Paris has the gargoyles of Notre Dame.
These mighty stainless steel guardians seem impressively solid until you watch construction workers muscling them into place on April 3, 1930 in the Fox Movietone newsreel footage above.
Forget being sturdy enough to serve as a time travel diving board for a very freaked out Will Smith in Men in Black III…
It now seems a miracle that no unsuspecting pedestrians have been crushed by an art-deco eagle head crashing unceremoniously down to Lexington Avenue in the middle of rush hour.
Also that no workers died on the job, given how quickly the building went up and the relative lack of safety equipment on display… no word on amputated fingers, but it’s not hard to imagine given that only one of the guys helping out with the eagle appears to be wearing gloves.
In fact, as author Vincent Curcio describes in Chrysler: The Life and Times of an Automotive Genius, the job site boasted a number of innovative safety measures, such as scaffolds with guardrails, tarpaulin-covered plank roofs, wire netting between the toe boards, a hospital on-location, and a bulletin board for safety-related updates. Founder Walter Chrysler was as proud of this workplace conscientiousness as he was of the 4‑floors per week speed with which his building was erected:
In an article called “Is Safety on Your Payroll?” He spoke of staring up at workers on the scaffolding with a friend on the street below. “‘My, that’s a risky job,’ my companion remarked. ‘A man just about takes his life in his hands working on a building like this.’”
“‘I suppose it does seem that way,’ I replied, ‘But it’s no so dangerous as you think. If you knew the precautions we have taken to protect those workers, you might change your mind… not a single life has been lost in constructing the steel framework of that building.’” To give an idea of how much of an achievement this was, it should be noted that the rule of thumb at that time was one death for every floor above fifteen in the construction of a building; by this measure the Chrysler Building should have been responsible for sixty-two deaths.
By contrast, the guys Fox Movietone filmed seem happy to play up the vertiginous nature of their work for the camera, edging out onto girders and conversing casually atop pipes, as if seated astride a 1000-foot tall jungle gym:
“Gosh, that’s a long way to the street, boys.”
“How’d ya like to fall down there?”
“Whaddaya think, I’m an angel?
“Well, you’re liable to be an angel any minute.”
“You’ll break the altitude record going down-“
“Ha ha, yeah, maybe!”
While our appetite for this vintage bluster is bottomless, it’s worth noting that Movietone usually issued those appearing in primary positions a couple of lines of scripted dialogue.
What would those workers think of OSHA’s current safety standards for the construction industry?
Fall protection is still the most commonly cited standard during construction site inspections.
Falls claimed the lives of 338 American construction workers in 2018, the same year a construction worker in Kuala Lumpur used his cell phone to film a coworker in shorts and sneakers erecting scaffolding sans safety equipment, whilst balancing on unsecured pipes some 700 feet in the air.
Watch it below, if you dare.
Ayun Halliday is an author, illustrator, theater maker and Chief Primatologist of the East Village Inky zine. Join her in NYC on Monday, February 3 when her monthly book-based variety show, Necromancers of the Public Domain celebrates New York, The Nation’s Metropolis (1921). Follow her @AyunHalliday.