Willis Avenue Building and the Rooftop Sign that Wasn’t
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Willis Avenue Building and the Rooftop Sign that Wasn’t

This is a tale of a billboard wind load that almost took down the building it sat upon and its replacement rooftop sign that really wasn't the roof sign it appeared to be.

By Louis M Brill

Somewhere in the Bronx (NY), along Willis Avenue is a six-story apartment building that had been empty of tenants and was slated for refurbishment into a more modern version of itself. Sitting on its roof was a CBS Outdoor, double-faced V-shaped billboard, with continuous advertising selling the "good life" to everyone who saw it.

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  • The rooftop billboard proved to be a bit more than the building could handle, as slowly the billboard wind load began to jeopardize the rest of the building, in a sense, beginning to shake it apart - not good.

    CBS Outdoor felt that the sign still occupied an excellent roadside location and just needed some "attitude adjustment" in terms of its physical relationship to the building. That being said, it was decided that the original billboard's (Billboard # 1) rooftop place would be changed, but that its rooftop space would remain the same. Mysterious as it sounds, its magical transformation was explained by structural engineer R. Scott Lewis, and North Shore Neon Sign Co. President Tom Brown, who devised a plan of action to save both the building and the billboard. The plan involved switching the sign pole position from the rooftop to the ground (Billboard # 2) and having it become independent of the building. Here Scott Lewis and Tom Brown each explained their half of the twice told tale of the billboard that isn't where it seems to be.

    Willis avenue apartment building
    Lewis began with a little building history: "the reason for the Willis Avenue billboard's location change-out was that the structural condition of the apartment building was not in the greatest physical shape at that point. The building, which was built in the mid-1920s, was a brick building that had seen better times. It is now abandoned, and its only immediate use is to allow the billboard space on the roof to continue as a functional advertising space."

    The original billboard was very large with one face measuring 25 feet tall by 80 feet wide (a definite non-standard size) and the other sign face measuring at 25 feet tall by 60 feet wide. In the original billboard set up, the sign faces (Billboard #1) were attached to a sign structure on the building rooftop and supported by roof top dunage beams which were attached to the building bearing walls. With such large sign surfaces, there was concern that the continuing wind loads that were being applied to the building from the billboard were accelerating the deterioration of the building.

    The billboard, however, was in an excellent location so CBS Outdoor (the billboard's owner) decided to preserve the sign location by changing the structural location of the billboard from the roof to the ground. To do this Lewis determined that the best billboard solution was to remove the sign structure from the roof (Billboard # 1) and replace it with a monopole. Here this new pole (Billboard # 2) would rise up through the apartment building, go past the rooftop to have the billboard 'reinserted' back in its original space, all without touching the building or roof anymore. Furthermore, CBS Outdoor elected to conform the new billboards into two standard, equal size signs.

    Lewis next explained how this strategy was implemented. "As luck would have it, the Willis Avenue building's elevator shaft had a location that enabled it to also become the interior chamber for the new billboard monopole insertion. The first step was to remove the existing rooftop billboard and dunage beams. Then, a rooftop penetration was made over the elevator shaft to gain direct access through the building to the ground. One thing that became apparent very quickly was that the elevator shaft opening was too small to admit the monopole. That was solved by enlarging the floor opening at every floor."

    This resulted in several unrelated, but connected North Shore Neon projects, including preparing the base of the building to receive the monopole, and perfecting the technique of lifting the huge monopole pipe segments from the street to carefully lowering it through the rooftop, into the building and mounting it in place at the base of the building.

    To properly secure the new monopole, Lewis noted, "the best way to do this was to create a concrete anchor pad that would be connected to the ground with a total of thirty-four 30-foot long mini-piles. The mini-piles would in turn, be embedded within a concrete footing upon which the base of the monopole would be attached. The use of the anchor pins was selected to limit the settlement of the building foundation, because we did not want to drag down the building columns and cause any further distress to the building's deteriorated facade."

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    From a structural engineering point of view, Lewis determined that, "we did not want to excavate down into the basement floor because that would have been cost prohibitive. Instead we hired a soil test boring company that came in and drilled a test boring hole down into the ground below the basement floor and told us the nature of the soil in that area. That gave us the information we needed for a different approach of using mini-piles in securing the monopole into the earth."

    "Because of the basement's location, it was a tremendous challenge to put the mini-piles in place. We couldn't use a conventional pile driver, because a) it wouldn't have fit within the allocated basement space, and b) even if we got it in the basement, it could have further stressed the building (like shake it down!)."

    North Shore Neon heavy lifting
    North Shore Neon (Deer Park, Long Island) is a full service sign design company that fabricates, installs and maintains signs throughout the New York metropolitan area. In regard to the Willis Avenue apartment building project, Brown explained how his company approached the improbable task of preparing the Willis Avenue apartment building's foundation for the addition of a 130-foot vertical sign pole. "We began by dismantling the original billboard on the roof, piece by piece and then lowering the parts down with a boom."

    "The second part of the sign project was preparing how the billboard was going to be supported with its new monopole. Because of the restrictive basement space that prevented us from using a conventional pile driver, we used a piece of equipment known as a 'mini-pile driver.' This is a device about the size of a Volkswagen and allowed us to drill the holes that the mini-piles were to be inserted into. We found the best way to get the mini pile driver into the basement was to cut a hole through the sidewalk next to the basement. Then by using a crane, we lifted up and lowered the mini-pile driver through the sidewalk hole and into the basement and positioned it directly at the bottom of the elevator shaft. With the mini-pile driver in place, it carefully inserted 34 mini-piles (eight inch diameter steel pipe) into the ground. With their exposed ends sticking up above for eventual embedment, a concrete footing was poured over the mini-poles.”

    With the mini-piles pinned in place, rebar was horizontally threaded across the mini-piles. The next task was to embed an 'anchor bolt cage' that would allow the monopole to be securely bolted to the sign structure's concrete footing. This anchor cage structure was buried within the mini pile pipe collection. With all the iron in place, concrete was cast and cured for the footing, creating a slab that was five-feet thick, 20-feet wide and 35-feet long. Once dried, the slab with its embedded anchor cage became the base upon which the bottom part of the monopole was bolted to.

    Once the footing was ready, the monopole pipe was brought to the site and prepared for insertion into the building. The pipe had a diameter of six-feet starting at its base, and at 130-feet long was impossible to transport as a single pipe. That was solved by dividing the pipe into two sections (a 60-foot pole and a 70-foot pole), which were brought to the worksite. Each pipe segment was lifted and lowered through the building, to create the final billboard supporting pole.

    "Inserting the monopole was the biggest challenge on this billboard project," stated Brown. “It involved threading the monopole pipe through the elevator shaft from rooftop to the basement making sure that the pipe was lowered perfectly without touching the building. To further complicate matters, we only had an inch and a half clearance between the monopole and the elevator shaft. Had we accidentally hit the elevator shaft or any other part of the building, we might have stressed the building. To keep the pipe straight and true as it was lowered, North Shore had workers on every landing each equipped with a walkie-talkie, and each in constant communications with the crane operator. Once at the bottom near the concrete slab, the first half of the monopole was bolted to the anchor bolt cage. Following that, the top half of the monopole was lowered in place and bolted to the top half of the first pipe and that was a lot easier positioning job."

    Once the monopole was in place, the super structure was erected and bolted to the top of the monopole. Assembling the super structure consisted of the torque tube (horizontal pipe), and all the associated cat-walks, ladders, cross arms and diagonal members necessary to make it an operational billboard. Because of the billboard's lack of space on the rooftop, each sign component was assembled on the ground and lifted up and placed on the monopole, one piece at a time. Once completed and inspected, the billboard was back in business.

    Both Lewis and Brown noted that while they have each been involved with a multitude of billboard monopole projects which have all been penetrations through a one- or two-story building, the Willis Avenue Apartment billboard takes first place as the tallest (six-story) building through which he's inserted a monopole through a building. However, the biggest monopole he's ever erected was the Fresh Direct sign in Long Island City which was 160-feet high with an 11-feet base pipe diameter.

    As far the billboards are concerned, whether they are stationed directly on the rooftop, or installed as a penetration through the building, it's still the same thing: another day of outdoor advertising to the passing public.

    Louis M. Brill is a journalist and consultant for high-tech media communications. He can be reached at (415) 664-0694 or louisbrill@sbcglobal.net

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