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Central Salvage Thrives on Demolishing Philly’s Skyline

Wed January 15, 2003 - Northeast Edition
Construction Equipment Guide

PHILADELPHIA (AP) Carl Mason has played a role in changing Philadelphia’s skyline, but you’d never know it.

He didn’t design or finance any of the buildings that sprang up in Center City’s hotel-construction boom in the ’90s. He didn’t erect or furnish them. In fact, he hasn’t built anything.

Just the opposite. His firm, Central Salvage Co., Narberth, demolishes building interiors so they can be reused. And much of its work has paved the way for the opening of new hotels here.

Central totally “stripped out” the 40-story PSFS Building at 12th and Market streets before its conversion into Loews Philadelphia Hotel.

It performed similar surgery on the 31-story office building and five-story domed bank that are now the Ritz-Carlton Philadelphia on Broad Street.

Mason’s demolition teams gutted the old Reading Terminal Headhouse, at 12th and Market streets, and the old City Hall Annex, on Juniper Street, for the developers of two Marriott hotels.

Its search-and-destroy work for hotel developers alone has yielded more than $25 million in revenue in recent years.

But the company also dismantled the utilities at Independence Hall for an upgrade, and removed the roof of the Academy of Music so it could be replaced.

It gutted 350,000 sq. ft. of office space at Amtrak’s 30th Street Station prior to its makeover — without disrupting rail service.

In 1995, Mason’s firm removed 102 newspaper press units each weighing between 55,000 and 60,000 lbs. from 400 N. Broad St. because Philadelphia Newspapers Inc., publisher of The Philadelphia Inquirer and Philadelphia Daily News, had relocated its printing operations to Conshohocken.

In Center City, Central Salvage recently completed interior demolition of the Packard Building at 15th and Chestnut streets and the Jewish Federation of Philadelphia Building on 16th Street.

On the Delaware River waterfront in Chester, Central is completing the most complex project it has ever undertaken.

Its job is to demolish virtually everything but the walls inside the long-abandoned Delaware County Generating Station, a mammoth facility just south of the Commodore Barry Bridge.

Preferred Real Estate Investments of Conshohocken, which bought the building, is paying Central approximately $4 million to clear the way for its conversion into 400,000 sq. ft. of prime office space.

From its construction in 1918 by the Philadelphia Electric Co. until its shutdown 20 years ago, this coal-burning plant provided electricity for hundreds of thousands of customers.

Giant cranes loaded coal from river barges into two massive bunkers atop the plant where the coal was pulverized and fed into boilers six stories high. Steam from the boilers was then pumped into huge turbines, which generated the electricity.

Removing the big coal bunkers, the 14 boilers, five turbines, and other equipment has engaged Mason’s men since March. He expects to finish by the end of the year.

“Carl’s done an amazing job,” said Michael G. O’Neill, chief executive officer of Preferred Real Estate Investments. “Three other demolition contractors walked away from the job. They were afraid of it. Carl stepped up.”

Mason, 54, got into building demolition serendipitously. The Central High School graduate (hence the name of his company) studied civil engineering at Drexel University.

With degree in hand in 1970, he moved to California, and found employment as a soils engineer along the earthquake-prone San Andreas Fault, which has been known to demolish buildings naturally.

After two months, however, he was laid off. Returning to Philadelphia, he was hired as a day laborer by Cleveland Wrecking, one of the nation’s largest demolition companies.

When Cleveland’s office manager in Sharon Hill discovered that Mason had an engineering degree, he brought him in as an estimator.

“Within weeks, I was estimating jobs all over the United States,” Mason recalled. “I’d go into a big power plant being decommissioned and figure out the salvage value of everything in it. I found the business challenging, provocative, exciting. It got into my bloodstream. I still find it fascinating.”

After four years with Cleveland, he went off on his own, but his first venture failed after about six months. He then worked as a consultant along the East Coast before starting Central Salvage in 1981 with a partner.

“We struggled terribly for a couple of years,” he said. His partner soon left, but Mason found another partner in the former Bobbie Budin, whom he married in 1984.

He said his wife, with whom he shares ownership of Central Salvage, has “one of the smartest business minds I’ve ever known.

“I’m the technical guy,” he said. “I do all the bidding. She’s the troubleshooter. I start the fires; she puts them out.

“People in the demolition business are tremendous risk-takers,” Mason said. “They live on the edge. Fortunes can be made or lost on every big job.

“In construction, you know how much marble, how much concrete, how many bricks you’ll need. You can assess costs that don’t vary.

“In demolition, nobody knows how a building is going to come down. You’re dealing with a lot of unknowns.”

For that reason, Mason spends a long time, sometimes weeks, in each building before bidding on demo work. He calculates the weight of the stuff to be removed and the degree of difficulty in removing it. Perhaps most important, he estimates how much he’ll get for the scrap metal.

That can be the key to a job’s success or failure. His bid is based, in part, on the price of scrap before the work starts. If it goes up during demolition, so much the better for Mason. If the price goes down, so much the worse.

When he started demolishing the power plant in Chester, scrap metal was bringing about $40 a ton. “My gamble was that it wouldn’t go down,” Mason said. It didn’t. He’s now getting about $65 a ton. He expects to remove about 11,000 tons of scrap.

He wasn’t so fortunate, however, in removing scrap from the building on N. Broad Street that Philadelphia Newspapers Inc. had used for circulation and advertising.

In that case, the scrap price fell from $65 to $35 a ton. Mason sold about 4,000 tons. He said, “We did OK on that job, but not as well as we would have liked.”

His company’s revenue runs about $10 million a year, and his “core” work force totals about 70. “It’s a real macho business,” Mason said. “The guys who work for me eat nails.”

The base pay is $19.95 an hour, and, according to Mason, “They deserve every penny they get.” He noted that wielding a 90-lb. jackhammer for eight hours a day takes great strength and perseverance.

Mason himself needed to persevere in another way in 1987. He and other demolition contractors had been invited to inspect an unfinished 33-story building on Rittenhouse Square that was to be gutted and rehabbed.

“It was a freezing cold day, and there was no heat in the building and no elevator,” Mason recalled. The other demo contractors climbed as far as the 18th floor, but then gave up. Not Mason. He inspected all 33 floors, and discovered there would be much less to remove from the upper floors. He then submitted the low bid, and got the job.

“You’ve got to look at everything,” he said.

Mason knows that building, the Rittenhouse Hotel & Condominiums, very well. He and his wife now live in a condo on its 26th floor.

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