Pittsburgh Years

Big-time Engineering

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P

ittsburgh’s 1960 sky was not smoky; that, apparently, been “remediated away” some few years before my arrival.  But the city seemed old, very old.  Many of the streets were paved with brick, and others with rough “paving stones”, though an overlay of smooth asphalt had crept over many of them as the years had passed.  Houses, and occasionally stores, had been built right next to each other, as though space had been at a premium.  They were tall and narrow and seemed grimy to the boy from the Midwest.  Great steel trolleys shuttled people here and there on iron rails embedded in the streets.  A web work of overhead electrical wires of all sorts ran from pole to pole.  Wan little patches of what, come spring, would be grass  were sparse, if there were any at all.  All seemed gray and dismal; the contrast to bright and modern California could not have been greater.  Even Chicago seemed more modern.

Hills, small and large, were everywhere, and bridges.  The rivers thus spanned had railroads on each bank and their waters were busy with working boats pushing barge-tows, filled usually with coal now, not iron ore; some push-boats still had paddle wheels: some side-wheelers and some rear-dwellers.  The streets and roads and alleys and ways that navigated around these impediments of nature were confusing curlicues; nothing ran in a straight line.  Similarly, the people didn’t seem as straight or relaxed as I had been used to either.  They seemed bent on carrying out quickly whatever it was that they were doing, “hellos” and “good mornings” as scarce as straight roads or flat land. 

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The William Penn Hotel 
For me, just now, home was the William Penn Hotel, about two blocks from Blaw-Knox’s office.  Nola and the kids had stayed behind at her folk’s house near the farm.  I was to get my feet on the ground here, find a house or apartment to rent, and get set up to bring them all here as soon as I could.  The hotel was relatively expensive.  I did have the money, but just enough.  I stayed at this hotel because it was close to work and I didn’t know the complicated public traveling system yet.  But there was another reason; I wanted to think that I was employed, I wanted to shake-off the funk I had been in since California; I wanted to live a little high off the hog and, especially, off the farm.

Blaw-Knox seemed a very large company.  It had many divisions, each engaged in a particular manufacturing or construction endeavor: steel rolling mills, road equipment, wastewater treatment plants, equipment for storing and handling granulated materials, diamond-shaped, guyed radio towers (which they seem to have invented), and yet other undertakings.  The company even has a borough named for it: Blawknox, Pennsylvania, an outlier of Pittsburgh, where the company itself had originally been formed from a merger of the Blaw Steel Construction Company and the Knox Pressed and Welded Steel Company.

Blawknox borough had originally been named Hoboken, Pennsylvania, but it seems the name had previously been locked-in by some place further east, near Manhattan in New Jersey where, of all peculiar claims to fame, they say they invented the game of baseball.  Apparently they were a little touchy about the duplication of names, no matter that there is an Aurora, Illinois (in which city I was separated from my mother by extraction) and an Aurora, Colorado, which  seem to get on quite alright together.  But the matter was brought to a head by the prickly Easterners.  What to do?  It seems that since nearly everyone in the borough worked for Blaw-Knox, the company, and the boundaries of the borough were only slightly larger than the boundaries of the company property itself, the management of the company, in one of those light-bulb-over-the-head moments, recommended to the city fathers—who, my guess is, all worked for the company—that the name of the borough be changed to the inoffensive Blawknox, Pennsylvania.  And it was done. 

The Chemical Plants Division of which I was now the newest if employee was then located in downtown Pittsburgh in a building in which they leased considerable space at 300 Sixth Avenue.  I had been instructed to take the elevator to the sixth floor.  There, directly through the lobby upon which the elevators opened, was the Civil Engineering Department.  It was a very large, open room filled mainly with large drawing boards arranged by rank and file.  My first impression was of hundreds, but that was certainly wrong; there were probably 40 or 50.  The long side of the big room, opposite this entryway, was nothing but large windows.  The left end of the room led to a small lobby that contained a water cooler and vending machines for coffee, cookies and other snacks; it also gave access to freight elevators (the building had once been a department store).  At the right end of the big room was a row of metal- and glass-walled, offices for the bosses, and behind them, continuing to the right, lie another complete department of equal size, I seem to recall that it was the Mechanical Department.  It was physically a more or less symmetrical copy of the Civil Department.  Other similarly laid out floors contained the several other departments of the Division.  My thoughts strayed back to Quilty’s modest quarters; I knew that I was at quite a different scale here.

The Civil Department itself contained three sub-department’s of which the largest, by far, was Structural.  Along with, and in support of, this main body were two small adjunct groups: a few Civil, people, who dealt with roads and sewers and underground pipes and suchlike as required for chemical plants and, finally, a few Architectural people.  I was their newest inductee, fresh from the country.  All of these hundred or so people were managed by a single department head, a middle aged man named Forest Williams whose major physical distinctions were consistently serious demeanor and a peculiar, small, triangular lock of completely white hair near his forehead, surrounded by an otherwise normal head of a straight black hair.  It was as though he had been marked in some special way.  He was also distinguished by the trepidation with which he was regarded by his workers and by the infrequency of his smile.  I did not see or hear from the gentleman who had hired me in Chicago, Mr. Shaw, for some months.  But one day I saw him walking through the department.  He did not notice me.  He was several levels up in what then seemed to me to be a vast, impersonal hierarchy.

I was met in the lobby by someone appointed to the task of welcoming newcomers and escorted to a vacant drawing station.  It seemed quite a long while that I sat on the stool between my drawing board on one side, designed to be worked at while standing, and a small desk on the other, the repository for my few belongings.  I was a new peg in an old slot, contemplating what was to come next.  Finally someone handed me a large notebook filled with the company’s standards; I was to read it.  It included such instructions as the working hours (8:15 in the morning to 5:15 in the afternoon, with an hour’s break for lunch at noon), an outline of the health benefits, an optional retirement plan (from which I today receive about $150 per month), an elaboration of the structure of the company, and such other esoterica as had been developed by the human resources department.  Sometime later that morning I was handed an even larger manual for study.  Loose-leafed, several inches thick, it contained engineering standards and procedures for the company.  This, and filling my eyes with the dozens of people at their work, pretty much occupied my first morning.  Everyone seemed very busy.  At lunchtime there was an exodus en masse, a few remained at their desks eating a sandwich brought from home, and some few others played bridge while doing so.  

I went outside and walked the streets, trying not to get lost in the process, then I found a small restaurant, had lunch and carefully retraced my steps back to work.  Unlike Naperville or, for that matter, even Chicago, Pittsburgh is a maze of small little streets, lanes, alleys and ways, and yet other little pedestrian walkways, none of which seemed to be orthogonal, so it was easy for a newcomer, used to the rectilinearity of streets and corn fields, to get lost.

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First Presbyterian
Just up Sixth Avenue from our office, tucked tranquilly in the shade of the large buildings that dwarf it, and the more astonishing for that, is a very old and very elegant masonry church of the Presbyterian denomination.  It had a very bright-red, wooden door.  The grounds made it seem as though it might have been transported from some rural setting, instead it was only time-warped-in from the 17th century or so.  To its front, behind an ancient wrought iron fence along the busy sidewalk, was the chastening view, in the shadow of the skyscrapers, of a small cemetery with—in the summer—a carefully trimmed, lush, green lawn.  It is studded with a few dozen gravestones dating back to the early 1700s, some canting precariously.  A few have Indian names on them; early converts no doubt. 

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The Duquesne Club
Directly across the street from the church is the Duquesne Club, an exclusive and storied meeting place for the dealmakers of Pittsburgh, it’s uniformed doorman still helping the membership from their cars—their carriages long-retired.  Its membership has included the Carnegie’s, the Frick’s, the Mellon’s, the Westinghouse’s and other such luminaries as built up, and prospered from, the city in its heyday.  It is written that the club’s first gala was for Ulysses S. Grant upon his accession to the presidency.  Never hurts to butter up the politicians, and most especially those closely associated with the military-industrial complex.

A half block from the Duquesne Club, on the corner of sixth avenue and Smithfield street, was a Gimbels department store.  The existence of this store was one of the selling points that Mr. Shaw had used at my interview in Chicago, as though it was a big deal; perhaps he thought I might miss Marshall Fields and Carson, Pirie, Scott & Company, whose doors I had turned only rarely.  But this interview had been my virgin experience of being sold to, a pleasant experience, unfortunately one seldom repeated. 

When I returned to work, promptly at 1:00, as part of my orientation I was directed to a small department on our floor called Central Files.  It was staffed by about a half dozen people who served all the other departments.  Among other services, it was the place to go to get such necessary commodities as drawing paper, or linen, a coated fabric that accepts pencil lead very well but, more importantly, linen is much tougher than ordinary paper which tends to fray and tear with frequent modification and reproduction.  Paper, all that was ever used at Quilty’s, was here employed only for sketching.  A semi-transparent, thin tissue paper aptly nick-named “bum wad” was available for rough sketching using a soft pencil, or even charcoal.  It was much admired by architects because, I think, it set them off from the staid engineers; they were artists, and it gave them a deliciously self-satisfying air of improvisation.  Here in Central Files one could also obtain new drawing pencils of any desired hardness—though one was required to turn in the old, used, short stub of one’s old pencil in order to get a new one.  More commonly used in my day were “drawing leads” which, when inserted into a “lead holder”, were employed in the same way that a pencil is used; they’re easier to sharpen using a sharpener made especially for the purpose.  Erasers of several types of softness were also available as well as thin stainless steel “erasing shields”.  These shields, with small openings of various shapes, permit one to make specific small erasures in just the place they are needed on the drawing without erasing what lies just next to that place.  It was a simple implement, but one that I came to appreciate very much.

At Central Files, one stood in front of a long counter that barred one’s entrance.  It overlooked a large room filled with case after stacked case of metal file drawers big enough to hold large drawings lying flat, and racks and bins full of supplies.  One was not permitted to enter the room oneself; standing at the counter a staff member would get up to wait on you as though it had been a old-time market.  This place held not only new supplies but also all the completed drawings of the company which were considered a valuable asset.  Drawings in progress could be kept at one’s board, but once they were completed and approved they were formally entered into Central Files which logged them in and out using a special paper form.  The only way to get them back if one needed them, say for revision, was to “check them out”, in which case you “signed” for them, so it was always known precisely in whose hands was a particular drawing.  In that role Central Files resembled a lending library.  Practically every move was governed by some rule or standard procedure.  Initially this seemed strange to me, only later did I came to realize its importance.  It is one thing to operate in a little shop with just a few people, but it’s quite another when there are several hundreds of people involved in several projects.

That afternoon I was told to go to Central Files to get a brand new sheet of special, very heavy, green paper.  It had a hard shiny surface on one side and was large enough to cover the entire drawing board.  I peeled off the old, frayed and dirty board-cover left from the last occupant of my drawing station and taped on the new one with drafting tape.  This covering served to smooth out and harden the roughness and softness of the board itself so that pencil lines could be made very sharply.  The drawing board had a parallel rule attached to it; tee-squares were not used here.  I adjusted this long straight-edge, as it was called, which was nearly as long as the board itself.  It slid up and down the board on a pair of strings at each of its ends.  I had never seen one before and in some interesting way that I didn’t understand the strings maintained the ruler’s parallelism no matter where one moved it up or down the board.  I thought it would be much better than the tee-square I was used to, and so it was.  The board itself could be canted to a desired angle so that the long edge of the board, away from where one stood, was a foot or so higher, or however much one chose, than the other long edge which remained fixed where one stood at about at waist height or slightly higher.

Without my noticing, nearly everyone had got up and left; quitting time had arrived.  My first day was complete.  It didn’t seem that I had done very much, but all these little details were as important as those for a child entering kindergarten.  And I had a childlike curiosity about this new world. 

 

A

s a city, Pittsburgh dates back to about 1795.  It is situated where the Allegheny and the Monongahela rivers join, at what is known now as “The Point”, forming the river that the Indians called the Ohio, or Great River.  This waterway curlicues its way, north, south, and more south, but always predominantly westward where eventually, in its own good time, it pours into the Mississippi river.  George Washington, in earlier days a surveyor, and subsequently, at age 20, appointed Major in the Virginia Militia of the English Army, was heard to remark, when viewing this river juncture for the first time in the mid 1700s, that it would make a remarkably good place for a fort, commanding as it did the three great river highways of that earlier and less settled day.

However the plan was not fulfilled by the English.  The French beat them to it, constructing Fort Duquesne, which fulfilled Washington’s prediction admirably.  And around that fort grew up in fits and starts a village, later a city, to provide services to the French Military.  At The Point, still today, though now taking the mild form of a museum, still lies a once blood-spattered fort, now named Fort Pitt.  And of course therein lies a tale—but one I will not tell here—of a change in domination from the French to the British in pre-revolutionary times.  During the so-called French and Indian War it was the Indians that were counted upon for most of the blood spattering, although  the white men of the time were no slouches at butchery either.

With these three large rivers to be spanned, Pittsburgh, a city of brisk commerce, is of course also a city of bridges, since ferries were too slow for the activities subsequently undertaken.  In addition, the rivers, on their way through the area, have carved out deep valleys and produced innumerable hills in and around the city, some quite bluff where stone and water fought their private battles in slow-mo.  This configuration of and by the rivers produced a very distinctive geography, and geology, which account for the heavily industrial nature of the city.  That industry was just winding down as I happened to come along.  Pittsburgh had been the center of the nation’s steel industry, and once the of the glass industry as well.  But more important to me at this time was that these bothersome rivers and hills had caused a web-work of roads of various quality, not one of which seemed to go in a straight line.  I became utterly lost on quite a regular schedule of about ten minutes.

The question of where to live in this big city was daunting to me.  I didn’t know anything much about Pittsburgh’s topography, nor the extent to which it quite naturally constrained its roads.  I learned simply by looking at a map.  But the maps don’t indicate the hills which turn out to be a crucial part of getting around.  As I wrote, the roads seemed to run up, down and around, helter-skelter over rivers and hills, not at all like the flat, easily navigable checkerboard that is Chicago.  When asking directions here, people might answer “it’s at the bottom of the hill”, which might be some miles and a few curves distant.  They would not say, “It’s at 2008 St. Vincent’s Way." Street signs and house numbers were few and it was clear that they would have been quite useless anyway.  Folks here tend to think in terms of terrain: “Go across that bridge, up the hill and then turn right”, meanwhile “right” was quite a flexible term: it almost certainly did not mean an ordinary right angle; it might have been just a gentle curve to the right, or nearly a U-turn, depending upon just what happened to be in its way. 

I didn’t have a car so I had to learn how to ride a bus or a streetcar which was in itself a novel undertaking for me, and then I had to navigate on foot from the bus stop to just where it was that I wanted to go.  Buses and streetcars of course did not go precisely where one wanted them to, they went where they were bound to go and one had to determine the right one, one which went somewhere near the place to which one wished to go.  And then one had to get back.  All this came in time… about 30 years.

I went through the evening paper looking for something to rent.  I wanted to rent a house because the one time in my life that I had lived in an apartment I didn’t like it much; too confining, and now we had children too; I thought we needed grass. The first house I saw for rent was in a place called McKees Rocks about three or four miles from downtown Pittsburgh, about fifteen minutes on the bus.  (Apparently the locals had trouble with Mr. McKee’s possessive clitic and, considering it a useless bother, just dropped it, as language frequently will do).  Thinking to inspect this house, I got a map of bus routes and made my way on one of them to the base of a large hill for which McKees Rocks is named.  There I was presented with a wide and well built set of wooden steps upon which one could climb the steep hill in measured stages.  I later found that this structure was maintained by the city itself, just as though it had been a street.  

I climbed these stairs and at the top came to a street called Railroad Street, my destination.  Why it had this name I can’t imagine since there was certainly no railroad there, nor, at the top of this hill, did it seem possible that there ever could have been one.  But I found what I was looking for, a small house a block or so from the stairs directly on Railroad Street.  It had a small backyard.  By this time I was so happy to have found something, anything, that I took it on the spot.  This eyrie was to become my family’s home for several years.  

Looking out the large front window of the house one could see a great panorama of jumbled up houses and streets, the exotic onion domes of Orthodox, and the spires of Roman, Catholic churches, all of considerable age and griminess.  Schools, little stores and the neon lights of bars and clubs, all crowded upon the great slope of the hill and along its base.  Though I found the area interesting because it was so different than anything I was familiar with, Nola, later, was to deeply regret assigning me sole authority in the matter of our domiciling. 

The houses here were small and close together, but not contiguous as they are in some areas of Pittsburgh.  The concept of a grass lawn was nominal at best, since we were on the side—though nearly at the top—of a great hill.  The people who lived on the street turned out to be “immigrants”, which is not to say that they were all fresh from the old country, but it seemed that a great many of them had only recently removed therefrom.  An aura of old Europe hung distinctly over the area.  Across the street a rather stout young woman of twenty or so practiced singing Italian opera.  She was not bad.  Next door lived a middle aged couple, from whom I had rented the house, who said they were “White Russians”.  I didn’t know quite what that was—something to do with the Russian revolution—only that they spoke with an accent new to me.  A short walking distance further on up the hill was a small Italian market and a block or two the other way, along Railroad street—though there were no intersecting streets to actually form blocks—was another, larger, market run by a family of Austrians. 

At the very top of the hill was a large edifice that I had not initially noticed.  It was called simply, The Projects.  When spoken of at all on Railroad street, this phrase was ordinarily whispered, and the reason was that the projects were filled with what were then, and there, known as “colored”.  With no sense of irony, the occupants of the projects, certainly descended from slaves who had been in the country for some centuries, were sensed as new invaders by our neighbors, Europeans who, relatively speaking, had just recently arrived in the country.  Most of the people who lived in McKee’s Rocks, at least up on this hill, were middle aged or older; only later did I come to understand that the area had been seen by their children as a place to move away from.  Oddly, I found it interesting, perhaps because ethnicity itself was so novel to me.  Unfortunately Nola, later, and quite understandably, did not share this peculiar fascination.

 

T

he Hooker Chemical Company was, in 1960, in the process of designing a new Chlor-alkali facility to be added to their large chemical plant in Niagara Falls, New York.  This is a process which produces two valuable substances: chlorine, used for bleaching—paper in particular—and alkali, used in soaps.  The plant also produced many substances that were not of value, so much so, in fact, that the company simply buried this effluvia in a place now infamously known as the love canal.

The next day, at work, I was handed a crude drawing that had been made by someone at Hooker.  It roughly showed a rather large two-story office building which was to be a part of the new Chlor-alkali facility and I was told to develop the architectural drawings for it.  Blaw-Knox’s acquisition of this project, on top of the other projects already underway, was certainly the reason that I, and a number of others, had been newly hired. 

I seemed to have two bosses.  One was the Chief Architect, a kindly, older gentleman, a big man, who went out of his way to help me get started.  His role as Chief Architect was to see that the “architectural features” were up-to-snuff and that they complied with Blaw-Knox’s standards.  He was not assigned especially to this project; his role was primarily one of technical advice and quality assurance for the architecture of all the projects.  A younger man, Vic Starsnic, a Structural Engineer, was assigned specifically to manage the Hooker Chemical project for the Civil Engineering Department as a whole; his boss, in turn, was Forest Williams, the head of the department, the man with the small forelock of gray hair.  This was a temporary assignment for Starsnic; in this role he was called simply a “group leader”: he led the group of people in the civil engineering department assigned to work on this specific project: structural engineers and draftsmen, civil engineers for roads and underground piping, and last of all an architect and draftsmen.  And when this project was over he and this crew—not necessarily in the same mix—would be parceled out to different active projects as required. 

In effect I was now a small part of a temporary task force which together would design the buildings and structures for this particular undertaking.  In the chemical plant business, as far as the Civil Engineering department—a composite term—is concerned, the structural people rule; architecture was just a sideline really, the main task of the department was to support all the equipment needed for the process, some of which is quite heavy and very often the equipment is located in peculiar places relative to each other, in order to make the process function properly.  And, of course, the main task was to make sure that all this stuff stayed where it was put, that is to say that it shouldn’t fall down which would raise all sorts of havoc, especially in a very toxic chlorine plant.  

The office building that had become my new project was more heavily architectural than the work that the architecture group here ordinarily performed on projects.  Typically they drew up plans for the windows and siding and ventilators and roofing of industrial buildings, very modest, architecturally speaking, not at all like designing skyscrapers or other monumental buildings. There was not even the challenge of designing shopping malls and commercial buildings.  Their job could be succinctly summed up as: to keep water out and light coming in.

I went to Central Files and got about ten or so sheets of linen for my project.  I taped one to my board using drafting tape and put the others in my drawer.  I lined up this first sheet with the straight-edge, and began work on the first floor plan; at a scale of 1/8in. equals 1ft.  The building’s floor plan would just fit.  There was nothing in this structure that was particularly new to me; though it was a bigger building than any I had ever undertaken at Quilty’s.  It strongly resembled the school buildings and small retail facilities that I was used to, so the work went smoothly.  Here they had all the same standard catalogs for windows, and doors and their hardware, and all the other architectural components that I was already familiar with.  They also used the book Architectural Graphics Standards which I now saw as the Bible across all architectural work.  Finally I felt that I was doing something useful on my own. 

The chief architect would occasionally come over to see how I was doing and he might say to me, “We usually do this sort of thing this way,” pointing at something that I had recently drawn.  I was never pushed to hurry up, in fact I got a few intimations that they thought I was doing it pretty fast—maybe too fast.  I simply proceeded as though I knew what I was doing and after a couple of weeks I thought I was done.  In fact I was not at all finished. 

Starsnic told me to get “check prints” made of all my drawings which, after I asked, he explained meant that I was to have reproductions made of the originals that I had drawn.  He didn’t roll his eyes at my naiveté, but I took that as the general drift of his thinking.  When the copies came back from the Reproduction Department he handed them to a middle aged man whom he called “the checker”, and he introduced us to one another.  Mike, unlike me, was an actual architect, a middle aged man with very bushy eyebrows and a full head of silver hair who seemed calm and self assured.  I assumed the checking was being done because I was new and they wanted someone with experience to see that I had done it properly. 

Mike took the prints of all my drawings back to his station, which was just like all the others, and very leisurely, it seemed to me, went through each one.  This went on day after day, while I busied myself with something that I cannot now remember.  Often he would come to me with a print and ask, “Why did you do it this way.”  Then he would go back to his board and continue working.  He had two main implements for his checking job: an ordinary wooden red-pencil and a thick yellow, waxy crayon.  The crayon was wrapped in paper and, as it was gradually used up, one exposed more of the crayon as needed by pulling back on a string which cut the paper that covered the semisoft waxy core.  With the yellow crayon he fully marked every single line or note that he felt was all right, and with the red he made corrections or what he considered to be improvements.

Not a line, a note, a symbol or a dimension, not even an arrowhead, was left unmarked, not even my initials in the “Prepared By” box which, since they were highlighted in yellow, seemed to me to be one of the few things that Mike, the checker, considered to be OK.  To my way of thinking he seemed to be completely redrawing the building in red on these white-prints and I thought most of his changes were simply arbitrary.  But since he was an architect and an old timer and I was the new kid, I thought he could pretty much change whatever he liked.  I just wondered why he hadn’t made the drawings in the first place.  Why did he bother to essentially redraw them on the prints?  I was to find out.

Eventually the package of marked up prints was handed back to Starsnic and in turn handed formally back to me.  I was told to “scrub” the tracings, which I learned meant that I should make the changes indicated on the check-prints on the original linen.  I was dumbfounded!  There didn’t seem to be very much at all that had not been changed.  It seemed as though I would have to start anew and redraw the whole thing.  Then the chief architect, who understood that I was new to this and was by this time feeling pretty low, came over to me as I was looking over the check prints and explained the process to me:

If the checker had made corrections I was to verify that he was correct and if so to change the tracings, that is the original linen drawings; if he had simply changed something because he thought it might be an improvement, then I was either to accept these changes and make them on the tracings or, if I disagreed, I was to discuss the issue with him.  If we simply could not agree then he or Starsnic would settle the matter, but I was given the strong impression that the less of this external arbitration that had to take place, the better.  He told me that although I had made the drawings, the checker was now responsible for their correctness, but that I did not have to accept any changes that I felt was bad-practice, did not follow proper architectural standards, or was not faithful to the customer’s wishes.  Mostly, Mike and I had to argue it out.

While all the checking had been going on I had noticed that there were quite a lot of people in the room busy with red and yellow pencils rather than developing new drawings themselves.  This business of “checking”, as it turned out, was not directed especially at me; every drawing and calculation produced by the company went through this process.  

Mike and I discussed and sometimes we argued.  Those people close to us took little notice; it was routine.  I gave in on some things; he gave in on others.  On each issue we usually managed a compromise and Mike would go back to his board and make changes to the check prints in accordance with our agreement.  Very rarely, when we reached an impasse, we had to call over the chief architect for his decision.  He attempted diplomacy, often splitting the difference unless he thought it was important. 

When Mike was completely finished with a drawing in the set, the check print, now reflecting our mutual agreement, would then be turned back over to me and I would correct the original of that drawing—scrubbing it –exactly in accordance with the check print, and then I would have a new check print made, after which the process started again, he going over the whole drawing once more with his red and yellow tools.  This next cycle was of course much shorter and the check prints came back to me mostly yellow.  Some drawings went through this process several times, but eventually, after maybe a month overall, possibly a little more, all the drawings in the set were finished and checked and Mike had initialed the linens in the title block, in the box designated “Checked By”.  We had agreed.  It was now a cooperative effort. 

Interestingly, each cycle of the marked up check  prints were folded, saved and filed for reference.  If anything went wrong in the field, I was told, these check prints would be pored through to assign responsibility either to Mike, as the checker, or to me as the checker of the checker; I was completely off the hook as draftsman per se.  Blaw-Knox was not only designing these structures, they were constructing them, and even though this checking process seemed to me to take a very long time—Quilty would have succumbed to apoplexy long before now—it was considered to be much cheaper to fix a problem symbolically on paper than it was to fix it later, physically, in the field with jackhammers and cutting torches.

Now I found that we were still not finished.  The next step was that the group leader, Vic Starsnic, had to go over the drawings himself.  He was a structural engineer and did not pretend to know anything much about architecture.  This was more of a formality than any sort of thorough checking.  Yet he too had a say in the matter: Did the drawings reflect the customers wishes?  Was the building structurally sound?  Finally he was required to initial the drawings himself in one of the “Approved by” boxes in the title block, thus taking on a certain responsibility himself.  So far three people were now on the hook. 

Next, a new set of prints went to the “project engineer” who officially reviewed the drawings.  This man, seemingly very senior, had periodically wandered through the department reviewing progress and making sure that everything was being designed in accordance with the customers wishes and, importantly, that we did not give the customer more than he was entitled to according to the contract.  No architectural “frills” were to be added.  He was in charge of the work in every department for this for this particular project; his main responsibility: liaison with the client.  His initials went on each tracing as well: ABC, which stood for A. B.  Callahan, whose parents no doubt had a peculiar sense of humor, one similar to that couple, a Mr. and Mrs. Tiger, who conceived a son whom they whimsically named, Lionel.  He later became a famous anthropologist.

Finally, the chief engineer of the department, Forest Williams, also reviewed the drawings.  Again, this was essentially a formality but he too was required to initial the tracings—the linens—and, depending upon the State in which the project was to be constructed, he might have to “stamp” the drawings as well, that is to apply his professional engineer’s stamp to a special copy of the drawings that would be filed with the State authorities so that construction could legally proceed.  Now five people bore some responsibility for any problems that turned up, and the title block was full of initials.

During the long, and sometimes fraught, process of “checking”, I found in the end that several interesting things had happened: first, I had to admit that the drawings, though worked over again and again, had actually been improved from what I had handed over in the first place some weeks back; second, as the checker and I got to know each other better, and as I stood up for what I thought was proper, there was less and less argumentation and more genuine improvement as we felt each other out and decided how stiff or flexible each of us was, toe-to-toe, so to speak; and finally I realized that I had learned quite a lot both about how things were done here, as well as about sticking up for my opinions in as diplomatic a way as possible. 

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A typical chemical plant 
For the rather simple office building that I had worked on, this checking and approval process had an aspect of overkill, but as I gradually began to understand the complexity of chemical plants, with piping, pressure vessels, heat exchangers, electrical wiring, heating and ventilation, all intricately interconnected, this complex process became understandable.  It was, in effect, a teaching and a learning experience as well as a checking experience: it had the beneficial side effect of promulgating the company’s standard approach to engineering work and thus unifying a very disparate set of people, people who, as I was to find out later, might have come from anywhere in the world.  To put slightly too grand a spin on it perhaps, the process subtly encouraged group cohesion and promoted a common way of doing things that was, in effect, the Blaw-Knox way of doing business, their brand

 (It is tempting to compare this process of developing engineering documents with the so-called “open systems” processes of today.  Perhaps the best known example of which would be Wikipedia, the collaborative encyclopedia on the Internet.  While there are similarities, there are prominent differences: the engineering process at Blaw-Knox was much more highly constrained than is Wikipedia’s.  At Blaw-Knox authority was vested in specific hierarchic positions, while Wikipedia uses more of a free-floating, “last man standing” approach to the question of who finally wins the tussles.  The interesting thing is that either way, gradually, and perhaps over long periods of time, the product improves.  Yet a better comparison might be to collaborative software development such as Linux, an Operating System used frequently today for servers.  Finally, I can now say that Software Engineering is, in general, as I write, much less sophisticated and free-form then the process I have described here, and it suffers for that lack.)