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In Action

A lot of old construction photos look staged. The workers are lined up, they don’t seem to be doing anything much, the site is too neat, and the photo is too neat. The stereoscopic photo above, from the Keystone View Company, looks unstaged to me. I could be wrong, of course, but it’s hard to believe that the erection company would hoist large pieces of steel just for a better picture.

The full title of the photo above – at the bottom, but a bit difficult to read in gray on gray – is “Building a Skyscraper, Placing Steel Beams, Metropolitan Tower, New York City.” Construction on the 700-foot-high Met Life tower began in January 1907 and the structural work was complete in the spring of 1908, although interior construction continued into 1909. This picture clearly shows structural steel work but the workers are also quite high up, so late winter or early spring of 1908 seems to be the date. (Note that the NYPL lists the photo’s creation date as 1870-1925, which seem a bit broad.) For what it’s worth, we’re looking north-northeast (using Manhattan’s directions, which are tilted 29 degrees east of true north) which is why we’re seeing the East River and Queensboro Bridge in the background.

It took me a minute to understand exactly what is being hoisted there. It’s a plate girder lying on its side, and we’re seeing either stiffener angles or connection angles at its end on the right. I lean towards them being stiffeners since they run the full height of the web, flange to flange. Note the big pile of steel on the right. Given the height, this may be one of the last big picks, loading the steel up at the top of the building for the erection of the building’s crown.

The usual caveats about old construction photos: workers are not wearing harnesses or hard hats, and the edge of the building is not safed off. The next photo shows a worker doing something we’ve all done on construction sites but is technically a bad idea: standing on top of a pile of material:

The big pile of built-up beams and columns is clearer in the second photo. This one may be staged: given the direction of the cable, what’s he looking at? The crane may be hoisting something towards or even behind the camera, but to where? The photo is overall much clearer, suggesting that the photographer had more time to set it up.