In 1988, Columbus Monthly profiled wreckers extraordinaire S.G. Loewendick & Sons, the demolition company that's plied its dangerous trade for generations—and taken down landmarks ranging from Union Station to the Christopher Inn.
Editor’s note: As they have since the 1920s, the Loewendicks are continuing to leave a trail of destruction throughout Central Ohio. In recent years, their business, S.G. Loewendick & Sons, has torn down the likes of the old Veterans Memorial in Franklinton, the Africentric High School on East Livingston Avenue and current project the Holiday Inn in Worthington, adding to a greatest hits list that includes such landmarks as Union Station, the Deshler Hotel and the Ohio Penitentiary. Back in 1988, Columbus Monthly writer Emily Foster profiled the city’s first family of demolition, digging deep into the dangerous, controversial and thrilling world of flattening buildings for a living.
“The whole thing about this is to keep it physically up long enough to beat it down,” says Dave Loewendick one spring evening from his position at the foot of the Christopher Inn.
He squints up from under his hard hat at the windowless cylinder above him while crane operator John Malcovsky swings the 210-foot boom out over the top of the 14-story hotel building. All the preparation has been done for the final wrecking operation: The fixtures are gone, the windows have been taken out, the carpet has been ripped up so it won't tangle in the wrecking ball, the asbestos has been carefully removed. The 26-year-old Christopher, a landmark jutting up from the flats of East Broad Street, is stripped and ready to be pulverized into one more Downtown parking lot. It sits in its own grave, where its remains will be buried until someone exhumes them to build there someday.
Malcovsky's 80-ton crane rests on outriggers, with a nine-ton counterweight hanging off the front end and a seven-tonner off the rear to keep the rig firmly on the ground while Malcovsky does his delicate work with the 6,500-pound wrecking ball. He starts at the top, dropping the ball through the roof, lifting it, dropping it through the top floor, lifting it, dropping it through the floor below. Painstakingly, he bashes a single hole, a "pilot hole," from top to bottom of the building to let debris drop neatly through to the bottom of the hole and to relieve pressure on the top floors so that, as Loewendick says, the building will stay up long enough to bring it down in a controlled fashion.
Concrete tinkles down in shards like breaking glass as the ball smashes its way through. Honeymoon suites, love nests and travelers' havens disappear in clouds of dust and showers of debris. A worker says that a couple of innocent travelers showed up at the hotel a few days ago with their room reservation in hand and a look of horror on their faces. "Yeah,” Loewendick cracks, “we took their money and sent 'em up the elevator."
Nineteen-year-old Mike Fry, vainly trying to control the suffocating dust, plays water from a hose into it as it billows across Broad Street. Despite his best efforts, it's obvious why the air pollution people call this ''fugitive dust." It's also one reason Loewendick crews often do their work at night, as they do on this job.
The wrecking ball is suspended from a used airplane tire attached to the crane cable. The tire acts as a cushion between the wrecking ball and the crane boom and cab. Even after a useful life on an airplane, the tire is incredibly tough. Still, when it goes, the wrecking ball goes, too. Workers like to tell about the time the ball tore loose, fell into a 10-story building and rolled into a closet, where the door shut behind it. They spent three hours looking for it.
The closer the pilot hole gets to the ground floors, the more debris spills out into the pit. Clouds of dust swirl around and settle on cars in the neighboring parking lot. A few late office workers scurry past, looking worriedly at the flying concrete. As the sun sets on the destruction, the crew moves in with floodlights so that work can continue into the wee hours while Columbus sleeps.
When a Columbus developer looks at a vacant lot, he sees a highrise office tower or a shopping mall. But when one of the Loewendicks casts his entrepreneurial eye on an office tower or shopping mall, he envisions a pile of rubble. Dave Loewendick looks almost pained when he says of the renovated Ohio Theatre, "We were about six hours from having that building." He looks lustfully at the COSI Building next to the Christopher Inn site and promises that when COSI grows to its capacity there and has to move, the Loewendicks will be waiting. Central High School? "Nobody wants in there more than we do," says Dave. His cars’ license plates read ''RAZE 1" and "RAZE 2."
He represents the third generation in S. G. Loewendick & Sons Inc., demolition contractors. The S. G. is for his grandfather, Samuel, nicknamed Tedo, who founded the business. Tedo was the son of an immigrant German blacksmith who settled In Newark, Ohio. Tedo's father advised him that the future lay in transportation, so Tedo spent years in the automobile business, first as shop foreman of a Studebaker garage, then as a garage owner.
Somewhere along the way—maybe it was in 1929 as the company brochure says—Tedo, according to family legend, tore down a couple of houses for the salvage material with which to build his own new house. Whereupon Tedo was in the demolition business. Maybe building the house was a further inspiration, for Tedo also did some construction contracting, and a few of his buildings still stand in Newark. He also owned an appliance store.
But nothing really went well until World War II bumped off the Depression. As Tedo's son, Jim Loewendick, now vice president of Loewendick & Sons, irreverently puts it, "Adolf Hitler put the country on its feet." After the war, Columbus experienced a building boom. Federal money became available to construct the National Defense Highway System, and Columbus linked up with I-70 and 1-71 and built inner and outer belts. Hand in hand with the concept of urban renewal came the bulldozer; acres of decaying inner city were flattened. The Goodale Redevelopment Project spelled the end of Flytown. The Market-Mohawk project of the '60s leveled the old Central Market and most of the north end of old South Columbus. When the big demolition contracts started coming through, S. G. Loewendick was there.
"Our first big contract was the Market-Mohawk area," says Jim. In 1963, they wrecked about 300 houses, and in 1964 they took out 91 houses for Children's Hospital, 50 houses in Market-Mohawk and 104 in the path of 1-71. Eventually, Tedo abandoned his other ventures and concentrated on demolition and salvage. Three of his sons joined him in the business, and today they operate in a radius of 500 miles from Columbus, gross more than $5 million a year and own, in addition to the demolition business, two landfills, a roll-off container service that supplies dumpsters to construction sites and a new tire shredder facility. Name most of the landmark buildings that have been razed In Columbus in the past 20 years, and, with few exceptions, the Loewendicks have done the razing.
The Loewendicks' world is a man's world, always was since Tedo worked three or four jobs and, according to Jim, "never got home before 9, 10, 11 o'clock at night." Tedo's wife ran their 25-acre farm near Newark until they moved to Columbus in the '50s, raised their four sons and one daughter, looked after the orchard, did the canning and, for a spell, oversaw the management of some 3,000 chickens.
Sheer hard work runs on both sides of the family, but it has been the macho, dangerous world of demolition that has attracted many of the Loewendick men. It claimed the life of Jim's son in a freak accident on a work site about 10 years ago. "The reason he got killed was he did just the dead opposite of what I told him to do," says Jim today. The tragedy didn't make Jim Loewendick doubt his vocation.
In fact, the lore of the demolition business is full of stories of hazards avoided and injuries sustained. Tales of heroics involve a cool head and a measure of stoicism. Ralph's stepson, Mike Fry, wears like a badge of honor the fat lip and half-healed wounds that he got when some metal he was cutting with a blow torch flew up and smacked him in the mouth.
Likewise, to underscore the risks of his business, Dave Loewendick, with unconcealed admiration, tells of crane operator John Malcovsky's more harrowing moments in his almost 30 years in demolition. Like the time he got hit in the face with a baseball-sized piece of concrete at three in the afternoon, went to the hospital and got 48 stitches, then returned to the job at 6 am the next day. Or the time someone left the crane boom in gear and it started to topple over the crane; and Malcovsky ran like, a deer and leaped into the cab as the huge machine teetered precariously, slammed it out of gear and sat there while it settled back on its moorings.
Old buildings are unpredictable. No matter how much experience you've had, you can't tell just by looking that somebody, many years ago, weakened the structure in some way while doing a little remodeling. You can't ever be sure just how or when a wall will collapse. And if you can't completely control when a building will come down, it may come down on you.
No one verbalizes the feeling, but the dusty air on a demolition site is full of the manly challenge of big machinery and big buildings against ingenuity and sheer guts—and the remote possibility that the inanimate forces could win. Demolition is a kind of workaday big-game hunting.
Where there are big-game hunters, of course, there will be animal rights activists. In the world of demolition, perfect happiness is clouded by the existence of historic preservationists. The Loewendicks have been on the front lines of many a preservation battles. Most recently, a Hilltop preservation group laid a wreath at the old Columbus State Hospital as the wrecking crew started to take down a section of the 110-year-old structure. But that was small potatoes. compared to the court battles and picket lines that wreckers have faced at other sites.
When the Loewendicks pulled down the old Union Station in 1976, preservation and civic groups were furious because they thought that Battelle Commons, the group that was demolishing the station to build Columbus's convention center, had agreed to preserve the ornate arcade. After bitter wrangling, the arch was kept intact and moved to a site on Marconi Boulevard.
Four years later, the Loewendicks were in the middle of a fight to stop the demolition of the 74-year-old Monypeny Hammond building across the street. Nationwide Insurance Company president Dean Jeffers, apparently thwarting the neighborhood redevelopment plans, agreed to buy the building only on condition that the owner, Midland Grocery company, tear it down. Loewendicks did the tearing, despite an uproar and a unanimous City Council resolution asking Midland to stop.
Remember the Beasley-Deshler Hotel at the comer of Broad and High? The Chittenden? Halle's? The Hartman Theatre? If you get misty-eyed at the thought of these departed landmarks, you can partly blame the Loewendicks for their demise. When the Schottensteins get a major tenant for the new office tower they plan at State and High streets, the Loewendicks will be happy to bring down the Beggs Building that now stands empty on the site.
But like the executioner in a case of capital punishment, the Loewendicks are the instruments of evil rather than the instigators. They never start the process, only finish it. "We're always the fall guys," shrugs Dave Loewendick.
Do they have a twinge of conscience or any small regret that they turn beloved old buildings into scrap? Well, truthfully, not much. In fact, just about none. Dave admits there was one old place in the country that, if he'd known how fine it was, he might have bought himself before his crew tore it down. Ralph admits that the preservationists did a "beautiful job" on the Ohio Theatre, which otherwise he and his crew would have leveled. Otherwise, business is business.
As hardboiled as Jim is about buildings that he thinks have outlived their usefulness, he has a soft place in his heart for the salvage side of the Loewendick business. Time was when the Loewendicks tore down buildings by hand. "I used to take a couple of guys and wreck a house in about a week's time," Jim remembers. Now, on the rare occasions when the Loewendick company accepts such a small job, it takes about 45 minutes. "It's a lot faster and not nearly so much fun," he says regretfully.
Worse, in Jim's eyes, since the business has become so machine intensive, salvaging has become too expensive in terms of manpower to justify saving more than a few valuable architectural or decorative features. "When you handwrecked, you found everything, old letters and coins," he says.
He fondly tells about tearing down a mansion and finding a box of letters in the attic that told a story of thwarted love between the rich young son of a dry goods merchant and the girl who worked in the glove department of his father's store. It's hard to believe that, after 40 years, this grizzled man in suspenders, who probably took pride and joy in tearing down the house of the dry goods merchant, should still wax sentimental about a box of love letters, but there you have it. Salvage is his weakness.
"Dave would tear down One Broad in a second," he says. ''I'd want to save all the nice stuff they put in it. But he'd [win the bid] because I'd have to store it for 10 years."
Sometimes everyone agrees that demolition is a public service. Some of the most dangerous jobs the Loewendicks do come after a fire—or even during it. Old Tedo used to sleep with one ear cocked for fire calls over the radio. When a spectacular fire struck at Gay and High streets during a freezing February in 1977, Dave remembers that the one remaining wall on Gay Street "bellied out toward the bank building" and was covered with three- and four-foot icicles that added to the hazard of tearing it down. When Dunhill Clothiers burned at Broad and High in 1974, Loewendicks assisted the fire department by hauling away pieces of the building while it burned.
Dave was at the Short North fire in September that gutted most of a block of buildings. He helped get a fireman out of the burning debris. They found his tools, but decided to abandon his hat. Just as they left the site, a four-story wall fell where they had been standing.
Unfortunately, not all their experiences with fires have left them feeling like heroes. Next to the time' Jim Loewendick's son was killed, maybe the worst corporate experience was the fire at Halle's in 1986. While Loewendick's was bringing down that building on South High Street, one of the demolition crew ignited some spray-on foam insulation as he was cutting pipes in an air shaft that ran up and down all seven stories. According to Dave, "We were going to isolate that shaft like you would with a forest fire." So they trained a couple of hoses on it and began to move in the crane to tear down everything around it. But someone called the fire department.
When the fire trucks arrived, the chief ordered the Loewendick people to back off, says Dave. Then the firefighters wheeled in an aerial platform truck that fell over. "That caused pandemonium," Dave recalls. It was 90 minutes before the fire department got water to the fire.
"By this time Ralph was jumping up and down," Dave says of his father, who was watching helplessly from the Centrum. The Loewendick story is that if left to their own devices, they would have controlled the fire. Ralph says today, "Had they never showed up, other than smoke that fire wouldn't have amounted to peanuts. It wasn't that big." This might be debatable, but it's indisputable that before it was quelled the Halle's fire became a three-alarm event, with 100 firefighters on the scene and smoke so thick, Dave says, that the weather satellite could distinguish it.
Even Dave has to admit the fire had its memorable moments. In one "Laurel and Hardy" scene, by Dave's description, a fire department pumper shot a stream of water across Town Street that caught a businessman square in the chest, knocked him down and swept him back toward the Centrum. He clung for dear life to the chain fence. At that point the pumper's engine died down, and the stream of water let up. But just as the hapless businessman started to get up, the pumper operator revved the engine to keep it going, and a jet of water knocked the businessman flat again.
Too bad such comical scenes don't sweeten the sour aftertaste of the bad publicity and the legal claims from store owners for smoke damage. The only legal claim that still lingers, says Dave Loewendick, is a civil suit by the two firefighters who were injured when they fell over with their aerial platform. But the smudge on the Loewendick name, he thinks, will be harder to clear up. "That's the kind of attention we don't need," he complains.
Tedo, a burly man who sported a trademark red bow tie, died in 1974. “He was a man who lived for his work," says his son Jim, and that might be the best epitaph for someone who put in 10 or 12 hours a day at his business until he died. He left his growing company to the next generation. His son Ralph is president of S. G. Loewendick & Sons now. Ralph says he is so much like his dad that when they used to cost out a job together, "He'd go around one side of the building and I'd go around the other and we'd write our numbers down, and often we'd be only a few dollars off each other."
In all, seven Loewendick men and one stepson number among the 100 or so employees of the business. Ralph's son, Dave, will take over some day, but he's nonchalant about when that might be. His father is only in his 50s, and, says Dave glancing over at his Uncle Jim, "I don't think Jim'll ever retire. Basically, I think he'll end up dying here like the rest of the Loewendicks."
"I'm gonna be semi-retired," growls Jim. "That means I’ll do what I damn well please."
A month later, the Christopher Inn is a mess. It's ripped, bent and battered, and it frays around the edges like a piece of fabric with threads of steel spraying out from its sides. It's not a pretty sight. It looks so lopsided now that somebody called the Loewendick office and said it was leaning, but that was just an optical illusion.
Over the weeks, Malcovsky has trimmed it down to just a central core, swinging the huge boom with something like the efficiency of a scythe and the control of a paring knife so that the wrecking ball takes off only what he wants it to, without making direct hits on the main supports of the building. It stands now like a shaggy space ship on its concrete and steel support posts. But this space ship isn't going anywhere except to its eternal rest. Tonight is the grand finale.
First, there's going to be a lot of prep, like the scrub-up in a hospital operating room. Foreman Hairy Keith and gofer Mike Fry climb up the crane as they would a ladder and scramble through the shifting rubble into what's left of the building. Malcovsky raises a blowtorch to them, and Keith uses it to cut some pipes running next to the old stairwell so that when the building falls, they won't have long extensions of pipe whiplashing in the air. When they're finished, and they pick their way back down the crane to earth, Malcovsky uses the wrecking ball to trim hanging debris off the side of the building so he can get some direct, solid hits on the side where the building will fall, like he might take a few cuts with his ax if he were felling a tree.
By this time some 20 spectators hover nearby, some with cameras, one couple with a small child. They complain peevishly when someone wanders into their line of sight as if they had paid tickets to a theatrical performance. Ralph and his wife arrive in a convertible and open a discussion about where will be the best place to park it out of range of the dust. Then he and Dave meet and head off across the parking lot toward the action with an identical rolling sailor's gait. There's a festive feeling in the air, even among the Loewendicks, as if this evening is not going to be all in a day's work. Someone takes orders for a run to Wendy's across the street.
In the meantime, Harry Keith and John Malcovsky are reaching a critical stage in their maneuvers. "Where he's at now” Dave points out, "is its most dangerous point, because if it takes off now, it'll take the crane with it." Everyone watches breathlessly each time the' wrecking ball takes another chunk out of the quivering tower. Malcovsky should be able to weaken the near side enough so that one blow from the far side should topple the whole building, but will the building cooperate?
Suddenly, before any of the spectators is quite ready, it just starts to go. What looked so small and wizened from weeks of hammering now looks very big indeed as it separates from its concrete support posts and crashes to the ground. Even before the involuntary shouts have left the throats of the watchers, it's down, with a roar and a cannonade of dust from both ends.
"Where's the goddam water!" somebody yells at dust-controller Mike Fry, and there's a whoop of laughter at the futility of the demand. On the other side of the smoking ruin, John Malcovsky climbs out of the cab of his crane, a big grin covering his face.
The Christopher is gone.
This story originally appeared in the November 1988 issue of Columbus Monthly.
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