One of the most well-known photos of the 20th century, indeed an iconic image is “Lunch Atop A Skyscraper,” an image taken during the construction of the RCA Building (now the GE Building) at Rockefeller Center in 1932. The building is also known as “30 Rock” as its address is 30 Rockefeller Center. (I’m told that there is a sitcom by this name, but I’ve never seen it.) The image was taken by Charles C. Ebbets and shows a number of steel workers sitting on a girder during their lunch break, apparently dangling hundreds of feet above the streets of New York.
Granted, this was the 1930’s and construction was done with safety measures that would be considered criminally negligent by today’s standards, but still, one has to wonder if this was the kind of thing any sane person would do at any time. The workers are clearly not afraid of heights, but the danger of being on a beam that high up is very real. Each of them would need to get up from a sitting position, having only the narrowest lip of the I-beam to use as a step and then walk across to safety. A single slip would lead to death. Considering that most building projects of the time had, at worst, a handful of construction deaths, it seems that the workers would probably avoid such extreme risks whenever they could and use extreme care when so close to the edge.
A few other photographs were taken by Ebbets on the same beam and seem even more reckless and dangerous:
One can tell these are the same due to the alignment of the photos toward Central Park, the north side of the building. These photos also are stated to have taken place on the same level – the 69th floor.
These photos would seem almost suicidal, with a leg hanging off of the beam, it would be very easy to lose one’s balance. However, there are also some things that these photos reveal that are not so obvious in the most famous version. First, this is not a single beam, but rather a double-beam that would offer greater area to sit on and walk across. It also would mean that the men could more easily get up from a sitting position. The beam is very close to another beam and in the second photo, a wood plank can be seen as a means to walk off the beam.
However, a full uncropped version of the photograph provides even more evidence that things may not have been as dangerous as they at first seem. Here it has been colorized to make the evidence more obvious:
Clearly there are beams bellow these men and there are also planks of wood making a floor for the workers to stand on during construction. The beams appear to be sitting on top of the planks, perhaps set there before being used to construct the rest of the building. This would have been a fairly common practice of the time. However, the perspective of the photographer makes it difficult, if not impossible, to tell if the beams actually extend beyond where the men sit. Clearly the beams do come to an end. This is likely the exterior wall of the building.
This, however, is where the structure of the building comes into play. The top floors of the building have several roof levels, with only the center section of the building extending all the way to the highest point. These are known as “set backs” as shown in this image.
There is some confusion over how floors and levels are denoted on this kind of structure. If a setback is used as an observation deck then it may be refered to by the floor number that one would exit to go onto the deck, but the roofs of setbacks may also be refereed to by the floor that they are above. In the above diagram, the levels are noted by the floor level under them – the floor to which they are the roof.
There is also some conflict as to what exactly the “69th floor” means in the context of the construction of the building. However, based on the images and information about the photographs, it appears that the men were sitting on what would become the floor level of the 69th floor (as opposed to the ceiling level). This would put them one story above the 68th floor base level, which is only slightly above the 67th floor roof. It appears that the photographer was standing on a perch above the workers, thus putting him on the seventieth floor base level.
If this is the case, the men are not really in as dangerous a perch as it would seem, but are just a single story above a solid floor and more than ten feet from the edge of the building. Other photographs taken around the same time appear to indicate that this is likely the case.
The above photograph shows the top floors of the building around the same stage in construction as the other photographs. It was likely also taken by Ebbets. The beams shown make up the top section of the building, the 69th and 70th floors. The photographer appears to be standing on a solid floor which is being used to stack beams before they are used in the construction of the final levels of the building. Note that part of the floor has a rudimentary cable railing. The photographer is facing toward the south (the direction of the Empire State Building). It appears that the top beams may in fact be the highest level of the building and that no further floors will be added above the level where the men are walking. That would put the photographer on the ground level of the 68th floor.
Note that there is a cable to the left of the photographer, angled to the right and with four u-bolts securing it in a loop. This is one of the cables used to anchor a construction crane. It also appears that it may be the same cable seen to the left of the workers eating lunch on the beam. That would mean that the photographer is standing bellow and slightly to the north of the beam where the workers are seated. This photo also reveals the likely location of the photographer for the lunch picture – the photographer was likely standing on the 70th floor beam, which is also only one story from a solid floor and several feet set in from an exterior setback.
Some ground level photographs, which were taken only months before the Ebbets photographs were taken. Notice that the center section, although incomplete, rises higher than those to the side and that the unfinished floors have
One final photo shows something else that is even more interesting. It appears that there are structures extending out from the building, on the left they appear to only be beams but on the right, it appears that there is a rudimentary safety net or platform in place.
The use of safety nets was common practice in the 1930’s and they were used extensively in bridge construction and other types of construction where a fall would likely be fatal. The effectiveness of the nets was sometimes called into question, as they were not always very strong or well anchored and if a worker did fall into one, there was not always a safe or easy way of getting out of the net and to safety.
Practices of the time were not very safe by modern standards, but it still should be noted that even if standards were lax, they were not non-existent and workers did not have a death wish. Certainly there were times when workers did have to go out on high beams without a harness, safety net or a floor bellow them, but this is not something they would do without due care or without good reason to. Workers may also have had to go to the edge of buildings to install beams or fasten panels, but that does not mean they hung out there during their lunch break. There is a difference between being brave and being suicidal.
A closer look at the most dramatic photos of the time indicates that the workers were likely not in as much danger as the photos appear to indicate.
This entry was posted on Thursday, October 29th, 2009 at 12:16 pm and is filed under Culture, Good Science, History, Misc. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.
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