim as the worst
possibilities Post had discussed: in 1902, Smith said that if building columns corroded at the same rate as truss
members in railroad bridges then high-rise buildings would become unsafe within twenty years of their con-
struction. For this reason, he was opposed to complete skeleton frames that supported the exterior walls.
(Fleming 1935)
Birkmire, on the other hand, did not give a lengthy discussion of his opinions on the long-term deterioration of
steel. Instead he paraphrased the arguments of those who believed that corrosion was a serous problem, such
as “The constructors and producers of cast-iron....claim that rust honeycombs and eats entirely through”
wrought iron, but also stated that “The objection to wrought-iron or steel on account of rusting may seem
more real, and yet we h ave seen pieces of wrought-iron beams, anchors, etc., taken from very old walls un-
harmed by rust.” (Birkmire 1894, p. 17-18) While he did not clearly state his opinion on this topic, he did quote
an unnamed author in the journal Architecture and Building as saying that “There are really but two questions
[regarding tall buildings] seriously demanding consideration – the proper protection of the steel frame against
elements of danger, decay and fire, and the obstruction of the light from surrounding properties.” He also
quoted an article in an unnamed newspaper as saying that “Another constant menace to these buildings is
from corrosion. The steel frame is embedded in masonry, where it cannot be examined, and after a few years
no one can tell what condition it is in.” (Birkmire 1906, p. 31, 106) This may well have been an indirect quote or
paraphrase from Post, who had said in the New York Times interview that steel columns “when built into the
walls are removed from all possibility of examination without tearing the building.” (n.a. 1895)
Freyer discussed steel framing in 1891, at the same t ime that the first skeleton frames with curtain walls fully
supported by steel or wrought-iron beams were being constructed, by comparing the corrosion resistance of
cast iron and steel:
Some constructors advocate the use of cast-iron as the only material for columns of skeleton structures.
When columns are built around with brick work they are permanently buried out of sight. Between the col-
umns and the outer air there are only a few inches of masonry work, through which dampness or rain finds
its way. In wrought iron this is insidious, and it honeycombs and eats entirely through the metal. Mild steel,
such as riveted columns, are made of, rusts faster than wrought iron at first, than slower. Cast iron, on the
contrary, oxidizes on the surface in damp situations; rust does not scale from it, and the oxidation formed is
of a much less dangerous kind....Advocates of riveted steel columns insist that such columns, when properly
encased in fireproof and waterproof materials, as the intent always is that they shall be, are protected per-
manently from injurious influences. High buildings are erected for permanency, to last for centuries. Years
from now the question will be practically determined whether skeleton structures are a wise or foolish
method of building, whether they are stable and lasting, or secure and reliable for only a comparatively
short number of years. (Freyer 1898, pp. 477-478; Freyer 1891)
While this seems similar to Birkmire’s reluctance to give an opinion, there is an important qualification in the
quote: steel columns are safe only if “properly encased” in waterproof materials. Freyer also proposed the use
of a higher-than-normal safety factor for steel columns, based on an assumption of material loss.
Freitag gave the most explicit discussion of longevity, in a section called “Permanency of Skeleton Construc-
tion” in the “Skeleton Construction” chapter of his book Architectural Engineering. This section is worth examin-
ing at length, as it summarizes the state of knowledge in the 1890s. The first paragraph describes the “consid-
erable discussion” in the context of a building boom using steel framing and the “great importance” of the
issue. This paragraph comes to a conclusion since confirmed, wh ich is that the designers and builders of the
era relied on “faith in such combinations of materials” given “the want of reliable data under present condi-
tions.” Since the problem was one that would take time to present itself, there was simply no way for anyone
then to know the answer.
Freitag went on to discuss the mechanism of corrosion, and specifically the effect of lime mortar or other
compounds that would create acidic conditions, and the difference between weathering (with changes in
temperature, humidity, and external pressure) and foundations which are in permanently wet but unchanging
conditions. He promoted the use of portland cement or cement mortar as corrosion protection for steel ex-
posed to static conditions, such as those in foundations, and states that lime mortar should not be used in any
location where it would be exposed to both steel and wet conditions. He also explicitly states that masonry is
not waterproof and will therefore not provide protection to steel. Freitag came to the final conclusion that all
steel must be carefully and thoroughly coated with paint. He dismissed the idea that the cohesion between
iron and concrete would allow an impervious coating of cement by pointing out that
in building work a perfect union between the cement mortar and metal-work can never be attained at all
points, [so] a thorough coating of paint must largely be relied upon. All constructive ironwork should, there-
fore, be well coated with either lampblack mixed with oil, or red lead and linseed-oil....A careful inspection
of all painting, both at the shop and in the field, should be rigidly enforced. (Freitag 1895, pp. 50-53)
Freitag’s recommendations echo those of the New York building codes. As there were no national building
codes in the United States until after 1900, the period of steel-frame development was influenced most heavily
by the local codes for the large cities where tall buildings were constructed, most notably Chicago and New
York. The provisions in the local buildings codes requiring masonry or concrete encasement of exterior-wall
steel are ambiguous, in that they serve as both fire- and water-protection. The requirements that steel be
Proceedings of the Third International Congress on Construction History, May 2009
painted, while representative of good practice in a general sense, are more obviously water protection, since
the paint provides no protection against heat. The 1892 New York City code required a coating of “oxide of
iron and linseed-oil paint before being placed in position, or coated with some other equally good prepara-
tion or suitably treated for preservation against rust.” Interestingly, Freitag specifically recommends against the
use of oxide-of-iron paint on the grounds that it does not adhere well to steel, high-lighting his point that more
long-term performance data was required. (Freitag 1895, p. 53) The 1901 and 1916 codes were less specific
about the reason, but merely required “All structural metal work shall be cleaned of all scale, dirt and rust, and
be thoroughly coated with one coat of paint.” (Cosby 1908 p. 231; Cosby 1922 pp. 105-6) The 1916 code is of
interest because it was the first modern building code in New York and remained in effect (with numerous
amendments) through 1968. By comparison, the pre-1900 building codes in Chicago and Boston did not re-
quire paint, but only solid masonry fire-protection. (Freitag 1895, pp. 50-53)
After 1924, the publication of a national steel code by the American Institute of Steel Construction led to the
migration of language regarding the protection of structural steel away from the local codes. This was not in-
herently a problem and the steel code has included provisions for painting steel, but the division of building
codes into sections and separate references for each material h ad the effect of deflecting attention from in-
teractions between materials and systems. The steel code, no matter how will written, has never provided
more than minor references to masonry. The paint provisions have been relatively simple, requiring for example
one shop coat of paint and touch-up paint in the field for all steel not encased in concrete. (n.a. 1941)
Finally, not everyone foresaw dangers. An engineering article published in Britain in 1901 used less than one
page to describe the structure of high-rises, compared to more than thirty pages describing mechanical sys-
tems. The comfort of tenants was discussed, longevity of buildings was not. (Bolton 1901) Birkmire quoted a dis-
cussion of ridiculous claims made against skyscrapers from the Architecture and Building article, such as the
assertion that pendulum clocks were affected by building side-sway, as a method of dismissing claims in gen-
eral. (Birkmire 1906, p. 20)
THREE BUILDINGS, CIRCA 1900
The 1899 St. Paul Building in lower Manhattan was one of George Post’s last skyscrapers and it clearly shows his
conservative approach to protecting the exterior steel columns. The building occupied a small, irregularly-
shaped lot and was 25 stories and 94m high, making it briefly one of the tallest buildings in the world. The struc-
tural system of the building was typical of the era in broad terms, with a steel framing supporting the masonry
curtain walls and interior floors, but the details were designed to protect the columns. First, the columns were
set entirely inboard of the curtain wall, so that water would have to penetrate the entire thickness of the wall
before it could touch column steel. The spandrel beams carrying the wall were supported by brackets that ef-
fectively were cantilevered extensions of interior floor beams, and the columns were waterproofed by a com-
bination of a solidly-grouted space between the steel and the terra-cotta fireproofing and asphalt-
impregnated felt applied to the painted steel. Figures 1 and 2 show the relation of the wall to the steel framing
in section and plan. In theory, the terra cotta and grout could be removed to permit inspection of all faces of
the columns (or at least, those portions which were standing free outside of the floor structure) but there is no
record of such inspections ever being performed. (Birkmire 1906, pp. 189-191; Mujica 1929, pp. 29, 59)
Figure 1: Exterior wall section of the St. Paul Building, showing the exterior (A) and interior (B) faces of the exte-
rior wall, the spandrel column (C), an interior girder (D), the wall-carrying double spandrel beam (E), and the
frame spandrel (F). (Birkmire 1906, p. 190)
Proceedings of the Third International Congress on Construction History, May 2009
Figure 2: Exterior wall plan section of the St. Paul Building, showing the exterior (A) and interior (B) faces of the
exterior wall, the spandrel column (C), an interior girder (D), the wall-carrying double spandrel beam (E1), the
bracket to carry the spandrel beams (E2), and the frame spandrel (F). (Birkmire 1906, p. 190)
Despite Post’s claim that his system provided “more effectual exclusion of moisture and prevention of corro-
sion, superior fireproofing, and a connection of the floor-system so as to avoid eccentric loading of columns.”
it was not widely copied. The bracketed connections required more material and more rivet-driving labor than
ordinary beam-to-column connections and therefore were more expensive, the interior position of the col-
umns used up otherwise rentable floor space, and, perhaps most importantly, there was no general consensus
among real estate developers and building owners that the corrosion problem even existed.
The 1898, nine-story Pabst Hotel was much closer to average than the St. Paul in everything except its location:
the combination of the diagonal path of Broadway and Manhattan’s street grid creates a number of small tri-
angular blocks, such as the one between Broadway, Seventh Avenue, and 42nd Street where the Pabst was
located. The building had the steel frame, brick curtain walls, and patented floor system that are typical of
era, and is only now of interest because of a report issued after its demolition. The first New York subway, the In-
terborough Rapid Transit, began construction in 1900 on a route that ran west under 42nd Street and then
curved north onto Broadway. In order to construct the curved section of track under the triangular block, the
IRT company purchased the hotel and demolished it in 1903. In the interest of addressing the corrosion issue
that was still active in the design community, if not among building owners, The Engineering News published a
report of the conditions exposed as demolition progressed. The report directly addressed the issues that had
been discussed in theory a few years earlier: “The entire structural part of the building is in excellent condition,
in fact it seems fully as good as in a newly-built building. Of greatest interest is the condition of the steelwork.
This is excellent throughout, in the columns as well as the beams, the surfaces still show the original adherent
coat of black paint, and there is no indication of deterioration by corrosion...” (n.a. 1903) This report provides
empirical evidence to fill the gap in data that Freitag had discussed eight years earlier, unfortunately in a what
can now be seen to be a nearly-meaningless manner. Structural steel can corrode in a manner of days if left
exposed, but when protected by paint and masonry the process takes decades. The fact that curtain walls
were in general known to not leak – in other words, wind-driven rain was not found to be penetrating to the in-
side face of the exterior walls should have been evidence that the masonry of the walls was providing some
protection to the steel.
The 1900 Broadway Chambers Building was, like the St. Paul, a major structure. The 18-story, 72m skyscraper
was designed by Cass Gilbert with Purdy & Henderson as the structural engineers. The building had the typical
construction of steel frame supporting terra-cotta tile-arch floors and a brick and terra cotta curtain wall. Un-
like Post’s designs, which tended to use masonry detailing to support projecting decorative elements, Purdy &
Henderson supplied a more modern system of multiple spandrel beams to support the flat wall areas com-
bined with out-set secondary steel members supported on brackets to carry projecting water-tables and cor-
nices. An article describing the building made a point of the “high degree of engineering skill” required for
their design and construction, and explicitly discussed the difference in longevity between steel bridges and
buildings where the engineer’s “experience does not necessarily give him the knowledge needful to preserve
a structure that cannot be got at for periodic painting.” The description of the building made the same points
as the other discussion regarding accessibility and the need to protect steel against contact with water and
air; it differed from Freitag in recommending the use of cement coatings:
This is a question involving the life of these buildings. It is well known that iron or steel unless protected is li-
able to rust and ultimate destruction. To meet this in bridge construction repeated painting can be done.
But the case is different with these structures. After the building is erected its steel frame work is not accessi-
ble, and the problem is to conserve the coating of paint put on when the structure is first put together. This
coating, no matter how good, will not endure when exposed. It must therefore be perfectly protected. Cor-
rosion cannot proceed without both moisture and air, and with good painting and good covering there is
Proceedings of the Third International Congress on Construction History, May 2009
no reason why steel framing should not be protected from both. Without a coating of paint iron or steel
could be protected perfectly by the use of Portland cement, which is a perfect conservator of iron. In a
building the steel framework must be protected form both corrosion and fire. The cement, while a protec-
tion against corrosion, will not answer for fire, but special means must be used. For this purpose porous terra
cotta of good thickness affords the best protection. (n.a. 1900)
FACADE INSPECTION AND STEEL DETERIORATION
The discussion of longevity gradually faded. The commercial success and growing popularity of steel-frame
construction, most publicly seen in the skyscraper height competition of the 1920s, which culminated in the
1930, 319m Chrysler and 1931, 381m Empire State Buildings, gained for this form of building the success that
made it seem normal. The Pabst study may have also helped ease the concerns of architects and engineers,
and the kind of failure that William Sooy Smith thought possible after a few years did not occur.
A series of incidents in the 1970s showed that steel framing was deteriorating in high-rise buildings to an extent
that threatened the safety of passers-by. In New York, the best-known event was the 1979 death of a Colum-
bia University student from injuries sustained when she was hit by a f alling piece of a decorative stone lintel
from an apartment house owned by the university. (Gupte 1979) The following year, Local Law 10 was en-
acted, requiring more than 10 000 buildings in the city to have their facades inspected by professionals on a
five-year cycle. This law was amended and expanded in 1998 to include all exterior walls on tall buildings re-
gardless of accessibility or proximity to public streets, and similar laws have been enacted in Chicago, Boston,
and other cities. (May 2004, p. 31)
Engineers and architects performing examinations under these laws have found that steel deterioration is
common to all of the steel embedded with exterior walls: beams, columns, connections, and the secondary
members used to support ornamental masonry. Figure 3 shows two spandrel beams and a column, all with se-
verely pitted surfaces and material loss from corrosion. Horizontal surfaces, such as the flanges of beams or the
tops of bracketed connections, appear to be the most vulnerable as water traveling within the masonry can
sit on these surfaces for long period of times. Paint has been found to inevitably fail: beams are often found to
have paint intact in areas from which water drains and paint missing in areas where water pools. Figure 4
shows a spandrel beam with intact paint on the upper portion of its web despite corrosion on the lower web
and bottom flange.
Figure 3: Author’s photograph of a corner column at 720 Park Avenue, New York. The white is temporary pro-
tection where masonry has been removed; the removal shows two channel spandrel beams and a wide-
flange column.
Proceedings of the Third International Congress on Construction History, May 2009
Figure 4: Author’s photograph of a wall probe at 720 Park Avenue. The main spandrel beam (A) has intact
paint on the upper portion of its web and rusting on the lower web and bottom flange, despite being set back
from the wall face (C). The secondary beam (B) that stabilizes the cornice (D) is heavily rusted.
Steel corrosion threatens public safety and buildings’ long-term stability in two ways: first, by weakening the
structural frame to the point where collapse is possible, and second by cracking and displacing curtain-wall
masonry through the mechanism of rust-jacking. (n.a. 1978) The second danger is far more prevalent than the
first, and is actually considered helpful during investigations. Initial investigation take place with the curtain
walls intact and masonry is removed only when there is a reason to suspect steel damage at a specific loca-
tion. The effects of rust-jacking often provide that reason, and probes are cut where cracks and displacement
are noted. Figure 5 shows the crack adjacent to the masonry-removal probe shown in Figure 4.
Figure 5: Author’s photograph of a wall probe at 720 Park Avenue, immediately adjacent to Figure 4. The web
of the secondary beam is rusted completely through (F) suggesting further removals are required. The probe
was located based on the crack (E) in the visible face of the wall (C).
Proceedings of the Third International Congress on Construction History, May 2009
During nearly thirty years of organized facade inspection in New York, corroded steel has led to every out-
come from full steel repair and historically-accurate recreation of the masonry removed for access (many
buildings, including 720 Park Avenue, shown in Figures 3, 4, and 5) to complete removal of the ornamental ma-
sonry (as at the now-demolished Mayflower Hotel). When steel repairs are required, designers must answer the
question of how to protect the steel against future corrosion. One of the popular solutions is to paint the steel
and then coat it with Bithuthane, a brand-name asphalt-impregnated cloth that is essentially similar t o the
“asphalted felt” that George Post used on the St. Paul Building and recommended for use on all steel frames.
CONCLUSIONS
We study history for many reasons, one of which is to learn from experience. In the case of construction history,
we must distinguish between studying the technology of a past era and studying the lessons of that technol-
ogy’s use. The technology itself is often no longer viable because of changes in buildings’ use, living standards,
or code requirements. For example, the use of 1890s-style solid masonry curtain walls has ended because of its
cost relative to veneered cavity walls, code requirements for expansion joints, and concerns about water-
proofing and thermal insulation. However, the lesson of this technology, that inherent flaws known at the time
of construction may take decades to manifest themselves, is one that is applicable to any new building tech-
nology. Had concerns over the longevity of steel structure embedded in masonry been more widespread in
1900 and led to thorough waterproofing such as that George Post used in the St. Paul Building, we might have
fewer old skyscrapers because of the increase in construction cost, but it is likely that we would have far fewer
repairs to perform now. More importantly, had the people who publicized the condition of the Pabst Hotel as
proof that concern over the steel was unfounded recognized that their study was conducted too soon after
construction to have real meaning, the initial concerns might not have faded.
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n.a., 1941: Steel Construction, Fourth edition. New York: American Institute of Steel Construction.
n.a., 1978: “Spandrel Repairs Avert Collapse.” Engineering News-Record, February 16, 1978.
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