Roughly Speaking Dan Rodricks: Commentary and conversation on life in Baltimore, Maryland and the USA

Above the rest: The young man who operates the crane over Baltimore's newest skyscraper

I have been looking up, craning my neck to see the crane, since March, when the rise of 414 Light Street seemed to suddenly become prominent on the Baltimore skyline. The 44-story apartment building sits on the once-fragrant site of the McCormick Spice Company, overlooking the Inner Harbor and just about everything else around Baltimore. When completed, it will be the tallest residential property in the city, at 500 feet.

Of all the men and women working on the $160 million, glassy blue tower for the developer, Questar Properties, the one that interested me most was the one above the rest — the operator of the tower crane.

That person works in the sky, controlling from his seat in a glass-and-steel cab the flow of concrete and materials to the workers below him.

As the weeks and months passed, and the building rose skyward, I would stand on a sidewalk on Charles Street or Conway Street, look up and watch with genuine awe as the crane lifted vats of concrete to a floor being poured. Up and up it went, the crane always high above the highest level of construction.

This week, the crane operator sits at 544 feet as workers from Schuster Concrete approach the topping off of the building.

“We’ll be putting the roof on soon,” says Dustin Baker, the 27-year-old fellow who has been operating the crane from the start of construction in March 2016.

At one point after the start, Baker’s crane towered over a big hole in the ground, freestanding at 280 feet. Since then, the crane and superstructure have risen floor by floor, from foundation and parking garage to the building’s full height, and Baker has hardly missed a day of work.

Those days are long. Baker starts at 5:30 a.m. He often puts in 12 hours in the cab, sometimes more. Once he climbs a steel ladder and gets into his seat, he’s there for the day. He does not come down for lunch. The only thing that chases him down the ladder are electrical storms or winds of 40 miles per hour or more.

There is some downtime in the cab, as Baker awaits orders, but the crane is critical to the flow of work. It lifts materials from the street to the workers setting forms for the pouring of concrete columns, walls, steps and floors. It lifts glass panels for the building’s sky-reflecting windows.

Crane operation is intense, requiring full concentration, clear communication with the workers and supervisors below him, and good hands at the controls.

Baker discovered he had a natural skill for operating a crane when he was 20, just a couple of years after his graduation from Franklin High School in Reisterstown.

“They asked me if I wanted to give it a try, and I said sure,” he says. “I got in the cab and observed another operator, and the next day they put me in the seat. It was sink or swim. I guess I had a knack for it.

“By the second or third day, they were saying, ‘He’s got it.’”

The “it” of crane operation involves a lot of things, Baker says, and he lists them for me: “Common sense, for one thing. Clear thinking, good depth perception, good hand-eye coordination.”

He prides himself on “smoothness and quickness” in the delivery of materials. It can take several minutes to hoist something from the base of the building, and during that time Baker calculates for wind and weight, using his controls to steady his delivery.

There are moments of stress, Baker says, and he gets impatient when the work suffers from lack of organization or communication from the ground. But for the most part, the construction has stayed on schedule.

Stephen Gorn, chairman and CEO of Questar, expects 414 to open in March. A pre-leasing office has been showing prospective tenants a model apartment and giving virtual tours since June. When completed, the tower will have 394 apartments, two of them 1,800-square-foot penthouses, plus restaurants and retail.

The views of Baltimore and beyond from various levels — from a terrace with gardens and a swimming pool, from the 40th floor, from the penthouses — are all stunning. On a clear day, you can see the Chesapeake Bay Bridge.

The old McCormick building stood only nine stories. It’s safe to say that no one has had the particular vantage that the upper floors of 414 Light Street will one day allow its tenants.

Above it all, for these many months, Dustin Baker has enjoyed an even more unusual view — one that, once he climbs down, none but birds will have.

drodricks@baltsun.com

twitter.com/DanRodricks

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