RSA Tower – The Unhappy Mason

One of the frustrating dictums/rules which Ron Blount, RSA’s Owner Representative, brought to our project was a minority participation program.  He held job fairs and stirred the issue across two states.  After bids were taken on the RSA Union, he coerced Brice Construction Company to release the competent masonry sub they had retained and instead give the work to Frank Seltzer, President of Superior Masonry Inc. of Mobile, a black firm.  Now Frank himself was an excellent mason, and he probably had three or four skilled masons in his employ.  The problem was, the RSA Union included so much concrete block work that it required 25 masons.

Two months later we bid the RSA Tower, and here comes Ron again, persuading Huber-Hunt to hire the same black firm, Superior Masonry.  The trouble was, the Tower involved so much block work that it demanded 40 more masons.  That meant that Frank Seltzer, who was no great shakes as an organizer, had to hire every brother mason he could find in central Alabama, as he attempted to do both jobs at once.  Naturally he wound up with a mob of exceedingly slothful block layers.  The work was a disaster, more on the Tower than the Union, but nonetheless completely unacceptable on both.

Ron Blount’s pressure on Brice Construction gave them a free pass.  Brice rightfully felt the masonry problem belonged to the RSA, not to them.  Given the Owner’s role in the matter, there was little that PH&J could do about the poor work except lamely complain.

On the Tower, the problem was further compounded by the immense size of the building, and by Monte Thurmond’s complete disrespect of Superior Masonry.  Monte would wantonly dispatch their masons all over the 24 stories to put out whatever fire was hot at the moment.  Superior’s foreman didn’t even know where his men were working, and was able to impart zero supervision.  As a result, the block work was uneven and ugly and so out of alignment that the work of other trades was impacted.  The masons attempted to cheat on the work, and results did not improve even after Terry ordered several walls in the basement taken down and rebuilt.

The block partitions around the toilets, four per floor, were so out of square that the hard tile contractor could not apply ceramic tile to the walls.  Over my strong protest, the RSA paid HH&N $50,000 extra to square up half of the 88 rooms with cement plaster before the tile could be installed.  As Ron said, our specifications did not specifically state that the substrate block had to be true, only that the tile facing had to be. An absolutely absurd position, but one Ron had to take, since it was his dictum that forced the contractor to hire incompetent masons in the first place.

The walls around the stairwells were so out of square and misaligned that the steel stair stringers would not fit, and narrower stair sections had to be installed and then trimmed out to meet the uneven walls.  The resultant stairways in the Tower are especially offensive to me.

The masonry work was so slow and disorganized that the electrical and mechanical subs began to “borrow” the masons to patch around their work.  Poor Superior Masonry fell deeper and deeper into financial purgatory, and the end of the job was not even in sight.  Whereas Brice Construction of Birmingham at least understood the paternal hand necessary to guide our black compatriots of the construction world, HH&N’s staff had zero compassion and even less comprehension of that peculiar Southern role.  Besides bringing an arrogant attitude to its relationship with their subcontractor, Huber-Hunt’s managers finally refused to pay Superior any further progress payments, imposing severe back-charges.

This sour situation rocked along until the end of the job.  Early in March of 1998 Superior filed suit against Huber, Hunt & Nichols and against the Retirement Systems of Alabama for the sum of $528,000.  Because RSA sacrificed so much to get Superior into the game, it is ironic that they were named.  PH&J was included only as a fictitious defendant, but never identified.  The outcome of the action was never made known to us.

-Charles Humphries (“Peril and Intrigue Within Architecture”)

This is one of many RSA Tower stories. The rest can be found here.

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