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Gilbreth column: Gilbreth history’s surprise tie to Roper Hospital

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Completed in 1906, the second Roper Hospital was built on the corner of Calhoun and Lucas streets on the location of the Memorial Hospital which was immediately across the street from the site of the 1914 Medical College building. Provided

As many of you may know, my paternal grandfather, Frank B. Gilbreth Sr., was an American engineer and builder who, with his wife Lillian M. Gilbreth, helped develop the methods of time and motion study to increase worker morale, efficiency and productivity. They wrote several books, formed a consulting business based out of Montclair, New Jersey and spoke at various universities in the U.S. and elsewhere.

He also had a contracting firm that was one of the largest in the U.S. at the time of his untimely death in 1924 at the age of 55. He collapsed from rheumatic heart disease at the Lackawanna train station in Montclair while in the middle of a phone conversation with his wife. He was touching base with her before getting on the train and beginning an overseas trip to Prague to deliver a lecture.

What you would not know — as was the case with me — is that he had a business connection with Charleston and one that more intriguingly involved a disputed contract that wound up in federal court.

I was contacted a few weeks ago by James Gifford of Aurora, Colorado, who describes himself as a writer, researcher and biographer. He writes that he has “been fascinated” with the Gilbreth family since reading “Cheaper by the Dozen,” co-authored by my father many years ago.

The Gifford website on the Gilbreth family cites two major goals: “First is to be the premier online source of information about the Gilbreth family.” The second is “to provide the first comprehensive book about the family in at least 50 years.”

“My focus is on a deep dive,” Gifford writes (edited), “to locate and list as many of your grandfather’s commercial construction projects as possible. Although Edna Yost listed many in her 1949 biography (on Frank and Lillian), it only took me a little while to find that there are many more projects in construction 1895-1912 or so. I’ve found many fascinating projects all over the Eastern U.S., including—to my great surprise and delight — a textile mill in Connecticut I drove by frequently in the six years I lived there.

“In my deep-sea trawling, though, I came up with one project that’s not just forgotten, but buried behind a brick wall and painted over, so to speak. I am bringing this to you not only because it’s in your charming hometown, but in your professional wheelhouse as well. How much do you know of your grandfather’s construction of Roper Hospital in 1905? (The first Roper was damaged by the 1886 earthquake. The third Roper was built in 1945).

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“The short version of the story is that Frank B. Gilbreth, general contractor, took an approximately $100,000 contract to build that iteration of a hospital and, near completion, there was a dispute over total cost that resulted in a lawsuit that was not settled until 1913, and in Federal District Court. The contract was for a lump-sum payment of $109,000, and when costs ran past $118,000, FBG asked for more payment based on a post-contract letter that established he was doing the project on a cost-plus basis. There is a 30-page transcript in the federal record, and it appears he finished the project in time for its February 1906 opening, but that the parties never agreed on the contract and thus it all went to legal proceedings.

“He would lose seven years later and be denied payment for around $10-15K in final costs. (Plus, of course, seven years of carrying costs and legal fees.)

“There is absolutely NO mention of this project in any Gilbreth record or writing, and the various Roper histories studiously avoid mentioning the contractor’s name.

“I suspect that this one protracted suit lies behind many of the vague allusions to legal troubles made by Edna Yost and your grandmother. (I don’t doubt that there were persistent legal tangles, the industry being what it always has been dating back to Hammurabi (1810-1750 BC — the sixth king of the First Babylonian dynasty), but I suspect they were at the city/county level and quickly settled.)”

I haven’t done the research, but Jim Gifford suggests looking in “Folders 10-19 of the Roper Historical Records, MSS300, Waring Historical Library, Medical University of South Carolina.

Well, my goodness, that’s just so amazing. I guess some family history is more appealing than others, and yet the irony doesn’t escape me, as an MUSC physician, that Roper Hospital was indeed once “the House that Gilbreth Built.”

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