By Stephen J. Kotz
Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Circus may have folded their tent for good, but Christopher Starr is keeping the tent-raising tradition alive.
Mr. Starr is the owner of Starr Tents, which over the past 10 days deployed a staff of 15 to 20 workers to erect a pair of mammoth tents for the Market Art + Design show, which opens on Thursday.
Unlike the old days when a circus tent could be raised in a day, thanks to a ready supply of elephants and roustabouts from the neighborhood, building the kind of tent that will provide a secure and comfortable environment for a show with millions of dollars’ worth of art on display is a different animal.
The process, he said, requires workers to follow an established sequence of tasks so the German-engineered tents can be erected properly. “We get the same permits and follow the same procedures as we would if we were building a house,” he said, noting that the floors must be solid, the tents able to withstand heavy winds and the wiring able to pass electrical inspections.
A week before the construction began, a surveying team showed up to stake out the acre-plus field and plot its contours, so a level base could be established. The last week in June, tractor-trailers arrived on the scene to unload tons of equipment, including floor joists, scaffolding, pallets of plywood, literally acres of waterproof vinyl fabric, steel columns and arches, and crates full of hardware, including 3-foot-long spikes, foot-long 1-inch bolts and washers the size of saucers.
It took workers about three full days to complete the flooring for the larger of two tents which measures 100 by 240 feet. That’s 24,000 square feet, or the size of a small grocery store. Work on a second, 100-by-150-foot tent started soon afterward.
By Thursday, as forklifts and delivery trucks moved around the grounds, crews erected columns and the 16 arches needed to support the tent fabric on the larger structure. Teams of workers threaded the fabric through guides, while others used a forklift and old fashioned heaving and ho-ing to hoist 15-foot-wide sheets into place.
The walls were barely attached before a separate crew began moving 2-ton air conditioning units in place, electricians began laying hundreds of feet of cable, and art show workers began positioning 4-by-12 display boards. Meanwhile, Mr. Starr’s team was installing windows and double doors along the southern edge.
Taking a break one day last week, Mr. Starr said when he got started in the business in 1974, the largest tent called for may have been a 30-by-30-foot pink and white striped tent for a backyard wedding.
Today, Starr Tents, which is headquartered in New Rochelle and has a warehouse in Speonk for East End projects, is typically erecting tents 10 and even 20 times that size.
“I’m lucky,” he said. “I got into the business just as tents were enjoying a renaissance.”
He may be thinking other thoughts come Monday morning, when his crews return to the scene for the three-to-four-day job of taking it all down.