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In a time of building

I find myself in the midst of huge structures moving daily nearer the skies. My little office in midtown looks down upon the new IBM office building on Madison Avenue in New York, between 56th and 57th streets; while precisely behind my back the Telephone building gets ready to soar from its cavernous foundations. At lunchtime, it appears unsafe to sally forth without a hard hat. Behind the Racquet and Tennis Club, behind the Museum of Modern Art, behind the old Reid mansions, towers are ascending; and these are but a few of the construction sites within a five-block area.

Having negotiated safely these works in progress, I pass on my return the shop windows where Bonwit Teller lately displayed its mannequins. A shimmering edifice on this location will form the third of three towers -- along with IBM and the Telephone building -- to stand upon two blocks and to dwarf what was once a considerable giant, the green-glassed home of Corning.

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It happens, too, that at the bottom of the block where I have lived for thirty years an apartment house of as many storeys is going up. Every day and a half an additional floor is framed in, eating away at the sky which for so long has been visible from my backyard garden. In the early morning while it is still dark the men begin their work. Cold and rain seem to offer no impediment. There will be a few anticipatory whistles and calls, some admonitory rumbles and hammer strokes: then the whole orchestra comes into play, a cacophony that would do credit to the best of modern composers. My wife sleepily proposes that there ought to be a law against such early beginnings! But I cannot feel entirely hostile to men who awake in the first dawn and, bidding good-bye to their families, take up so briskly the tools of their mighty trade.

In the midst of all this I am becoming an expert on construction methods and techniques. With reasonable accuracy, I can tell you how to excavate a foundation through Manhattan's rock and schist; how to set the first columns upon their pads of concrete, and thereafter how to jiggle into place -- with seemingly only a few inches' tolerance -- the girders that will frame the structure. From the barest bones, I can detect the architect's skill, determine whether the building shall have a grace of its own or be merely one more routine encumbrance upon the earth. More particularly, I can discourse upon the relative pleasures of seeing a building shaped of steel, or -- bucketfull by bucketfull -- cast in concrete.

On the whole, I prefer the latter mode. It may be dazzling to watch the steel beams dangle against the sky, while the mind envisages the fiery furnaces in which they were forged, and the overland travel that brought them through city streets to their destination. But a building formed in concrete is the product of thousands of on-site operations, as men build the forms in which the still-malleable cement will be poured. They do it with wood, as the rest of us might construct a box or a table; they use a simple hammer like the builders of old.

So it is that in the morning as I lie abed, no machine-made uproar fills the air, but the sound of what seems a hundred men with a hundred hammers in their hands, each whacking away at a hundred nails. Thus they put up and take down the wooden forms, moving them upward each day as the cement is poured and becomes hard. Meanwhile, above the sound of their mallets come pleasant sounds of human voices. A friend to whom I related this phenomenon asked me what was being said, and in what accent it was being spoken. I answered I had no idea: so far as I could determine these were like the wordless songs with which birds communicate with one another, or wolves parlay their messages in the dark. When the weather was fine, I noted, these shouts from the building site seemed the more jubilant.

Soon they will be starting on the brick walls of the apartment tower.I suppose these will go up in silence; and in the end we shall look forth upon an urban landscape from which another large patch of sky has been excluded. The sun that entered our garden slant-wise in March will be seen no more. Such changes are sad to behold; but if one lives in a great city, throbbing and alive , one learns to accept such so-called progress. One even finds compensation in the romance and daring of the indefatigable builders.


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