As the celebration of the 75th anniversary of the Empire State Building (ESB) materializes, how much of the spotlight will be directed toward structural engineering contributions and the structural engineer so crucial to the success of this record-shattering skyscraper? If history is any indication, not much! Over the years, the mainstream media has been more inclined to feature other participants in the building process—architects, contractors, developers and bankers.
In countless books, magazine articles, and news stories written about the ESB, its structural engineer has remained virtually unknown—and unrecognized. Likewise, any Internet search produces unlimited information on the project’s architect (Shreve, Lamb & Harmon), contractor (Starrett & Eken), and developer (Raskob & Smith), but little on its daring structural engineer—Homer Gage “H.G.” Balcom. It’s time to highlight the engineering great who made stand a towering building that held the record as the world’s tallest for more than four decades (from 1931 to 1972).
Balcolm was born on Feb. 16, 1870, in Chili, N.Y., the only child of Mahlon and Francis (Gage) Balcom. After graduating from Brockport State Normal School, young Balcom taught at Stone Church, Kendall, N.Y., before entering Cornell University, where he earned a degree in civil engineering in 1897. He immediately went to work for the Berlin Iron Bridge Company in Connecticut.
In 1900, the same year H.G. married Gertrude McCrum, the Berlin firm was absorbed by the American Bridge Company, and Balcom was promoted to design engineer. Three years later, he was in charge of all design for the company’s New York City (NYC) and Pittsburgh, Pa., districts.
Five years later, the 35-yearold structural engineer joined Reed and Stem, architects for the Grand Central Railroad Terminal in NYC.While overseeing the design of this leadingedge terminal and interrelated structures, Balcom developed several innovative framing systems to span railroad lines, deal with track vibration, and handle difficult foundation conditions.
In 1908, Balcom and Wilton Darrow formed a partnership—Balcom and Darrow (B&D), consulting engineers based in NYC. The endeavor lasted eight years until Darrow retired in 1916 when the company was renamed H.G. Balcom and Associates. By then, the firm, and Balcom specifically, had earned an international reputation for designing impressive bridges and building structures, mostly using structural steel.
One of B&D’s noteworthy high-rise buildings of the day was the Gramercy Park Building in NYC, completed in 1913.
Although many of his projects were in New York, Balcom’s practice spanned the globe. Among his international achievements were the Louvain University Library in Belgium,YMCA Building in Jerusalem, and Devonshire House in London. His American projects included the Mellon Art Museum, U.S.
Archives and Commerce buildings in Washington, D.C.; Cathedral of Learning in Pittsburgh; and Nebraska State Capitol in Lincoln. Representative of his bridge projects was the 16th Street-Allegheny River Bridge in Allegheny County, Pa., completed in 1923. In addition to the ESB, his most prominent NYC skyscrapers were Park-Lexington, 1923; 230 Park Avenue, 1929; Waldorf-Astoria Hotel, 1931; Bank of New York, 1931; and 30 Rockefeller Plaza, 1933.
Balcom pioneered many lateral wind force design standards for tall structures—and he made wind analysis lucid. A Feb. 2, 1931, Time article titled, “Skyscrapers v.Wind,” reported that Balcom told engineers assembled at an American Society of Civil Engineers meeting for wind bracing in buildings, “The total wind pressure on the 1,250-foot skyscraper is more than 4,000,000 pounds.” A seminal paper by Balcom on the EBS titled, “New York’s Tallest Skyscraper” (Civil Engineering, March 1931) detailed his developments in wind engineering.
Balcom was active professionally and civically throughout his career. He was a director of the New York State Society of Professional Engineers and president of its NYC chapter, committeeman for the American Institute of Steel Construction and Cornell Society of Engineers.During WWI, he voluntarily served as chief structural engineer to fabricate warships at the Emergency Fleet Corporation Yard in Hog Island, Pa.
This 68-year-old legendary engineer passed away on July 3, 1938, survived by his wife, their daughter Gertrude Marie, and three grandchildren.
Richard Weingardt, P.E., is CEO and chairman of Richard Weingardt Consultants, Inc., a Denver-based structural engineering firm. He can be reached via e-mail at email@example.com.