The Skyscraper Museum is devoted to the study of high-rise building, past, present, and future. The Museum explores tall buildings as objects of design, products of technology, sites of construction, investments in real estate, and places of work and residence. This site will look better in a browser that supports web standards, but it is accessible to any browser or Internet device.


40 wall foundations
Photographs on loan from Mueser Rutledge Consulting Engineers

Wall Street's costly cramped conditions challenged skyscraper builders to develop innovative engineering and construction solutions to save time and money. In the late 1920s commercial leases were written from May 1 to April 30. To ensure profit, 40 Wall Street, the street's tallest and largest building, had to be constructed within a single year. Moran & Proctor Consulting Engineers (a predecessor firm to Mueser Rutledge Consulting Engineers) devised an unusual time saving scheme to commence construction on the new tower before the previous buildings had been demolished. Demolition and foundation construction thus began simultaneously with the erection of the tower's steel frame.

These photographs were taken by Charles Spero for foundation contractor Spencer, White & Prentis, Inc. They document the construction process from May 1, 1929 when work started, to July 31 when all foundation work was complete. Steel erection started on June 17. They illustrate the multitude of activities involved in simultaneous demolition and construction as well as the variety of specialized equipment required. The photographs illuminate general contractor Wm. Starrett's statement that, to the untrained eye a construction site appears to be "confusion and seeming disorder" however it is actually "order of the most deliberate kind."

text captions written by Gideon Sorkin

Top: Film no. 1165, June 2, 1929.
Nestled within the basement walls of the old building is the 36" diameter steel cylinder that, once emptied of soil, sand, and rocks, would be filled with concrete to become the foundation for column 46. This type of foundation is known as an open caisson. Hoses carry pressurized air to drive tools and water out of the excavation. After descending the rope ladder workers filled the bucket sitting to the right of the cylinder with material they excavated and hoisted it out by pulley. Demolition on the foundations of the existing building has begun.

Bottom: Film no. 1189, June 7, 1929.
A vertigo-inducing view to bedrock at the bottom of an excavated cylinder.

Top: Film no. 1209, June 14, 1929.
In the foreground, laborers demolish the old buildings. In the middle ground, a steam shovel excavates soil into waiting dump trucks. In the background a temporary wooden wall, called a crib, has been constructed to hold soil back and protect the caissons that have already been installed. Steel cylinders are positioned near the crib where they will become parts of the caissons.

Bottom: Film no. 1222, June 20, 1929.
Demolition continues on the left of the picture. Numerous office shanties have been constructed at the edge of the site to house management and designers. Workers continue to install the foundations within each of the rectangular areas in the foreground.

Top: Film no. 1184, June 7, 1929.
Workers attach a machine called a pneumatic vibrator to a steel cylinder. Using air pressure the vibrator agitates the soil around the steel cylinder and allows it sink into the ground in the midst of the existing foundations. Once the cylinder reaches ground level the vibrator is removed and work commences on the next cylinder. Different sizes and configurations of cylinders were used depending on both the column loads of the new building and how the old and new building aligned.

Bottom: Film no. 1201, June 11, 1929.
Workers with shovels guide the concrete down a series of chutes from the concrete truck to the steel cylinder. Flood lights have been installed on top of the office shanties to facilitate night work.

Workers pose by paired pneumatic vibrators that are driving a foundation cylinder.
Right: Film no. 1163, June 2, 1929.
Vibrating the cylinders within the basements of the existing buildings was not feasible due to lack of space and the potential to destabilize the existing building. Instead, compressed air jacks forced this 44" diameter cylinder through the soil pushing against the weight of the existing building.

Top: Film no. 1232, June 27, 1929.
All phases of construction occur simultaneously: demolition in the right hand corner, foundation work in the foreground, and steel columns rise in the middle of the photograph. A compressed air tank is located to the left.

Bottom: Film no. 1264, July 14, 1929.
Workers excavate the basement around the foundation cylinders. The deep rectangular steel base-plates transfer the loads between the caissons and the columns. In some cases the configuration of the existing building reduced the size of the foundations that could be installed. Workers had to install a second set of foundations after the existing building had been demolished, but before the new building grew too big and overloaded the temporary foundation.

Top: Film no. 1590, July 29, 1930.
This aerial view of the site indicates how little space the contractors had to operate and how close the new building would be to Federal Hall at the right hand side of the photograph.

Bottom: Film no. 1172, June 5, 1929.
Steel columns supported on concrete cylinders extend the foundations of the adjacent building down to the level of those of 40 Wall Street. The procedure, called underpinning, prevents the adjacent building from tipping over into the construction site.

Top: Film no. 1549, July 9, 1930.
Workers pose while demolishing the remaining pieces of the brick foundation walls of the old buildings. In the top left corner a crew is using a hoisting derrick to build the new structure.

Bottom: Film no. 1595, July 31, 1930.
On the last day of foundation construction the site is completely cleared. In the upper right-hand corner, the foundation slab of the adjacent building is visible. Hoses supply pressurized air to equipment cross the site. In the center of the picture, two workers guide a massive billet and base plate that will distribute the load of a column into soil below between hoppers of excavated material.


Pre-1850 History of Wall Street
Dutch Origins
New Amsterdam: The Castello Plan
British New York
Early 18th Century
The Slave Market
City Hall
East River Commerce
Fire of 1776
Trinity Churches
Mansions and Banks
Wall Street in 1825
The Great Fire of 1835
Customs House and Merchants Exchange
A Street of Banks
Lowenstrom's Panorama-1850 South
Lowenstrom's Panorama-1850 North
New York in 1850
Fortune 1930
Monuments of Wall Street
Early Photographs of Wall Street
Vertical Wall Street
1 Wall Street
23 and 63 Wall Street
Unbuilt Stock Exchange
14 Wall Street
40 Wall Street
60 Wall Street
120 Wall Street
1928-1931 Towers
East River End
Historical Land Maps