The mindblowing way in which the Indiana Bell building was moved and rotated 90 degrees, all while in operation, says a lot about the marvels of engineering

Relocation of the Indiana Bell Building, 1930 (Photo Credit: https://www.linkedin.com/company/civil-engineer/)

In 1929, the Central Union Telephone Company Building was purchased by the Indiana Bell Telephone Company and was initially planned to be demolished and replaced by a much larger headquarters on the site. However, since the building provided essential services to the city, demolishing the building did not seem viable. The Architect, Kurt Vonnegut Sr., hence, suggested moving this eight-story, steel-frame, and brick building, which measured about 100 x 135 feet and weighed about 11,000 tons, to make room for expansion. The relocation of the headquarters building of Indiana Bell Telephone Company in Indianapolis remains one of the most fascinating moves in the history of structure relocation. It allowed room for the construction of a seven-story limestone structure in its place that was consequently erected as the company headquarters in 1932.

This massive undertaking of moving the building began in 1930 and took over four weeks to complete. The relocation involved shifting the massive steel and brick building inch by inch 16 meters south, before rotating 90 degrees, and shifting again, 30 meters west. One of the most incredible parts was that most of the power needed to move the building was provided by hand-operated jacks while a steam engine was also employed to provide some support. Essentially, the workmen used a concrete mat cushioned by Oregon fir timbers, with hydraulic jacks and rollers, and moved the mass off one roller, while placing another ahead of it concurrently. The manually operated jack screws helped move the building in a straight line. Each jack screw was operated by a team of men that turned handles through an arc of 90 degrees six times in about 30 seconds. Hence, every six strokes of the jacks helped shift the building three-eights of an inch — moving at an average of 15 inches per hour. The pivoting operation during this moving process was accomplished with the aid of cables attached to the stationary steam engine. The figures below show the sequence of events of this spectacular undertaking.

The sequence of events during relocation works of the Indiana Bell Building, 1930 (Photo Credit: http://www.paul-f.com/ibmove.html)

The work was done with great care and precision such that the building continued to operate during the entire duration of the move. Gas, electric heat, water, and sewage were maintained in the building at all times, during the move. All these utility cables and pipes serving the building, on the contrary, had to be lengthened and made flexible to provide continuous service during the move. Work continued in all areas above the basement. Safety stops were installed in the elevator shafts during the operation, to prevent any travel to the basement. A moveable concrete and steel bridge connected the vestibule to a sheltered passageway that moved with the building. This permitted the 600 employees and the public to enter and leave at any time while the move was in progress. The employees never felt the building move and telephone service went on without interruption. In fact, the company did not lose a single day of work nor interrupt their service during the entire period. The process of moving the Indiana Bell building took less than 30 days and remains as one of the largest buildings ever moved.

A timelapse showing the 85-year-old Lagena Primary School relocation in Shanghai (Photo Credit: Evolution Shift)

There have been many structures over the years that have also been moved, similar to the Indiana Bell Building. These include lighthouses, airports, heritage homes, as well as schools. China, alone, has numerous examples and has seemingly become somewhat of a pioneer in recent years when it comes to moving buildings. The country’s growing cities are constantly brushing up against historically significant structures and, as it is rare to find buildings that survived the cultural revolution, they are increasingly being given importance and protection in the face of new developments. One of the more recent relocations was of an unusually shaped, 85-year-old primary school in Shanghai, for which an entirely new moving technique was applied. The Lagena Primary School, built in 1935, was recently moved to a new location, to make way for a new commercial center in the city. Owing to the T-shaped, complex floor plan, traditional moving techniques were feared to jeopardize the integrity of the old building. Engineers, hence, went with a different approach, in which they attached nearly 200 hydraulic robotic legs underneath the school. Half were programmed to alternatively rise up, while the others would go down, imitating a human stride. Precise control was achieved through sensors, and the building was made to “walk” using this new approach. The school subsequently rotated 21 degrees and “walked” 62 meters in a period of 10 days. The relocation was completed in October 2020 and has now become a center for heritage protection and cultural education.

Relocating using a novel “walking” method (Photo Credit: SCMP)

Solid, engineered, and extremely heavy, buildings are understandably expected to remain where they were built. But as we saw from the examples above, sometimes engineers can pick up and relocate entire structures. The mind-blowing way in which the eight-story Indiana Bell building was moved over ninety years ago, all while in operation says a lot about the marvels of engineering. Indeed, there are so many more marvels to encounter and resolve, and I cannot wait to witness them or even be a part of myself!

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Saad Ali Faizi

Saad Ali Faizi

Engineer by day, writer by night, thinker at all times