Up from the earth, a colossus of steel

Staff WriterAugust 31, 2006 

— Thirty feet below downtown Raleigh, you can see the elevator shafts taking shape, stand on the spot where a bank of escalators will drop and walk over a field of gravel bigger than the Carolina Hurricanes' ice rink.

After a year of constant digging, the skeleton of Raleigh's $215 million convention center has started rising out of its deep downtown hole.

Every day, more than 200 workers file through the tunnel under McDowell Street to build the city's newest architectural landmark -- a structure sunk half underground.

Four cranes hoist concrete and steel for the 500,000-square-foot center -- double the size of the old building, demolished earlier this year.

"That's a big rascal there," said Barnhill Construction Vice President John Muter, pointing to the largest crane, which lifts 250 tons.

The building's rough frame is taking shape, but the project is only about 35 percent finished. The city still aims to have it open in July or August 2008.

Along the way, here is a glimpse of the workers' dusty underground world.

In 1932, photographer Charles Ebbets snapped a picture of 11 men eating lunch on a girder of a New York skyscraper, their legs dangling hundreds of feet high.

You won't see that picture in downtown Raleigh.

The men don't walk the girders there -- even though they could, said Sandy "Sandman" Stewart, foreman with Buckner Steel Erection.

It takes more time, but it's safer to use a "man lift" -- basically a cherry-picker truck -- to reach the steel.

For that reason and many others, contractors working under Skanska/Barnhill have gone more than a year without a time-loss injury.

Men working with concrete up high are secured with safety harnesses to keep from falling.

Stewart, who started construction work in 1973, remembers when men climbed up steel columns carrying 50 pounds of tools -- without the luxury of steps.

"Nobody does that any more," he said.

The biggest crane working on the convention center is so large -- more than 100 feet tall, high enough to join Raleigh's skyline -- that it needs another crane to put it together.

It lifts steel beams that can weigh more than 60,000 pounds apiece.

When the clouds pass over the end of the crane's boom, you get the sensation that you're falling forward, Muter said. In the old days, a crane operator would know his load was too heavy when the crane actually did start to tip a bit.

Much of the center lies below the street, invisible to passers-by.

Trucks will make deliveries through the McDowell Street tunnel, circling around to an underground loading dock.

The giant convention floor lies lower than the sidewalks. Standing on its gravel floor now, you can see up 30 feet to the BB&T tower's lobby.

You can imagine, Muter said, how awkward the convention center would look if those extra 30 feet were sticking out into the skyline.

In two years, once the job is done, you won't have to imagine.

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