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Hazard from above? High rise construction worker claims State Tower Building is unsafe

The State Tower Building at 109 South Warren Street opened in 1927. At 313 feet, the 23 story building remains the tallest high rise building in Syracuse. But it's showing its age, and according to Rick Gaut who knows the exterior of the building better than perhaps anyone else, the State Tower Building has deteriorated to the point where he considers it a "hazard... a tragedy waiting to happen."

Gaut is one of a rare breed of construction workers known as a "steeplejack," brave enough and skilled enough to work on high rise buildings where few others would dare. Gaut told CNYCentral's Jim Kenyon, "What's going to happen is a piece of rock is going to fall down, either hit somebody, a car or whatever...sooner or later it's going to happen."

Gaut says he has worked on the exterior of the State Tower Building for 30 years, repairing areas that he says are falling apart due to age and weathering, especially in areas where man made blocks, which he refers to as "rocks or stone," were used in construction 87 years ago. "The stone is actually disintegrating...it's a manmade stone disintegrated." he says.

Gaut says over the past 30 years he's scaled the outside of the State Tower Building to keep the deteriorating exterior in place. From the ground, you must strain to see some of his work where he's put up a metal mesh over parts of the exterior walls. Other areas were covered over with boards and tar paper. Gaut says the building is experiencing a problem called "spalling" in which moisture causes bricks and mortar to separate from the walls. He pointed to the rear of the building where you can see that decorative bricks are missing. Gaut says they fell onto a lower roof.

He is especially afraid of what could happen on the 17th floor. "Back in the early 90's I put mesh around because they were having spalling bricks falling off and the mesh was to keep it covered until they could fix it, but nothing's ever been finished with it." Gault claims.

Gaut says he's warned the people who maintain the State Tower Building, but he says they are allowing the problem to get worse. "What I've done is just a band aid."

Building owner Tony Fiorito says he is in the 10th year of a 15 year program to restore the State Tower Building inside and out. Fiorito says he's pouring $4.7 million into a historic building that ranks as one of the finest examples of 1920's art deco design in the state.

"When I first came in here in 1990...people would say it's old and they were right, absolutely.... "We spent over a million dollars to restore the exterior entrances and the lobby to bring it back to its original character." Fiorito told CNYCentral.

When asked to respond to the claim of a "band aid" approach to repairs, Fiorito said the building is safe and not an imminent hazard. "Is there a potential of something happening? Yes...my job is to make sure it doesn't happen," Fiorito told Kenyon. Fiorito says his maintenance staff inspects the sidewalks around the State Tower Building daily for any evidence of debris, and constantly keeps an eye on the exterior for possible deterioration.

Next door to the State Tower Building is the Syracuse City Hall Annex, which is home to the Syracuse Codes Enforcement Department. Under the Freedom of Information Law, CNYCentral asked for any inspection reports or complaints about exterior going back 10 years, but Codes Enforcement Director Ken Towsley says there aren't any. "We haven't received any complaints from the public regards to anything with the exterior of the building." Towsley said. But he explained that when it comes to commercial buildings, the Codes Enforcement Department is "complaint driven."

In other words the city would not investigate a problem unless it receives a complaint.

When asked why he's going public, Gault told Kenyon, รข??My only concern is sooner or later one of those pieces of stone is going to fall off that building and somebody's going to get hurt. Then what am I supposed to say? Oh gee, I knew about it and I didn't say nothing and when I brought it up to the property managers nothing was done?"

Codes Enforcement Director Towsley says if he determines that Gaut's concerns are credible, he will order the owner of the State Tower Building to hire a licensed engineer to inspect and write a report. Based on the engineer's findings, he says the city will decide whether to take further action.

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