Tower of Americas’ tophouse tumble led to legal tussle after HemisFair ’68 – San Antonio Express-News

When I arrived (in San Antonio) from Baylor Law School in 1968, we didn’t want to wait on jury verdicts in the depressing halls of the courthouse. So we would tell the bailiff to call us when the jury came back. No cellphones then, of course. We didn’t really need to tell the bailiff where to call, because he knew we would be at “the Carpet.”

When our firm was awaiting the jury verdict on the suit over the damages for the negligence of the company that was lifting the HemisFair ’68 Tower of the Americas restaurant and caused the damages when the lifting cables broke, we — Sol Casseb, Dayton Wiley, Dick Keene, Franklin Houser, Peter Plumb, Roy Brock, Joe Segrato, John Hohman and others — were at the Red Carpet, where there was always a man who was holding open the front door when you drove or walked up.

The Carpet also organized events such as busing us and our insurance-adjustor friends and clients to the offsite showing of the Ali/Frazier fights in the mid-1970s.

Maybe you could tell us about the history of the Old San Francisco Steakhouse next. The girl on the swing and the blocks of cheese at every table are locked in my memory bank.

— Robert Allen

Whoa, Tower of the America’s “lifting cables broke” and a “suit for damages? Yes, sure, we can look at the Old San Francisco Steakhouse, but first … what happened to the Tower, and whose fault was it?

For a building that has become a symbol not only of the 1968 World’s Fair but a skyline-defining icon of San Antonio’s visual identity — not unlike the Eiffel Tower for the 1889 World’s Fair in Paris — the theme structure of HemisFair ’68 had some troubled beginnings. The cable-snapping incident was minor, compared with the prolonged haggling over its funding and contract negotiations over the cost of its construction.

The design by revered local architect O’Neil Ford was criticized for looking too much like the Space Needle built for Seattle’s 1962 World’s Fair, which it did — a stockier version of its tower concept, both with revolving concessions and an observation deck near the top. (Ours had a height advantage, 750 feet to their 605 feet.)

Named through a public contest, HemisFair’s tower dodged a bullet when runners-up such as “Astroshaft ” were passed over in favor of the popular choice, “Tower of the Americas,” submitted by 68 people as a good match for the fair’s bumpy but good-hearted theme, “The Confluence of Civilizations in the Americas.” (Compare with the snappy futurism of New York 1939, “The World of Tomorrow”; Chicago 1933, “Century of Progress,” or Seattle’s “Living in the Space Age.”)

Once construction of the tower was underway, the project had a tight deadline. The start date was Aug. 9, 1966, and the fair’s opening date was April 6, 1968. The complicated project that included a 622-foot concrete shaft, elevators, a revolving tophouse and finish-out for all the public areas, including a fancy restaurant, was one of only a few structures built for the fair that were expected to be permanent, and it had less than two years to soar safely above the fairgrounds.

The HemisFair construction period was a nail-biting numbers game. Reports were released regularly on how far behind or ahead of schedule various structures or areas were in relation to the hard opening day, which had been announced worldwide years before ground was broken. Days-ahead and days-behind goals bobbed up and down like stock prices as opening day ticked closer.

A tower had been chosen for the fair’s theme structure because it was supposed to pay for itself, not just during the fair but with ongoing tourism. Long after the international pavilions were empty, visitors were expected to add a swoopy elevator ride to enjoy its panoramic views to their downtown sightseeing route, just behind visits to the Alamo and the River Walk. But there would never be so many visitors at once as there would be during the six months of the fair.

Lifting rods had broken due to high winds from Hurricane Beulah in September 1967 and had been replaced by comparable ones. The Tower was about 30 days behind when the doughnut-shape tophouse took a slight tumble during the night of Oct. 30-31, 1967. The next morning, workers found the tophouse tilted and discovered that three lifting rods or cables out of the 24 used for lifting it had given way overnight. No one was hurt, and damages were estimated at $20,000, probably mostly the cost of replacing the rods, as reported in the San Antonio Light, Oct. 31, 1967.

Work halted for a few weeks as the contractors, Darragh & Lyda, searched for a solution. A tension study commissioned from Southwest Research Institute determined that replacements needed to double in weight; new rods — 12 instead of the original 24 — were ordered from a Pennsylvania supplier who would purchase top-quality oil-well drill-stem rods. Once these arrived, in mid-November 1967, delays were compounded by the need to remove all the old rods and to replace them with the new ones, which were attached to hydraulic jacks. Then the tophouse could be hoisted another 14 feet so that work on its bottom levels could continue.

These next stages were projected to take about three weeks. Construction supervisor Elmer Joiner, for co-contractor Darragh & Lyda — the hometown firm working with Houston’s H.A. Lott — told the Light, Nov. 15, 1967, that it should be possible to finish the tower on time, although “we didn’t have enough time to build it to begin with.”

Windy conditions were a further drag on the process of taking out and putting in the new rods, and the contractor started working through the weekends. Only once the replacement work was completed could the crew return to work on the tophouse, which was to have ventilation ducts and sprinkler equipment installed, before pulling it farther up the concrete shaft.

By mid-December 1967, Murphy’s Law — “Anything that can go wrong will go wrong” — appeared to have well and truly kicked in when the contractors ran into a shortage of the skilled workers needed to put the aluminum cover on top of the tophouse and had to send for reinforcements from out of town. The cover was the layer that would hold the windows in and form the base of its roof. Then, during the first week of January 1968, four months from HemisFair’s opening, the crane at the top that lifted the tophouse anywhere from 15-25 feet a day blew a fuse and burned out an electric coil. A replacement part couldn’t be found locally, and work paused again.

Whenever possible, by mid-January, work was continuing through the night, unless it was so cold men and machines couldn’t function. Despite power failures, high winds and thunderstorms, the construction crews gritted it out, and the tophouse was raised — but not ready to open — on April 6, 1968, along with the rest of HemisFair. When the Tower opened for its vertical tours, April 11, 1968, the tophouse still was not quite ready for visitors. The first meal wasn’t served in its restaurant until April 16, 1968.

The lawsuit filed April 13, 1968, by the general contractors, Darragh & Lyda and H.A. Lott, against local subcontractor Texstar Construction Co., which bought the steel rods and bolts, and Pennsylvania-based Stressteel, which sold them, took longer to resolve than it did to build the tower.

Lyda-Lott, as the tower construction partners were by then known, said that the other two firms either sold them the wrong rods (Texstar) or had designed them poorly (Stressteel) and were thus negligent and liable for $700,000 in damages ($273,685 actual, $500,000 exemplary or punitive), in compensation for the contractors’ costly scramble to make up for lost time.

First Stressteel, incorporated in Delaware, contended that Texas district courts didn’t have jurisdiction, since it technically didn’t do business in Texas. But that didn’t stop the suit.

Lyda-Lott tried for a summary judgment, a decision by a judge without a trial, but it was denied Sept. 30, 1969.

The resulting trial in 45th District Court finally got started Nov. 2, 1970.

Jurors heard 26 days of testimony about the twice-snakebit rods. It was the second-longest trial ever heard by Judge Robert R. Murray, as observed by the Light, Dec. 2, 1970. The trial concluded Dec. 31, 1970, with a take-nothing judgment in favor of Lyda-Lott, owing to the jury’s findings in favor of the general contractors, while the judge ruled that they were not entitled to damages.

Of the other permanent HemisFair structures, the U.S. Pavilion and Confluence Theater/John H. Wood Jr. Federal Courthouse has been replaced by a new federal courthouse, and there is ongoing discussion of a move for the Texas Pavilion/Institute of Texan Cultures.

While the city-owned Tower of the Americas is funded for improvements to preserve its concrete shaft, it’s still going strong, despite its early ups and downs.

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