Crane man has unparalleled view

At the St. Julien construction site, towering crane moves tons

When he walked into the portable office before dawn, Marshall Holt was of average height and wiry to the point of gaunt. He wore a plaid button-down shirt, cowboy boots and the glazed expression of a man who had just commuted 120 miles.

By the time the sun rose, though, Holt had become a solitary giant.

From 150 feet above, he surveyed the pit at Ninth and Walnut streets, which is rapidly becoming the $36 million, four-story St. Julien Hotel complex.

Marshall Holt in his crane's cabin

From his control seat, crane operator Marshall Holt looks down 150 feet to see what he will be picking up below at the St. Julien Hotel construction site in downtown Boulder. (Photo Jon Hatch/Daily Camera)

In what will be a 200-room, four-star hotel with 560 underground parking spaces and 11,000 square feet of civic space, there was cement, lumber, rebar and rubble. The parking structure`s second story awaited a 2 million-pound concrete pour scheduled for the following day.

A group of hard-hatted construction workers formed what approximated a circle for a group stretch. They reached in vain for their steel toes like a misplaced soccer team. They then scattered across the 120,000-square-foot, 25-foot-deep hole. Holt, a tower crane operator for Colorado Springs-based GE Johnson Construction, began another day of his superhuman routine Wednesday.

He is a popular man.

"Coming my way, Marshall?" a voice crackled through the Motorola radio, Holt's sole connection with his earthbound peers during the workday.

In the crane 's cabin, Holt, 48, sat in a driver's seat without a steering wheel. A gusty breeze blew through the open window in the floor-to-ceiling glass before him.

Built into the chair's armrest extensions were a pair of joysticks. With subtle movements of his left hand, Holt swung the crane 's 230-foot nose -- called a jib -- to the north edge of the construction site, where a man waited beside a 1.6-ton stack of two-by-four boards.

The same joystick also controls the trolley, which spends its day rolling up and down the jib, hook dangling beneath. With the trolley roughly where Holt wanted it, he used his right hand to lower the hook for a "pick."

Although digital gauges to his left told him where the hook was, positioning it exactly is an art. Sometimes Holt observes the shadows as the hook nears the ground, and arm and verbal signals -- "trolley in," "swing to the right," "cable up" -- from workers on the ground help. But mostly it's feel and experience. Within a minute or two, a 138-horsepower winch had hoisted the lumber from the shadows.

Holt had the second-best view in downtown Boulder. The best is from the second crane GE Johnson brought in for the St. Julien Hotel project it's leading. It sits along Ninth Street and is 50 feet taller -- so the jibs don't swing into each other. It sat empty.

"Is it lonely at the top? No, not at all," Holt said.

There's the constant radio chatter and, of course, the scenery. When his legs get stiff -- Holt's boots rested on steel bars above a window in the floor -- he climbs through a trap door in the cabin's roof and takes a stroll on the crane 's counter-jib.

Once he climbs a series of cold ladders to his workplace, usually about 6 a.m., he stays there until leaving in the evening, he said. In a plastic soda bottle swam exhausted Marlboros. There was a small microwave oven. Beneath it sat a one-gallon milk container, maybe an eighth full, of something that's not from a dairy.

"Once in a while, you use the jug, you know," Holt said, in an easy drawl he refined growing up in Walsh, at Colorado's southeast corner. He lives in Fountain now.

Holt has been operating cranes about 20 years, though mostly smaller, conventional cranes that can roll on and off a site. His father, now retired, was also a crane operator. Holt worked in a coal mine and did a variety of construction work before settling into cranes.

Holt learned his trade on the job. He did some certification work with Morrow Equipment Co. in Oregon, but there's no such thing as a crane -operator license.

As Holt did picks around the site, Dan Edwards, GE Johnson's project superintendent for the St. Julien Hotel work, stood on the counter-jib's grated walkway. The soles of his shoes were 120 feet above the ground, which appeared to be moving with the crane 's whirs and hums.

Marshall Holt on the St. Julien crane

Holt walks through the frame of the upper part of the crane about 150 feet above Boulder. (Photo Jon Hatch/Daily Camera)

He said Holt was one of two crane operators on the project, which currently has 150 workers and will peak at about 300. Edwards said talking to prospective crane operators is like interviewing a pilot: What type of machines have you run? How many hours?

"They do have a higher level of responsibility, because what they do can affect everyone," Edwards said.

Steve Eikanger, the St. Julien Hotel project manager for GE Johnson, said crane operators are paid about $30 an hour, compared to about $13 an hour for laborers, $18 an hour for carpenters and about $19 an hour for bulldozer operators.

"They're paid better because there aren't many people doing this," he said.

GE Johnson decided on tower cranes for the St. Julien Hotel because of tight space at the downtown site. Edwards said using conventional cranes would have meant blocking a lane of Walnut Street through the project's completion, scheduled for late 2004.

"We're just trying to be good neighbors," Edwards said.

Neighborliness isn't cheap. The $1.4 million cranes cost about $14,000 a month to rent, plus another $25,000 each to pour and set their foundations, Edwards said.

Once the component parts were trucked in from their previous project in Houston on 10 semi-trucks, an eight-person team erected them this summer in a two-day effort. That cost another $15,000, Edwards said.

But the cranes are indispensable. They unload hundreds of delivery trucks and move untold amounts of equipment and materials around the site. Just as important, Edwards said, they'll be helping pour 100 million pounds of concrete -- enough to cover Folsom Field's turf with an 11-foot-deep block -- during the structure's construction.

The crane 's capacity of about 8,600 pounds at the jib's tip was calibrated to handle two cubic yards of concrete. Closer to the cabin, Holt's crane can lift 36,000 pounds, or about the weight of a bus half-filled with passengers.

After the two-by-fours, Holt picked up a 1.6-ton Dumpster, a clump of rebar columns weighing 2.3 tons and a 1.7-ton load of steel forms. A day full of picks was just beginning.

"If you've got a quick hook, Rich with Riviera needs one," said a voice through the radio.

"Everybody always wants something," Holt said without annoyance, and the crane swung slowly around.