Atop the Wilshire Grand, with “Punks” and Other Builders

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If you’re in downtown Los Angeles or just driving by, it’s easy to spot the construction of the Wilshire Grand Tower as it rises ever higher into the sky. When it’s done, the Wilshire Grand, at 1,1100 feet high,will be the tallest building in L.A. and the tallest west of the Mississippi.

The Wilshire Grand Tower seen from the street. When built, the 1,100 foot tall skyscraper will  edge out L.A.'s Union Bank Tower, completed in 1988, as the city's tallest building. (Photo: Saul Gonzalez)
The Wilshire Grand Tower seen from the street. When built, the 1,100 foot tall skyscraper will  edge out L.A.’s Union Bank Tower, completed in 1988, as the city’s tallest building. (Photo: Saul Gonzalez)

I recently got an opportunity to visit this skyscraper-in-the-making — and met the “punks” and senior construction workers who are building it. A ride inside a cage-like construction elevator bolted to the side of Wilshire Grand Tower took me to one of the top floors now being built.

Stepping out of the elevator on the 45th floor and onto the steel deck, I was struck by the views of surrounding downtown skyscrapers and vistas of the wider city beyond, from the Hollywood Hills to the beaches of Santa Monica.

But they were also slightly unsettling views because there were no walls or windows, just views and open air. The only thing that separated me from a very long fall were thin metal cables stretched between the building’s girders.

On the 45th floor, about two dozen ironworkers were busily at work welding and drilling.

“We’re building America here,” said John Nevarov, who was leading a crew of men installing metal decking to the tower’s metal frame.

Nevarov said ironwork on skyscrapers is far safer than it used to be, say compared to the days when the Empire State Building was being built, but the labor still exacts a toll.

“It’s very difficult work. It’s very demanding, physically demanding on the body,” said Nevarov. Many guys come in, and you see many guys leave, because they just can’t handle it. With the long hours that we are working, almost 13 hour a day, 6 to 7 days a week, so it’s very demanding physically.”

Ironworker John Nevarov is one of the approximately 700 people now working on the Wilshire Grand construction site.” This is a job that not too many people get to do. I feel absolutely proud to be a part of this job,” says Nevarov. (Photo: Saul Gonzalez)

But there’s a lot of other muscle laboring to build L.A.’s tallest skyscraper. On any given day about 700 people work at the construction site. Along with ironworkers, they include concrete specialists, rebar crews, window installers, crane operators, carpenters, electricians and plumbers.

“The idea is to keep everybody flowing together so we keep our work force up and continue the project based on the schedule,” said Michael Marchesano, a project superintendent with Turner Construction, the primary contractor for Wilshire Grand.

With commanding views of surrounding buildings, an ironworker does welding worker on a girder.” (Photo: Saul Gonzalez)

Aside from ensuring worker safety, Marchesano’s biggest responsibility is keeping construction of the skyscraper on schedule and in a specific sequence.

After workers pour and set the buildng’s cylindrical concrete core, floor by floor, they’re soon followed by crews assembling the tower’s metal framing and decking to surround the core. After those crews are done, other workers start installing the building’s skin, big exterior windows, some weighing up to 2,000 pounds.

“Our target goal, and we’ve met that, is to do a four-day cycle,” said Marchesano. “What that means is a four-day cycle on the concrete floor vertically and a four-day cycle, per floor, on the structural steel, and it follows through with all the other trades.”

Crews working on this billion dollar skyscraper project must keep to a tight schedule while also following strict safety regulations. This photo shows the 45th floor. A landscape of building equipment and ra metal and concrete now, when the building opens it will be home to luxury hotel rooms. (Photo: Saul Gonzalez)

When built, Wilshire Grand, a building with a graceful, sail-like curve on one side, will have a spire atop it and be home to 400,000 square feet of office space and 900 luxury hotel rooms.

The crews working on the tower know that building all of that means a good paycheck over a long period of time. And for younger workers, it’s also an opportunity to get experience under their belt as they move up the ladder in their particular building trade.

Blake Taylor, 23, is called a “punk” in ironworker lingo. That’s an apprentice who assists more senior ironworkers in their jobs. Blake was drawn to the Wilshire Grand project both by the cash and the thrill of the work.

“You make decent money, and you get to do something crazy everyday,” said Taylor. “I mean you are hanging off the edge of 49 right now, hanging off the side of the building.”

Taylor’s fellow ironworker, 19-year-old apprentice Jose Rivas is even younger. But he told me that he already thinks about the day when he talks to his future children (he doesn’t have any yet) about what he did on this project.

“It’s backbreaking,” said Rivas. “But in the future I’m going to be walking down Figueroa Street with my kids. ‘You see that job? You see those columns?’ I helped to be part of that, I helped to build that building.’

Wilshire Grand is set to open in 2017.

A crew of ironworkers relaxing during their lunch break. Working on a project of the scale of Wilshire Grand brings good pay for along period of time and the chance to participate in Los Angeles construction history. (Photo: Saul Gonzalez)