1949-1951 JOB CAPTAIN, GENERAL MOTORS TECHNICAL CENTER
Knapp never forgot the thrill of working as job captain on the General Motors Technical Center, when the project started up again in 1949. Harley Earl, head stylist at General Motors, had convinced the company to commission Eero Saarinen to create a bold new design for the Center. It was to become a campus of 38 buildings housing over 21,000 employees, with a lake, a Research & Development facility and Design Center on the 710 acres Warren site. This was a time in America when the growth of the automobile industry represented the optimism generally felt about the future of this country and the importance of building great cross-country highway systems so that the automobile could link our nation coast to coast. Link here for archival photos of the GM Tech Center on the Dwell Magazine site. According to the Detroit Free Press, May 14, 2015, when the campus opened in 1956, the GM Technical Center was the largest corporate building project in the world, costing more than $125 million. Its dedication on May 19, 1956, was televised nationwide as President Dwight D. Eisenhower was the featured speaker. Life magazine named it "The Versailles of Industry."
Bob Hastings called Knapp into his SHG office to tell him that Saarinen was partnering with the firm on the project. SHG would do the working drawings, including the engineering and the supervision of construction. Knapp was asked to go work for Eero Saarinen & Associates for about a year, and then return to SHG, when it was time to help with the working drawings. Eero’s firm was to be responsible for the overall design of the site and all of the buildings, and Smith Hinchman & Grylls would complete the construction drawings and the building details. Saarinen’s office would design one building at a time and Knapp would pick up the drawings, and deliver them to SHG for further development. In the meantime the Saarinen office would work on the design of the next building, while the first was being built, until all six were constructed.
The work of Job Captain consisted of being responsible for coordinating the electrical, plumbing, structural, heat and air condition, all mechanical and landscaping on the buildings. To make sure that nothing is left out, the Job Captain will hold meetings so that all of the subgroups share their progress. In Knapp’s own words, “The JC had to be skilled in working with people because of all the different personalities and systems invoved. As Knapp described, there is a tradition in the construction business called ‘Get out of my way,’ which meant if the plumbing people got into a building first they put their pipes wherever they wanted. HVAC might come in the next day and couldn’t find room put for their ductwork. So the JC had to be sure they didn’t mess each other up.”
There were several challenges Knapp faced as a JC on the project, and of course, certain memories that really stuck with him were associated with “crisis” situations. For example they built a kiln so that the exact colors planned for each building could be baked into the bricks. Knapp recounted that one day they had a heavy rain storm and all the mortar got wet on the red brick building, which had just been put up that day, before the mortar had time to cure. That night the water in the mortar froze and expanded and some of the red color peeled off the bricks. So they had to take that whole wall down. They documented the situation for later cost accountability, and it never happened again. Another issue happened with what Knapp described as elaborate restrooms. In much more of an "oops" moment, Knapp discovered that with regard to the large mirrors over the sinks, when the door opened to the restroom you could see the mirror on the one side and the urinals on the other side. Knapp had to call Eero who came right over and after much discussion they resolved it by changing the direction the doors were hinged.
Knapp remembered that Eero didn’t want any telephone poles above ground so they decided to build a utility tunnel below ground. However, they discovered they had challenges below the ground, and a tremendous amount of coordination was involved in rerouting things in the utility tunnel to add the new phone lines. Another issue with that utility tunnel was the routing of the water pipes that were in the reflecting pool used to cool the air-conditioning.
Looking at photos of the GM Tech Center with daughter Marcia, Knapp remembered it all, the cafeteria building, office, dynamometer building, and the complex roofing systems and leaks that had to be solved. Throughout the sharing of these memories, it seems to this writer that Knapp was just the sort of practical and common sense Job Captain, responsible in every way, that you would want overseeing such an important project. Also it is so remarkable to think of a man at age 101 remembering the details of the construction almost seventy years ago when he was in his 30's.
Knapp was already working in Grand Rapids when the Center was completed in 1956 at a cost of $100 million. He still has his letter inviting him to the Dedication Ceremony. In 2014 General Motors Technical Center was awarded National Historic Landmark Status, and, today, is undergoing a major restoration.