Builder: Paul Starrett (1866–1957)
Origin: United States
Notable buildings: Empire State, Flatiron, Penn Station

Paul Starrett left a legacy of iconic buildings. Though he isn’t as well known as he should be, the projects he built are famous: he was the builder responsible for the Empire State Building and he overcame a major construction challenge when he transformed a sliver of New York City street-corner into the Flatiron building.

Starrett had a second-to-none capacity to manage the processes through which building projects are designed, procured, and constructed. He had the rare ability to orchestrate the moving pieces of hundreds of tradespeople, materials suppliers, and designers, and channel them toward the realisation of the envisioned built form. And he had an almost unparalleled sense of how to time, cost, map, and quality-control the process of building. Tying in manpower, materials, and equipment to match these processes, he was well known for delivering projects ahead of schedule and under budget.

Home Insurance Building

Born in 1866 in Kansas, Starrett was raised in Chicago. The Windy City thrilled Starrett with its ‘tremendous vitality.’ He described Chicago as ‘a young giant bursting its clothes. Shining lines of railroad steel were reaching out through the far Northwest and the South West, linking prairie, mountain, valley, ranch, and mine with the East. These lines converged on Chicago, and a tremendous trade in manufactured goods began to flow through the city Westward, while the products of the West — wheat, corn, beef — poured back in to Chicago. It was the fastest growing city in the United States.’

Starrett was eighteen when the first steel-framed skyscraper, the Home Insurance Building, was completed in Chicago, in 1884. The first steel-framed skyscraper — in his home town! It’s not hard to imagine how the awe and excitement of this could have fuelled his ambition to be a builder. But it did not. At this stage, Starrett was not set on a career. Despite watching the construction of the Rookery Building (completed in 1886) on his lunch breaks, and despite his brother Theodore working for the Chicago architects Burnham and Root, Starrett was just desperate to get ahead any way he could. He wanted to make his mark on the world — but he wasn’t sure yet how he would do that.

Flatiron Building

After a brief stint on a ranch in New Mexico, repeated efforts from his brother ultimately convinced Starrett to join the construction industry, and he started work as a draughtsman for Burnham and Root. Starrett got the most joy from being on building sites and from being immersed in the ‘practical machinery of architecture’ — the process by which an architect’s drawing is transformed into a practical reality. He took delight in figuring out details, loads and strengths, processes, and solutions to procurement problems. He was a fastidious note-taker, and learned the tricks of the various building trades quickly.

Burnham, however, had bigger plans for Starrett. ‘You Starrett boys are different. You have a genius for organization and leadership,’ Burnham remarked. Not long after that, Starrett was appointed as a superintendent on two projects by Burnham. Starrett’s focus on the organizational aspects of building construction projects and company operations had begun. It was a path that would ultimately see him erect many of the great buildings of his era, culminating in the Empire State.

Before that, however, Starrett became the President of the George A. Fuller Company, the first major US construction concern. Later, under the banner of his own company, Starrett Brothers and Eken (eventually, Starrett Corp.), Starrett was to do his proudest work, including the erection of the Empire State building. Completed in eleven months for a fee of $500,000 (circa $7 million today), he delivered the project for $2 million less than the original estimate.

Empire State Building

Starrett’s life coincided with some of the most important innovations in the history of building construction. Significant advances were made in engineering, including the safety elevator, invented by Elisha Otis in 1952 and first installed at 488 Broadway, NYC, in 1957, and the use of steel structural frames, which facilitated more slender walls and therefore more lettable area, as well as making the separation of the façade from the structural system possible. Advances were also made in the organisation and delivery of construction projects. The role of the architect was increasingly separated from the construction process; engineers began to move away from the ‘rule of thumb’ and toward scientific measurements; and large general contractors and contracting companies (such as the George A. Fuller Company) emerged, which employed the numerous subcontractors instead of the client.

Starrett’s career also coincided with a period in US history when urban growth and density in a few large cities, including Chicago and New York, was pushing land prices higher. This created incentives to build tall, because owners wanted to derive more value from every square foot of land. Coupled with engineering advances and the egos of men in competition to go higher faster, these economic drivers make it easy to understand how the rapid progress in skyscraper development was almost inevitable. Starrett, with the benefit of hindsight, remarks in his autobiography that ‘There is no mystery about the origin of the skyscraper. It was merely the application of common sense.’

Starrett lived through an amazing phase in the history of building construction, of engineering innovation, and in the organisational and contracting environment. He is a construction legend, and he easily makes the cut in our list of the all-time greats.

Quotes are taken from Paul Starrett’s autobiography, ‘Changing the Skyline,’ published by McGraw-Hill in 1938.

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