For Workers, Arts Center’s a Tall Order--and a Thrill

Times Staff Writer

It is 7 a.m. when 190 tradesmen arrive in Costa Mesa to work on a monolith the likes of which most Southern California construction workers have never seen.

The project is the $65-million Orange County Performing Arts Center, a 250,000-square-foot building next to South Coast Plaza that will open in October, 1986.

Inside, beneath tiers of scaffolding that reach 110 feet into the air, a 3,000-seat theater and 300-seat rehearsal hall are taking shape, all through private donations. Outside, stonemasons are fitting thick slabs of flame-finished Napoleon red granite into the center’s “grand portal"--a 120-foot arch that is the center’s entry.

This is a project on a grand scale, and some of the tradesmen from Los Angeles and Orange counties who have worked this job since July, 1983, say it has been alternately frustrating, challenging and wonderful.

‘Seen Nothing Like It’

“This would be one in a lifetime--the challenge of all challenges,” said Mike Jackson, 43, a drywall superintendent from Whittier, who has been hanging drywall for 29 years and who said he was “thrilled” to work here.


“Everyone I talk to says they’ve never seen nothing like it,” he said. “There’s something to do different every day. Like the wall in the mechanical room. We had just 20 inches of space and you had to lie on your back to finish the ceiling.”

Standing on the arts center’s main stage, a cavernous space filled with plaster dust, Jackson pointed up to the top tier of scaffolding.

“What’s rough is, at 7 a.m, you got to walk up there to get to work,” he said. “And working at that height off of scaffolding is always a problem. You have to hoist all your material. We’re used to working maybe 15 feet off the floor. I had a man here last week who looked up and refused to get on the scaffolding.”

The newcomer was allowed to work on the scaffolding’s lower tiers for the day, then was assigned to a different project. But many of those who remain said they wouldn’t want to work anywhere else.

‘Will Be Recognized’

Working on the Arts Center has been “a pleasure, a real treat,” said glazier James Allison, 29. “It’s an honor because a lot of the stuff here will be recognized--will be seen” by arts patrons throughout the county.

“It ‘s going to be something to say, ‘We did that!’ ” said fellow glazier Bill Oswald, 31.

The Center’s technical requirements--the oversized materials, the many levels of its auditorium, the unusual angles of the walls--have put the abilities of all trades to the test, workers said.

For the glaziers, the size and weight of the glass panels, imported from England, have been the challenge. “We’re dealing with quarter-inch steel and half-inch glass,” Allison said. “It’s very difficult. You have to be a journeyman. You have to be patient and above all you have to be careful.”

For sheet-metal worker Gary Miller, 46, who must move materials from one place to another, the configuration of the building has posed problems. “Most five-story buildings have five levels,” he said. “We have a five-story building that has 100 levels.”

To protect the center’s acoustics, all walls had to be built at precisely the right angle. “The difference of two degrees seemed to make a difference in acoustics,” Miller said.

Also to protect the acoustics, each pipe had to be insulated so it wouldn’t vibrate, said J.L. Huff, the project’s drywall superintendent. “In another project, they wouldn’t care,” he said.

The project required some amazing engineering feats, workmen said. For instance, when the grand portal was installed, “they stood the portal up without ever attaching it to the building,” Huff recalled. Also memorable was installation of 130-foot-by-16-foot steel trusses above the auditorium. Work on the center stopped as the men gathered to watch the enormous beams being hoisted into place.

Though the difficulty of their work is apparent now, some tradesmen worried that once the arts center was completed, the public wouldn’t appreciate what they had done.

“Once it’s all done, the public’s not going to realize all that went into making these walls go up at these angles,” said air-conditioning contractor Jerry Shields.

Still, once the center opens, some workmen said they had promised to take their wives there at least once to point out the work.

“If they have country music, I’ll probably be here every weekend,” Huff added.