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Deus Ex Machina PUBLIC ACCESS

An Improbable Sequence of Events in 1963 Led a Young Construction Firm to $2 Million in Billings at the World’s Fair.

[+] Author Notes

Samuel C. Florman is chairman of Kreisler Borg Florman General Construction Co. based in Scarsdale, N.Y.

This article is adapted from Chapter 8 of Good Guys, Wiseguys, and Putting Up Buildings by Samuel C. Florman (Thomas Dunne Books, an imprint of St. Martin's Press, 2012)

Mechanical Engineering 134(12), 42-45 (Dec 01, 2012) (4 pages) doi:10.1115/1.2012-DEC-4

Abstract

In this article, Samuel C. Florman, the chairman of Kreisler Borg Florman General Construction Co. recalls how a sequence of events in 1963 led his young construction firm to $2 million in billings at the World’s Fair. During the summer of 1962, Norman Winston was appointed as the United States Commissioner to the World Fair. He was specifically charged with supervising development and construction of an American pavilion. The construction contract for the pavilion had gone to famous developer Del Webb. However, in late 1963, due to some issues, Del Webb walked out of the project. The job of finishing the federal pavilion was then offered to Florman’s firm. Florman’s firm was to perform miscellaneous finishing items and provide “general oversight.” While the original fee of the firm was a measly $45,000, the amount grew rapidly as the scope of the activities increased. By the time the Fair closed in 1965, Florman’s firm had billed some $2 million on which it earned approximately 20% in gross profit.

Article

The world's fair, 1964: The Unisphere anchored one end of a plaza that led to the U.S. Pavilion at the other. As the fair's opening day approached, there developed a sort of underground competition between contractors, who tried to steal workers from each other.

Grahic Jump LocationThe world's fair, 1964: The Unisphere anchored one end of a plaza that led to the U.S. Pavilion at the other. As the fair's opening day approached, there developed a sort of underground competition between contractors, who tried to steal workers from each other.

I met Norman K. Winston in 1963 when my firm was low bidder on a doctors’ residence he sponsored for Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in New York City. Mr. Winston had made his fortune investing in real estate and building thousands of middle-income homes in suburban areas after World War Two. As a political activist and major Democratic Party fundraiser he became a close friend of Robert F. Wagner, New York City's mayor from 1953 to 1965, and of Robert Moses, whose multi-faceted career led to his becoming president of the 1964-65 World's Fair. During the summer of 1962 Norman Winston was appointed by President Kennedy to be United States Commissioner to the Fair, with rank of Ambassador, specifically charged with supervising development and construction of an American pavilion.

When Mr. Winston made his visits to the Winston House construction site, we found him to be a tough guy as advertised, but also benevolent in watching how these “kids,” as he regarded us, worked hard to get his building done right and on schedule. At the time our firm was in desperate need of additional work, and when I learned about this powerful man's position at the World's Fair the thought crossed my mind that maybe we could somehow get in on that activity. But I soon saw that this was out of our league. With Congress having appropriated $17 million for the federal pavilion, the construction contract had gone to Del Webb, famed developer of Sun City, Arizona, owner of the New York Yankees, golfing buddy of Howard Hughes, Barry Goldwater, Bing Crosby, and Bob Hope, an all around big shot pictured on the cover of Time magazine. Out of our league indeed.

But then, some time late in 1963, as if we had written it into the script of a play, a violent dispute erupted. I never found out whether Del Webb walked off the job or whether Norman Winston threw him off, and I didn’t care. All I know is that Winston got hold of us one day in November and told us to get our asses out to Flushing Meadows and finish the goddam federal pavilion. Webb was off the job and the Fair was scheduled to open in April. In a flurry of papers we were given a contract by the U.S. Commission, technically an arm of the Department of Commerce. Webb's subcontractors would complete their work under supervision of government inspectors. We were to perform miscellaneous finishing items and provide “general oversight”—whatever that meant. Our original fee was a measly $45,000; but this amount grew rapidly as the scope of our activities increased. By the time the Fair closed in 1965 we had billed some $2 million on which we earned approximately 20 percent in gross profit. It's not as if we engaged in any form of price gouging. We were in a different world from any we had known before, a world in which charging “10 and 10”—10 percent for overhead plus 10 percent for profit—was the norm, a world of “special” work, following the directions of theatrical designers, lighting virtuosos, and flamboyant decorators. The $400,000 added to our bottom line meant everything to us. To the people around us it was a drop in a tempestuous ocean.

The U.S. Pavilion, the frame and exterior of which were basically complete before we arrived, was a stunning structure. Designed by Charles Luckman Associates, it was a 150,000-square-foot building, two stories in height, floating 20 feet above ground, supported by four columns and featuring a luminous facade of multi-colored glass. The main feature for the visitor was a 15-minute ride called “The American Journey” in which moving grandstands, each carrying 59 passengers, passed by movie screens of varied shapes and sizes for a “you are there” experience of our nation's history from the time of Columbus to the beginning of the space age. The project was designed and installed by the Cinerama company; but there was much work needed to prepare the space to suit their needs—mechanical services plus carpentry, plaster, and paint. The building also contained spaces for standing displays and lectures and movies; also an information center sponsored by the American Library Association.

The “library of tomorrow” was equipped with a Univac computer. Encountering the Univac—in 1964, ten years before the first consumer computers were produced— was a most remarkable experience. The large machine contained more than 5,000 vacuum tubes and consumed a huge amount of electricity. We were required to install a powerful air conditioning system in the glass-enclosed space it occupied. When the massive machine was pronounced ready for action, I was given the opportunity of playing with it a bit, and I was particularly taken with a program that taught basic mathematics—interactively. The work was at once a challenge, an education, and an entertainment.

Just about every day I went out to the fairgrounds, along with John Cricco, our firm's vice president. We were given so many change orders, and put in charge of so many workers, that we were hard pressed to keep up. As the fair's opening day approached, there developed a sort of underground competition between contractors who tried to steal workers from each other. I recall one payday when Cricco and I drove out to the job carrying $18,000 in cash to cover payroll and to maintain the loyalty of our crews.

There were chaotic moments, but somehow the work got done—at least to the point where the pavilion could safely receive crowds when the fair opened on April 22, 1964. On that memorable day, Norman Winston proudly hosted President Johnson, who toured the U.S. pavilion and spoke to a gathering of invited guests. I was tasked with ushering a selected group of VIPs to a specially prepared men's room. For a few unforgettable moments I found myself standing in a line in front of the urinals, flanked on one side by Adlai Stevenson, then U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations, and on the other by FDR Jr., a past Congressman serving at that time as Undersecretary of Commerce. Stevenson, who had twice run unsuccessfully for president against Eisenhower, was a special hero of mine, and I was hoping he would say something memorable. Mostly, however, his conversation consisted of jovial complaints about how a politician has to put up with long waits between pit stops. As a building contractor I’ve spent many occasions—mostly groundbreakings and ribbon-cutting dedications—in the company of New York's governors, mayors, Congressmen, and other assorted famous figures. But this particular moment, side by side with Adlai Stevenson, stands out in my memory as something very special.

The fair was our company's financial salvation, but I remember it also for the glamour, for the excitement, and for the spirit of the time. It was the early ’60s, the era of Beatlemania. The Vietnam War hadn’t yet become the affliction it was soon to be, and the fair, with a theme of “Peace through Understanding,” was dedicated to “Man's Achievement on a Shrinking Globe in an Expanding Universe.” It was a treat to see my young sons enjoying the fabulous exhibits, especially those few to which I could gain special entree.

The U.S. pavilion: Floating 20 feet above ground, supported by four columns and featuring a luminous facade of multi-colored glass.

Grahic Jump LocationThe U.S. pavilion: Floating 20 feet above ground, supported by four columns and featuring a luminous facade of multi-colored glass.

As the summer flew by and the fair's winter closing approached, we were pleasantly surprised to find ourselves called upon to perform additional work. In anticipation of the fair's second opening in the spring of 1965, the U.S. Pavilion was adding a new project, the Hall of Presidents, and the contract was given to us without competition. This exhibit featured memorabilia of 13 presidents: Washington, John Adams, Jefferson, Jackson, Polk, Lincoln, Cleveland, Theodore Roosevelt, Wilson, Franklin D. Roosevelt, Truman, Eisenhower, and Kennedy. I especially remember Jefferson's combination drawing board and desk, and also the sword that Jackson waved during the battle of New Orleans. We didn’t handle any of the precious materials, but we did provide the display cases, the special lighting, and other architectural features.

Also, through recommendation, we were retained to build the Winston Churchill Pavilion, converting a building that previously had been called simply “The Pavilion” and used for special events. This installation consisted of a reconstruction of Churchill's study at Chartwell, his country estate. Also featured were 25 of the great man's paintings, plus medals, films, recordings, a letter from FDR, and other fascinating materials. The project was sponsored by People-to-People International and paid for by Joyce Hall, president of Hallmark Cards.

In connection with these second-year projects, I attended a meeting chaired by Robert Moses. I reported on our progress which I thought was excellent, but Mr. Moses looked angrily at me and said we had to do better. At the time I was irked; but in retrospect I savor the memory of being growled at by this famously surly power broker. As the fair neared its end, Robert Moses, in the final phase of his career, was truly a lion in winter.

All ended well. Still, I am amazed to find in my file the following letter:

April 23, 1965

Dear Mr. Florman:

We have watched the progress of your work on the Joyce Hall “Churchill” exhibit with appreciation and a considerable degree of amazement.

Through the almost super human efforts of yourself and the able assistance of John Cricco, Project Manager, and Vincent Barilli, Job Superintendent, you were able to pursue construction rapidly and adjust quickly to the multitude of changes which are inherent in a “plan as you build” type of operation.

It was exceedingly gratifying to me to see thße “Churchill” exhibit virtually completed on Opening Day and available for the pleasure and enlightenment of our Fair visitors.

Again, my thanks for a job well done.

Cordially,

Robert Moses, President

Cordially! So different from the man as I encountered him. I take pleasure in the rereading.

And I enjoy recalling how three hot-tempered titans—Norman Winston, Del Webb, and Robert Moses—unwittingly helped us out when we were in desperate need.

Copyright © 2012 by ASME
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