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The Rise and Fall of the Wrecking Ball

The instrument of destruction was popular in the 1950s and ‘60s but is now a rare creature on the demolition site

Wrecking balls remain ubiquitous in popular culture today, despite their dwindling use at construction sites. (Rhys A. via Flickr, CC-BY-2.0)
smithsonian.com

When most buildings reach the end of their usefulness, they are taken apart and their parts are reclaimed. Or they might be imploded. Yet when people think demolition, most still imagine the ubiquitous wrecking ball, despite the fact that this tools is becoming increasingly rare, writes Eric Grundhauser for Atlas Obscura. Their remaining popularity in song and cultural consciousness might just be due to people's fascination with destruction. But it also might be thanks to the wrecking ball's history.

Demolition has always made a great spectacle. In the early 1900s, the New Yorker profiled Jacob Volk, a prominent wrecker in the city, stating that he had “pulled down the best places, and was proud of it,” and that “[h]e never passed a tall building without an appraising glance and a sigh,” reports Jeff Byles in a 2006 New York Times article. Demolition at the time was a skilled trade, Byles, who wrote a book on the subject, adds:

Demolition was construction in reverse: fixtures and appliances were sold; wood studs and flooring pried up, studiously denailed, and tied in bundles for reuse; and bricks cleaned by fiendish characters who could knock the mortar off 5,000 bricks a day. Laborious, yes. Wasteful, no. It was an elegant way to wreck.

While the wrecking really began with sledgehammers that smashed through fixtures and windowpanes in the 1930s, wrecking balls, heavy steel spheres suspended from cranes, came soon after. 

Grundhauser writes that wrecking balls reached “peak ubiquity” in the 1950s and '60s, primarily because they were so cost-effective. “You no longer had to pay a crew of barmen to spend all this time taking apart a structure piece by piece,” Byles tells Grundhauser. “That combination of factors, saving on labor costs, and the advent of technology really transformed the industry."

But the work was also messy. Growing recognition that some building materials, such as asbestos, were toxic to the workers handling them helped push the industry toward less dramatic, more contained methods of destruction. New equipment, Grundhauser reports, also made for more precise work. Wrecking balls fell out of favor as experts started using attachments and machines that could “nibble away” at buildings. When a building needs to come down quickly, explosives have now become the best option for taking down modern skyscrapers.

Though wrecking balls on the job site are now rare, their power in metaphor remains strong. For Atlas Obscura, Byles cites the wrecking ball as a symbol of progress and optimism because of their use in an era that prided itself on an “out with the old and in with the new” mentality. But their allure might also just be that they are such a simple shape, which can still cause plenty of destruction.

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