“You can still go around New York and see wall plaques for people who got awards for being good carpenters, good masons [and] ironworkers,” Anderson says.
In the 1960s, the Congress also modernized the New York Building Code to reflect “what a building component should do rather than what it shall be,” as described in Builders of New York, a history of the organization. Four NYBC presidents worked on it, including John F. Hennessy and Bradford N. Clark, who headed the Industry Building Code Advisory Committee.
Through its series of lectures, talks and forums, one can find not only the evolution of the organization’s development, but also New York City and American history reflected from the construction industry’s perspective.
The Congress hosted a forum on “The Skyscraper” in 1926, during which opposing sides debated whether it was New York’s “Worst Enemy” or “Greatest Asset.” That same year, two speakers chimed in on the advent of the five-day work-week.
A decade later, a forum debated the Works Progress Administration in an event asking, “Do We Want More WPA?” The Congress’ official position at the time, according to an archival document, endorsed “the national policy that needy unemployed should be provided for and employment given wherever feasible,” but discouraged making it permanent.
In 1937, Nelson Rockefeller and others held an event promising to reveal what went on “Behind the Scenes at Rockefeller Center.”
During World War II, the Congress investigated the fighting on many fronts: AFL president George Meany discussed “Labor’s Responsibility in the Emergency. War correspondent Cecil Brown spoke of his personal experiences in “I’ve Seen This War,” and an army lieutenant addressed how the industry could respond to the effort in the lecture “Today’s War Production Challenge.”A decade after bombs had been dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, one Prof. Hubert Alyea delivered a speech about “The Atom Bomb.”
New York City’s influential urban planner Robert Moses was a regular speaker for the Congress, emerging after World War II for an event called “The Greatest Project for the New York Area – U.N.” in 1948. Later, Moses spoke about “Rebuilding New York” after the war, told the “Story of Lincoln Square” in 1956, and confronted his detractors in a speech called “The Critics Build Nothing” in 1959.
An excerpt from The Power Broker, Robert Caro’s harshly critical biography of Moses, is clipped from a New Yorker reprint in the Congress’ archives, but it is clear that Moses was a beloved figure in the NYBC.
When Moses became a lifetime NYBC member on Oct. 27, 1966, an ode to him was read at the induction ceremony, in the style of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s “Song of Hiawatha.” The parody poem describes the adventures of a mighty “papoose,” who thwarts the resistance of “town-trapped people” to reconstruct New York.
“Then the keen-eyed thoughtful Moses
Spanned the city’s mighty rivers,
Spanned them high with lofty bridges
Bridges costing plenty wampum;
Peanuts when compared to progress
Progress of a noble City.”
The poem shows a few recurring themes in NYBC documents of the time: Members often felt besieged by “parochial anti-progress, anti-growth forces,” to quote one official letter; they often reaffirmed their professional pride and dismissal for their detractors through artistic outlets; and these artistic expressions were often quite creative, but occasionally lapsed toward the politically-incorrect and the “gross,” to quote Richard Anderson’s description of the now-defunct Fun and Frolic Show.
Founded in 1938, Fun and Frolic was a yearly event held by The New York Building Congress that involved cartoon contests, musical theater, drag performances and, for a time, even minstrel shows.
Throughout the 1950s, the winning cartoons found in the archives reflected a side of the construction industry that brings to mind the TV show Mad Men’s depiction of the advertising world: crude, chauvinistic and sexually charged.
One cartoon depicted a woman suggestively lying face-down on a bed with a slip above her waist, a construction site in the background out the window, and a caption that reads, “For complete satisfaction… TURNER!” [emphasis in original].
Another showed a stereotypical sultan fleeing from his harem with the punchline, “There’s enough business, but how’s the service?”
For the Christmas shows, NYBC members even hired a Broadway lyricist to pen the curtain closing numbers, Coletti says. Sheet music was found in the archives parodying “There’s No Business Like Show Business”:
“There’s no peo-ple like Con-gress peo-ple
They help make this cit-y grow;
Ev-en when they’re slowed by rules and bleed-ing hearts
They find a way to win their starts.
That’s be-cause our group has got the build-ing smarts;
It’s the way they make their dough.”