Digging Beneath a New York City Landmark Church

Tue November 18, 2003 - Northeast Edition

When the Gothic-style Fifth Avenue Presbyterian Church was built in 1873, its 286-ft. spire was the tallest in New York City.

When large-scale expansion was planned for this landmark, preserving and protecting it became the primary concern. Before Urban Foundation Engineering, Elmhurst, NY, broke ground in May 2003, the interior was boarded up, the large organ pipes removed (to be replaced by new ones), much of the exterior of the building covered, and a sidewalk shelter installed. Support columns were placed inside the nave and temporary steel beams were installed in the basement to support the sanctuary floor.

The church’s interior is more modern in design — unlike the formality of a Gothic cathedral — with no right angles. All pews flow outward from the pulpit, and the stained glass windows were designed to allow ample light into the interior.

As crews work upstairs enlarging the main lobby to reduce congestion and enhancing the sanctuary with new support beams and fire protection, work also is occurring below — most of it, in fact. Urban is digging a new sub-basement under the current basement, and the walls will be extended to create 12,000 sq. ft. (1,115 sq m) of new space, which will contain a Christian education center with a gathering hall, nine multi-purpose rooms and a recording studio.

According to Benny DiGiorgio, chairman of Urban Foundation, crews built a 150-ft. (46 m) ramp alongside the church so that excavation equipment could be transported below street level. Aside from the obvious challenges — Fifth Avenue traffic, noise considerations, ventilation, etc. — getting carriers and hammers into the small opening crews created in the foundation of the building also has been challenging.

New York City bedrock is infamously challenging to bust through, but according to Joel Wunderlich, superintendent of Urban, this was even more challenging because crews encountered rock seams that ran horizontally (vertical seams cooperate better with the downward thrust of the hammer.)

Urban has used a Tramac V46, mounted on a Cat 963, for the main breaking job. Once the big stuff is out of the way, crews smooth the “walls” with a Tramac 400, mounted on a Komatsu PC75; a second 400, mounted on a Case 855; and a Tramac 85, on a Komatsu PC40.

Urban rented the carriers, along with the 400 and 85 hammers, from Charles Lobosco & Son, Flushing, NY, and the company purchased the V46 from Alessi Equipment Inc., of Mt. Vernon, NY.

Ray and Gerry Alessi confessed that they would have liked to bring in the heaviest hitter — the V65 — for this project because the rock is extremely hard and there’s a lot of it. But the size of the access hole and the height of the work area (only 10 ft. when the job started) severely limited their choice of equipment.

Still, some engineering ingenuity was needed with the V46 on the Cat 963 front-end loader. The loader’s cab had to be removed and the exhaust system re-routed. The carrier boom and hammer couldn’t function in the low space, so Alessi created a new bracket cap, which mounted further down on the hammer.

So far, all equipment has performed flawlessly: Not a single piece has broken or failed.

Naturally, with any equipment, experienced, talented operators have much to do with its successful performance and that has been the case with this project. Tramac’s Tool Protection System on its large hammers (the front guide, bushings and retainer pins are designed to let the strongest points take the stress, protecting wear parts and lengthening the life of the tools) has proven invaluable when dealing with the bedrock.

Alessi Equipment Inc. has been a top Tramac dealer and a leader in the attachment industry since it opened for business 13 years ago. The company covers New York City and counties north, Long Island, and the northeast section of New Jersey.

The congregation’s goal is to raise $36 million to fund their building needs through their Crossroads Campaign. Ten percent of the monies are being set aside as a mission tithe and will be distributed to organizations that provide housing for the homeless, and services for the elderly and children affected by HIV/AIDS.

Work is expected to be completed in early 2004 with the pouring of a concrete slab floor for the new sub-basement and the finishing of walls, stairway, elevator pit and permanent supports.